Local readers and bookstores await Harper Lee's 'Watchman'

Harper Lee's new novel "Go Set a Watchman."

In the biggest storm of anticipation in years, hearts are racing and breaths held throughout the literary world.

As Monday turns over into Tuesday, publisher HarperCollins will release Go Set a Watchmanby Harper Lee. She is the author, now 89, of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps the most successful U.S. novel ever (40 million-plus sold). She has written no other novels since. She wrote Watchman first, but it postdates the events in Mockingbird (1950s as opposed to Mockingbird's late 1930s), with some of the same characters, including lawyer Atticus Finch, now elderly, and his now-grown-up daughter, Scout.

HarperCollins has jealously guarded the book, withholding copies until release day. It printed an astonishing two million of them, sequestered until distribution in guarded vaults in Monroe Township, N.J., and Reno, Nev.

On Monday and Tuesday, bookstores will host midnight release parties, all-day readings, Southern brunches, and showings of the hallowed film version of Mockingbird.

To tease the universe, the first chapter appeared Friday in the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian; Reese Witherspoon did an audio reading. The chapter is lovely. From its first sentence - "Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical" - it speaks in plainspoken eloquence of the 1950s South of Lee, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor.

An early review

Such anticipation - over a book almost no one has read. Hard to know, even with that first chapter, exactly what we'll have Tuesday. Lee herself, reclusive for decades, is reportedly frail and in an assisted-care facility. So who found the manuscript? When? Was Lee competent to oversee publication? How heavily edited will the final product be (HarperCollins says not heavily)? And will it enhance or detract from the beloved Mockingbird?

A review Friday, by the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, was not good.

"Shockingly," she says, the Atticus of Watchman is portrayed as a racist "who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like 'the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.' "

This Atticus, she says, "makes for disturbing reading, and for Mockingbird fans, it's especially disorienting."

A Washington Post review, by poet Natasha Trethewey, was more positive: "A significant aspect of this novel is that it asks us to see Atticus now not merely as a hero, a god, but as a flesh-and-blood man with shortcomings and moral failings."

Anticipating resistance to the portrayal of Atticus, HarperCollins issued a statement late Friday.

"The question of Atticus's racism is one of the most important and critical elements in this novel, and it should be considered in the context of the book's broader moral themes," it reads.

Earlier in the week, readers, writers, editors, bookstore managers, and teachers had a range of feelings about the book. There's a lot of excitement, much deriving from ardent love of Mockingbird. Kate Cass of Haverford posted on Facebook that "I love [Mockingbird] enough that I'll be satisfied even if Watchman is a less-developed first draft of the classic." Mitchell Sommers, fiction editor of the literary magazine Philadelphia Stories, said: "Even if it's substandard, it's substandard Harper Lee. So yes, I'll read it."

In 2009, Donna Gentile O'Donnell, special assistant to the president at Thomas Jefferson University, traveled to Monroeville, Ala., the basis for the setting of Mockingbird and still Lee's hometown, to spend the day with the author and have her first edition of Mockingbird signed. (At parting, Lee said: "Give me a little kiss goodbye. I hope you'll come back soon.") O'Donnell said: "I absolutely will buy Watchman and read it. I'm very excited about it. It's interesting to watch the speculation end about what Miss Lee has been doing all these years."

Some reactions were darker, prompted by questions over the book's origin and editing. Cleveland Wall, a poet and artist in Bethlehem, said on Facebook, "I won't read it because I don't believe she intended it to be released." Philly writer Lew Whittington says, "The circumstances of how it was acquired seem suspicious." Karen Rile, coeditor of the local literary magazine Cleaver, reacted pithily to stories of how lawyers, reps, and publishers around Lee found the book: "Something is rotten in Monroeville."

Writer Laurie Byro of Hewitt, N.J., writes that "I just can't imagine this being as good" as Mockingbird. "She never wanted to publish after that book. I worry for her, don't know if she has the capacity. . . ."

Still other writers and experts find the whole exercise fascinating. Novelist Joe Samuel Starnes (Red Dirt), a native of Georgia now living in Haddon Township, thinks Watchman is Lee's "early attempts at creating the characters and forming the world that ultimately became her classic. . . . I don't begrudge her or the publisher the right to put it out, even if it's terrible, which I hope it's not."

Bryant Simon, professor of history at Temple, is interested in the time gap. "Basically," he says, "if the book takes place 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, it's a really different South. . . . A lot of what historians would write about is that profound shift in Southern life that takes place. Not just race relations, but economically. Where that leaves Atticus as a kind of moderate. Southern gender relationships are going to be pretty rigid." Scout Finch is "going to have to figure her place out in that."

'Fearful'

Stephanie Powell Watts, writer and associate professor of English at Lehigh University, has an especially poignant view. Writing from South Carolina on the day the Confederate flag was removed from the State House grounds, she says: "I am so excited about this release, but I have to admit that I am fearful that I will recognize too much of the world Lee created generations and generations ago."

Bookstores small and large are gearing up. Michael Fox, who owns Joseph Fox Bookstore in Center City, said his store has fielded many inquiries about Watchman. When it arrives, the book will occupy prime real estate near the front of the shop. "I wish I could do a book event" with Lee, Fox joked, "but I don't think that would be possible."

Bigger than Harry?

Even if it's not an instant classic, Jeannine Deni, manager of the Rittenhouse Square Barnes & Noble, expects Watchman to be the best-selling book Tuesday and for weeks to come. Thanks to its historical context, she said, it will speak to an even broader audience than the Harry Potter series. "It's already increased sales on To Kill a Mockingbird, including keepsake editions," said Deni, who likens the release to when the Gone With the Wind sequel Scarlett appeared in 1991.

Kathryn Woodward, manager of the Penn Bookstore, wrote by e-mail that she expected "a large demand for the book both on campus and in the local community." Watchman and Mockingbird will get special displays. And there is a countdown on the store's Facebook page.

The world loves Mockingbird because of its story, that of a single Southern woman's only book. That changes with Watchman. The world loves Mockingbird because of stalwart Atticus, intrepid Scout, outsider Boo Radley, and the great questions of American and human history so simply told. It represents, to people all over the world, the best of this country, the best of people. Can we go set Watchman next to all that? Starting Tuesday, we'll see.


'Go Set a Watchman': Where to buy and celebrate in our area

9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday: Barnes & Noble stores throughout the area will read Mockingbird from start to finish. The Read-A-Thon will feature guest readers, local authors, or celebrities. On Tuesday, Watchman day, Barnes & Nobles will open early at 7 for the early rush. Visitors to the café from 7 to 10 a.m. get a free tall coffee with purchase of Watchman. The first 20 purchasers get a free To Kill a Mockingbird tote.

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday: At Barnes & Noble, 18th and Walnut Streets, actors from the Media            Theatre will be reading aloud. The public is invited to sit down, join in, and read a page or two.

Schedule of actors:           

Noon: J.D. Triolo                                          

1 p.m.: K. Whitney Rogers

5 p.m.: Kelly Briggs

6 p.m.: Tamara Anderson

7 p.m.:  Tamara Anderson/ Kelly Briggs

Monday: 9 p.m. to midnight: Aaron's Books, 35 E. Main St., Lititz, will have a release party, with release of Watchman at midnight.

9:30 p.m. Monday: Big Blue Marble, 551 Carpenter Lane, will screen the Mockingbird film (popcorn and tea provided), followed by sales of Watchman starting at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. After that, folks will repair upstairs for a reading of Watchman. Elliott Battzedek, events coordinator, says, "We'll read the first chapter aloud, and then whoever's there and wants to stay, we'll stay open and see how far we get." Free buttons and bookmarks.

10 p.m. Monday: Chester County Book & Music Company, 967 Paoli Pike, Chester, will have a midnight release party with food, drink, discussion of Mockingbird, and possibly a screening. Information: 610-696-1661, www.chestercountybooks.com.

Tuesday, midnight-1 a.m.: Joseph Fox Books (1724 Sansom Street, 215-563-4184) will open for this special midnight hour to sell copies of Go Set a Watchman.

Tuesday: Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau St, Princeton, will be selling Watchman and screening the documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in the downstairs event space throughout the day.

10 a.m. Tuesday: Main Points Books, 1041 W. Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr, will have a Go Set a Watchman Southern brunch ("More like a breakfasty kind of thing," says owner Cathy Fiebach), with fruit, biscuits, tea, and book sales. Information: 610-525-1480, www.mainpointbooks.com. Next night at 7:15 p.m., Main Points cosponsors a screening of Mockingbird at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Information: 610-527-9898, www.brynmawrfilm.

org.

5:30 p.m. Tuesday: The County Theater, 20 E. State Street in Doylestown, along with sponsor Doylestown Bookstore, will host a screening of Mockingbird, combined with sales of Watchman. Reservations required. Admission: $10.50-$35. Information: 215-230-7610, bit.ly/1LUuI65.

Tuesday, Penn Bookstore: Kathryn Woodward, manager of the Penn Bookstore, says the store has ordered four times the usual number of books for the kickoff. Window displays will feature various editions of Mockingbird and also Watchman. And the bookstore is counting down to the release on social media.


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406@jtimpane

zmiller@phillynews.com

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