‘Go Set a Watchman’ crosses 1 million copy mark

21 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Harper Lee’s new ‘Watchman’ novel sells more than 1M in first week.

Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” has gone from being debated and discussed to becoming more than just a media sensation: It has already sold more than a million copies. NEW YORK – Harper Lee’s unexpected new novel “Go Set A Watchman” has become the fastest selling book in the history of publisher HarperCollins, with more than 1.1 million copies sold in North America in the first week, the company said on Monday.

The sequel, or first draft, or both, to the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the novel brings those characters, including a less benevolent Atticus Finch, into the racially divisive 1950s. For decades, Nelle, as her friends call her, divided her time between her apartment in Manhattan and the modest, book-filled house she shared with her older sister, Alice Finch Lee, in their south Alabama hometown of Monroeville. The novel was released on July 14, 55 years after the author’s only other published work, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a classic story of racial injustice in the American South. “Watchman,” written in the 1950s, was a first draft of “Mockingbird” with many of the same characters. We spoke to Angela Shaw-Thornburg, a scholar of American and African-American literature at South Carolina State University, about the book, its characters, and what they all tell us about where America is now.

She chauffeured Alice, whom she fondly called “Atticus in a skirt,” to and from the law firm where Alice had practiced for nearly 70 years. “Driving Miss Alice,” Nelle would say with a smile. It made headlines with its depiction of noble lawyer Atticus Finch as a racist and bigot, a stark contrast to the idealistic, younger Finch of “Mockingbird” who put his principles on the line to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. When I lived next door to the Lee sisters from the fall of 2004 until the spring of 2006, she and I would sometimes take an exercise class for seniors at the community center. It features a surprising plot twist – Atticus, a white lawyer who battled racial inequality in “Mockingbird,” is now an aging bigot who attends a Ku Klux Klan meeting. “Upon release, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ immediately jumped to No. 1 on every major book retailer’s bestseller list,” HarperCollins said. The book’s popularity is also helping the publisher sell “Mockingbird,” the second-most bought book on Amazon.com Inc.’s list on Monday, one spot behind “Watchman.”

They liked the long profile I published, “A Life Apart: Harper Lee, the Complex Woman Behind a Delicious Mystery,” and invited me to continue visiting. And she had said what she had to say in “Mockingbird.” It was clear that the overwhelming affection people had for the novel and its characters was both a privilege and a burden. As the group walked away, I thought to myself how pleased they looked, how many times this encounter would be told and retold, surely a favorite story.

The novel comes out at a strange time in America’s racial history: How does this echo against things you see in South Carolina — the state that instigated the Civil War, that recently saw a brutal shooting in a black church, and where the Confederate flag just came down. Even though I was decades younger than the Lees and the friends with whom we socialized, the autoimmune condition forced me to live at a slower speed.

But in the wake of that, there’s been some real hardening of racist attitudes: Instead of peace and redemption we’re seeing the worst, most vocal white supremacists coming out in force. I would not think they had a white-supremacist bone in their bodies, or conservative views of race, or that they were harboring deep fears about what full participation by African-Americans would look like. I’ve been off of Facebook for the last couple weeks because I’ve been, “I really didn’t want to know that about you.” That kind of schizophrenia, where people say, “Some of my best friends are black …” On a small scale they can see individual African-Americans as human beings; on a large-scale issue, they’re not able to.

Especially here in the South, we engage in a lot of dog-whistle politics, where people appear to be speaking about the so-called underclass but they’re really talking about race. You could see the girl in them at these moments, still proud daughters all those years later. “I adored my father and wanted to be just like him,” Alice said. She practiced law with him, shared the Lee home in Monroeville with him until his death, and, like him, was deeply involved with the Methodist church. I think the combination of those events encouraged her to open up to me even more. “I know what you can call your book,” she told me one day over coffee at Burger King. She leaned in and stabbed her finger in the air, as she often did when making a point: “’Having Their Say.’ I know they used it with the Delany sisters, but titles aren’t copyrightable.” Nelle beamed. “Having Our Say” was a bestselling book about two African American sisters, one sweet and one salty, looking back on their lives.

Then she looked at me again. “Sometimes,” she said. “But then it passes.” Now, she has another book generating record-breaking sales. (HarperCollins reports that the book is the fastest-selling in its history.) She has the intensity of the media spotlight she avoided for many years. In 2011, she wrote to me, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” Alice Lee died in November, at 103.

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