I first saw the movie To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 6 and have loved Scout Finch ever since. As a willful tomboy, she spoke to me like no other character ever had. When I was older and read Harper Lee’s book, the rest of it spoke to me, too: the frustration at injustice, the brutality perpetrated by powerful men that seems impossible to stop. Mockingbird is one of the classics of American literature for a reason: It offers up a hard look at our country while giving us characters to love unabashedly.
When the news broke that Harper Lee's first, rejected novel, Go Set a Watchman, was being published, I was worried. I read a lot that indicated Lee, a very private 88-year-old, was probably suffering from dementia, and that her sister, who had been her main advocate, had recently died. A lawyer had persuaded her to publish this work that she'd never wanted shared. It felt unethical at best—at worst, it felt like elder abuse.
Unfortunately, my fears were founded.
Watchman is set years after Mockingbird, with that book's characters either older or gone. Scout, or Jean Louise, is back from New York visiting Maycomb when she discovers her potential future husband, Henry Clinton, and her dad, Atticus, have joined almost all of Maycomb's white men in the fight to "uphold the Southern Way of Life" against the "Negroes" (often worse).
The editor who originally saw the Watchman manuscript, Tay Hohoff, saw potential in the book, but didn't think it was publishable as it was. It's easy to see how Lee and Hohoff shaped Watchman into Mockingbird out of compelling parts of Watchman: Scout's memories of her alternately idyllic and terrifying childhood.
What didn't make it into Mockingbird are the parts of Watchman that make a modern reader deeply uncomfortable—the long sections when an adult Jean Louise is condescendingly taught Racist Theory 101 by any of the three main male characters. A Mockingbird lover's stomach tightens when Atticus speaks: "'Have you considered that you can't have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?'"
Publishing this book as a separate novel does a disservice to Lee—taken on its own, it's basically a rationalization of why Southern white supremacists aren't all bad. In Watchman, even Jean Louise believes black people are "backwards" and that civil rights are being pushed through too quickly. While this might be an interesting point of academic discussion about a book written in the 1950s, it's embarrassing as the thesis of a book published today. But a shitty first draft shouldn't take away from the legacy of Mockingbird, which is at its heart a story about a headstrong young girl discovering racism and misogyny in America.
In an ideal world, someone would have instead used Watchman as a source text for a book about Lee's life. To get an idea of what this could look like, see the South Dakota Historical Society Press' annotated version of Laura Ingalls Wilder's unpublished autobiography, Pioneer Girl. There, an editor was able to contextualize the work while acknowledging the source material was an unpublished draft. It was respectful, well-done and, most importantly, didn't seem like a money grab by a shady lawyer taking advantage of one of America's literary heroes in her final days.