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Nelle Harper Lee was born in 1926 in Monroesville, Alabama, a small Southern town very similar to Maycomb, Alabama, where Go Set a Watchman is set. In 1949, Lee moved to New York City to become a writer, and in 1957, she sent Go Set a Watchman to publishers. J.B. Lippincott, a now-defunct publishing company, bought the novel.
The 1950s were a time of national expansion and postwar boom, but this period of growth and transition also presented growing pains for the nation. Go Set a Watchman is set in the 1950s and focuses on an adult Jean Louise Finch visiting Alabama from New York City. Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, emphasizes desegregation and is an important component of the book’s background. This court case marks an important victory overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine that had prevailed until then. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation was a matter that should be left to the states. However, Brown v. Board of Education overturned this decision, declaring that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional on a national level. The rise of the NAACP, a national organization promoting black people’s rights, is causing tension in the South at this time. In addition, the rise of Communism was also in the air. Senator Joseph McCarthy blacklisted celebrities, claiming that they were anti-American.
Much of the important context around Go Set a Watchman surrounds its dramatic publication history. To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s 1960 novel about race, justice, and growing up in the South, is one of the most beloved books of the twentieth century. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has sold over 40 million copies worldwide since its release. In 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird was made into an Academy Award-winning film, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and in 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the greatest film hero of the twentieth century.
Go Set a Watchman is an earlier version of Lee’s more famous book. After Lee’s editor read the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, she suggested that Lee she write a new book from the heroine’s perspective that focused on her childhood. So Lee took the setting and characters of Go Set a Watchman and revised them into the manuscript that became To Kill a Mockingbird.
After To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee didn’t publish any other novels, didn’t work on the screenplay for the film, and retreated from the public eye. Because Lee has been so reclusive, and because her literary output has been incredibly celebrated but extremely limited, the discovery of Go Set a Watchman was an enormous literary event.
But controversy plagued nearly every step of the publication of Go Set a Watchman. In November 2014, Harper Lee’s sister and longtime caretaker passed away. A few months later, Harper Lee’s publishers announced that they was planning to release a novel that Lee had completed in the mid-1950s, before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Although Lee’s lawyer claimed that she found the manuscript shortly after Lee’s sister died, the manuscript had actually been discovered in 2011.
Go Set a Watchman sold over a million copies during its first week on sale, but controversy escalated when the book was released. Harper Lee’s publishers touted the novel as an undiscovered gem and new literary masterpiece, but critics generally read the book as an early, flawed draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. A few weeks after it was published, a bookstore in Michigan offered customers who had purchased Go Set a Watchman a refund. The bookstore said that the book had been falsely advertised as “Harper Lee’s New Novel,” but that it actually was an academic insight into the development of To Kill a Mockingbird, rather than a full-fledged separate book. Debates about the novel’s status still continue.