Tuesday’s publication of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” is a lesson in publishing and editing. Readers seldom get to see an original, unedited manuscript of a book in published form; mostly they languish in archives. But that, in essence, is what “Go Set a Watchman” is — a first draft of Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
In the new book, which was written first, Lee takes the readers forward twenty years to the 1950s and we find that the heroic Atticus Finch we thought we knew was actually a fink. In Lee’s new book, Atticus is portrayed as a racist, and our loveable Scout is all grown up, working in New York and looking for romance.
Remember the adage about seeing how the sausage is made? That’s the kind of experience readers are getting with the publication of Lee’s first book in 55 years. Whether readers like it — or even care — is yet to be seen, but the release of the book was carefully choreographed right up until the final days, when The New York Times broke the story that Atticus was a racist in the new (old) book.
“Anytime people are talking about books and authors, it’s a good thing,” said Cherry Hamrick, director of the Delta Township District Library, regarding the controversy surrounding the new book.
Outside of a few editors and executives at HarperCollins, virtually no one had access to the book before its publication. But a February announcement that Lee’s manuscript would be published whetted public demand. On the reputation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” alone, advance orders for the book drove a print order of over 2 million. Rhoda Wolff, manager of Schuler Books in Eastwood Towne Center, said the store has pre-orders in the hundreds.
Since its publication in 1960, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has sold more than 40 million copies. Millions of those books have gone to high school classrooms, used to show how one person can make a difference. Perhaps today’s high school teachers will use the new book as a lesson that life can be murky and isn’t always what it seems.
Rina Risper, publisher of the New Citizen’s Press and a Lansing activist, said she found solace in the library when she was a child living in Long Island. One of the books she gravitated toward was “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“It was a scary book for me in the fourth grade, but that book and ‘Charlotte’s Web’ were parallel inspirations to me,” she said. “But 50 years later, we still don’t have the open communication about race that we need.”
Detroit author Anna Clark also delves into the minds of writers in her new book, “Michigan Literary Luminaries,” which looks at the lives and writing careers of 10 Michigan authors. Some of the authors, like Elmore Leonard, Joyce Carol Oates and Ernest Hemingway, are household names, but others, like Detroit urban crime writer Donald Goines, will be lesser known to readers.
Southern transplant Harriette Simpson Arnow, author of "The Dollmaker," is one author included in the book that Clark knew nothing about before starting this project.
“I knew nothing about her, and a friend lent me a couple books,” she said. “Although she was well known in her time, she was mostly forgotten.”
As for Hemingway, she said there was no way to write the book and not include him.
“It’s only been in recent times that Michigan’s influence on his writing has been recognized,” Clark said. “He chose to be here and write about Michigan at a critical time in his life.”
Clark said she included Goines and Leonard together in one chapter “since they were writing about the same place and same era at the same time, and the contrasts in their lives were so different. Elmore Leonard had a triumphant career while Goines’ life ended tragically.”
Goines was shot to death in 1974 in what Detroit police speculated was a drug related killing. His books dealt with gritty urban topics, and at one point he was the No. 1 selling black author on the market with titles like “Dopefiend.”
Clark, 26 and a University of Michigan graduate, is among a growing number of writers who either write about Detroit or call Detroit home.
When she moved to Detroit, she said, the literary community was not galvanized.
“We were home and alone, but that is very quickly changing and Detroit is becoming a place where you choose to be a writer.”
“Michigan Literary Luminaries”
Author talk by Ann Clark 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 21 FREE Schuler Books (Meridian Mall) 1982 Grand River Ave., Okemos (517) 349-8840, schulerbooks.com