The Evolution of “Go Set a Watchman” Hype

Anahita Padmanabhan ’18 /Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

With over one million copies sold, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman became HarperCollins’ fastest-selling book. It set a new record for all time pre-orders for the company, and set the new record for Barnes and Noble’s one-day pre-sale record. Needless to say, it was one of the most anticipated books of summer, and perhaps the year.

With the first chapter released early, the hype grew, but the reactions became more diverse. The first chapter could be read online, and The Guardian featured the chapter with visuals and narration by Reese Witherspoon. With some major plot points occurring in that first chapter, readers were cautious of what to expect, but the enthusiasm for the book was not curbed.

"Go Set a Watchman" Cover. Source: HarperCollins
“Go Set a Watchman” Cover. Source: HarperCollins

Four days before the To Kill a Mockingbird sequel was published, The New York Times published a review of the book, dropping a huge bomb. Atticus is racist. This caused a massive stir in the literary community. A moral figure that was revered by most readers of To Kill a Mockingbird seemed to shatter in an instant. The internet came alive, buzzing about this news. Twitter hashtags erupted about Go Set a Watchman and Atticus. News stations covered the revelation as well. While this bomb seemed to make readers more wary, it perhaps made readers even more curious to see what was in store for our beloved characters from middle school.

Now that the book has been released, there have been such varied reviews of it. A simple Google search shows that many news sources and official book reviewers find the book lacking. The New Yorker called it a failure. However, Goodreads has it at a rating of three and a half stars out of five, just less than a star less than its predecessor.

With all the hype surrounding the book, one bookstore in Michigan is providing refunds for disappointed customers. Brilliant Books, located in Traverse City, Michigan, promoted Go Set a Watchman as “a nice summer novel.” When a customer came back to the store upset, the store offered her a refund, and then decided to offer that to all their customers. In a note to their fans on their website, Brilliant Books says that “Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel or prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Neither is it a new book. It is a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected.” It goes on to say that the book should be viewed “as an academic insight rather than a nice summer novel” and they liken it to James Joyce’s Stephen Hero.

The point that the bookstore is trying to make is that this book should be advertised for what it is. Lee chose to publish Go Set a Watchman as it was written without any editorial intervention. The edited, processed version of this story is To Kill a Mockingbird. So perhaps Brilliant Books is onto something. The excitement surrounding Go Set a Watchman was centered on the fact that this hidden manuscript is the sequel to a cherished novel for many generations.

However, the fact that this was the original version of the story seemed to become hidden in the whirlwind that has been Go Set a Watchman. Lee mirrored this story on her own life, her father, and her views and feelings. The idea of looking at this new novel as insight rather than a regular story is becoming more popular amongst academics. The excitement for professors and scholars is now not so much about the fact there is a new story, or the mystery surrounding it, but about what Go Set a Watchman says about Lee, about its time period, and even about the readers.

Coincidently, Go Set a Watchman came out very close to the time that the Confederate flag was taken down. While America is currently facing its issues involving race, Go Set a Watchman is set during the 1950s during the Civil Rights movement, creating a parallel between the book and current events. A few academic scholars have commented on the parallel and what readers’ perceptions of Atticus and feelings towards his new development might mean in relation to the nation itself.

Go Set a Watchman has broken records and has been at the top of sales charts since its release. Despite some of the shock, it hasn’t shown much sign of slowing down. While perhaps the excitement of finally getting a sequel that no one expected has died down a bit, it has been replaced by the excitement of the implications that Go Set a Watchman has on the way we understand Lee, the time period, and society then and today. For any readers interested in reading this new book, it’s important to remember that Go Set a Watchman is the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, and that it’s tough for a first draft to compare to a final copy. For wavering readers, maybe take a trip to Michigan so at least you might get your money back!


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