The publishing event of the year was the Harper-Collins release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman” on July 14. The reclusive author of “To Kill A Mockingbird” had always vowed never to publish a second book. Yet now, in her 80th decade, she gave consent to have a novel she wrote before “To Kill A Mockingbird” published. The new old book takes place when Scout is grown up. Atticus Fitch is cast in much less favorable light.
With slightly less ado, Random House released Dr. Seuss’s “What Pet Should I Get?” a week later. The incomplete manuscript was found in Theodore Geisel’s papers and his art director Cathy Goldsmith finished the book, purportedly as close as possible to what Geisel would have wanted.
Both events should raise serious issues for readers.
“Go Set A Watchman” has disturbed readers and critics alike because Fitch is seen to be a racist and a conservative, not much like the man Gregory Peck portrayed in the movie. Now that’s the first danger signal. The Fitch of “To Kill A Mockingbird” was no saint either, unlike the saintly Peck. Lee set out to write a novel about race in the South, and she set Fitch squarely in the middle of both books. That he shows more of his personal leanings on race in “Watchman” is likely because that was the book she meant to publish about race, and Fitch’s attitudes are in line with those of his peers. It is clear she tempered his tone in order to bring focus to the justice system in her second effort. Reading the books simply as novels, the comparison of the two characters is unfair because they serve different ends in the two books. Fitch the crusading lawyer for justice is not Fitch the reflective Southerner who shares his neighbors’ wondering about racial issues.
What would have been useful would have been for Lee to release “Watchman” as a kind of writer’s journal. It was, after all, the draft from which the vastly superior “Mockingbird” was derived. She could have, finally, broken her long silence and explained how one could even write a novel about race, an explanation which would have marketed well in the present climate of racial unease. Perhaps she is too frail to do so. That then raises the question of whether she was competent to agree to the book’s release.
By contrast, the new Dr. Seuss book is post-mortem and so Geisel cannot say what his intentions were for the book. Although his assistant has said she tried to come as close to his spirit as possible, she admits parts of the text are guesswork. One wonders why, in the age of technological analyses, no one thought to run the material through a computer and make an absolute match. Computers are so advanced now that exact matches of tone, rhythm, rhyme and other characteristics can be tracked and duplicated. Even the best-informed friend or business associate cannot do this.
Should a work which is reconstructed, as is “What Pet, ” be published under the main writer’s name? Or should it be published just as found, with no additions, as has been the case in some other works? Can this rightfully be called a Dr. Seuss book?
These troubling questions remain clouded in the massive publicity surrounding release of these two long-hidden works. Pity someone found the manuscripts.