Though the book has been characterized in media reports as a sequel to Lee's best-selling novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960, Go Set a Watchman is actually Mockingbird's first draft.  The novel was finished in 1957 and purchased by the J.B. Lippincott Company. Lee's editor, Tay Hohoff, although impressed with elements of the story, saying that "the spark of the true writer flashed in every line," thought it was by no means ready for publication. It was, as she described it, "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel." As Jonathan Mahler recounts in his Times article on Hohoff, she thought the strongest aspect of Lee's novel was the flashback sequences featuring a young Scout, and thus requested that Lee use those flashbacks as a basis for a new novel. Lee agreed, and during the next couple of years, Hohoff led Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled To Kill a Mockingbird.
Mahler also references a more detailed characterization of the development process, found in the Lippincott corporate history: "After a couple of false starts, the story-line, interplay of characters, and fall of emphasis grew clearer, and with each revision — there were many minor changes as the story grew in strength and in her own vision of it — the true stature of the novel became evident." (In 1978, Lippincott was acquired by Harper & Row, which became HarperCollins, publisher of Watchman.) Mahler remarks that there appeared to be a natural give and take between author and editor. "When she disagreed with a suggestion, we talked it out, sometimes for hours," Ms. Hohoff wrote. "And sometimes she came around to my way of thinking, sometimes I to hers, sometimes the discussion would open up an entirely new line of country."
In terms of the initial characterization of Atticus as a segregationist, an element to his character that was dropped in the later draft, there are various theories already offered. Was Amasa Coleman Lee's (Harper Lee's father) increased liberalism as he aged a factor? A man of his time he has been described as being at one point a segregationist, only to later shift his views in favour of integration. Mahler offers that is could also have been Hohoff that inspired the change. Raised "in a multigenerational Quaker home near Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Ms. Hohoff attended a Quaker school, Brooklyn Friends. Such an upbringing suggests certain progressive values. But probably the clearest window into her state of mind when she was coaching Ms. Lee through the rewrite of Mockingbird is the book she was writing herself at the time: a biography of John Lovejoy Elliott, a social activist and humanist in early-20th-century New York who had committed his life to helping the city's underclass. The book, A Ministry to Man, was published in 1959, a year before Mockingbird."
Michiko Kakutani made note of the changes between the two versions: "Some plot points that have become touchstones in Mockingbird are evident in the earlier Watchman. Scout's older brother, Jem, vividly alive as a boy in Mockingbird, is dead in Watchman; the trial of a black man accused of raping a young white woman, while a main story line in Mockingbird, is only a passing aside in Watchman. (Interestingly, the trial results in a guilty verdict for the accused man, Tom Robinson, in Mockingbird, but leads to an acquittal in Watchman.)" She continues, "Students of writing will find Watchman fascinating for these reasons: How did a lumpy tale about a young woman's grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father? How did a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech (from the casually patronizing to the disgustingly grotesque — and presumably meant to capture the extreme prejudice that could exist in small towns in the Deep South in the 1950s) mutate into a redemptive novel associated with the civil rights movement, hailed, in the words of the former civil rights activist and congressman Andrew Young, for giving us "a sense of emerging humanism and decency"?
Kakutani also goes on to describe that not only are characterizations and plot points different, the motivation behind the novel shifts as well, stating: "Somewhere along the way, the overarching impulse behind the writing also seems to have changed. Watchman reads as if it were fueled by the alienation a native daughter — who, like Ms. Lee, moved away from small-town Alabama to New York City — might feel upon returning home. It seems to want to document the worst in Maycomb in terms of racial and class prejudice, the people’s enmity and hypocrisy and small-mindedness. At times, it also alarmingly suggests that the civil rights movement roiled things up, making people who “used to trust each other” now “watch each other like hawks.”
Mockingbird, in contrast, represents a determined effort to see both the bad and the good in small-town life, the hatred and the humanity; it presents an idealized father-daughter relationship (which a relative in Watchman suggests has kept Jean Louise from fully becoming her own person) and views the past not as something lost but as a treasured memory. In a 1963 interview, Ms. Lee, who now lives in her old hometown, Monroeville, Ala., said of Mockingbird: “The book is not an indictment so much as a plea for something, a reminder to people at home.” Lee's lawyer, Tonja Carter, later revealed that she had first assumed the manuscript to be an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Later, upon learning in the summer of 2014 of the existence of a second novel at a family gathering, she then re-examined Lee's safe-deposit box and found the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman. After contacting Lee and reading the manuscript, she passed it on to Lee’s agent, Andrew Nurnberg.
Some publications have called the timing of the book "suspicious", citing Lee's declining health, statements she had made over several decades that she would not write or release another novel, and the death of her sister (and caregiver) just two months before the announcement. NPR reported on the news of her new book release, with circumstances "raising questions about whether she is being taken advantage of in her old age." Some publications have even called for fans to boycott the work. News sources, including NPR and BBC News, have reported that the conditions surrounding the release of the book are unclear and posit that Lee may not have had full control of the decision. Investigators for the state of Alabama interviewed Lee in response to a suspicion of elder abuse in relation to the publication of the book. However, by April 2015 the investigation had found that the claims were unfounded.
Additionally, historian and Lee's longtime friend Wayne Flynt told Associated Press that the "narrative of senility, exploitation of this helpless little old lady is just hogwash. It's just complete bunk." Flynt said he found Lee capable of giving consent and believes no one will ever know for certain the terms of said consent.
However, Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, a friend and former neighbor of Lee and her sister Alice paints a very different picture. In her piece for The Washington Post "The Harper Lee I knew," she quotes Lee's sister Alice, whom she describes as "gatekeeper, advisor, protector" for most of Lee's adult life, as saying "Poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence." She makes note that Watchman was announced just two and a half months after Alice's death and that all correspondence to and from Lee goes through her new attorney. She describes Lee as "in a wheelchair in an assisted living center, nearly deaf and blind, with a uniformed guard posted at the door" and her visitors "restricted to those on an approved list."
New York Times columnist Joe Nocera continues this argument. He also takes issue with how the book has been promoted by the 'Murdoch Empire' as a "Newly discovered" novel, attesting that the other people in the Sothebys meeting insist that Lee's attorney was present in 2011, when Lees former agent (whom she subsequently fired) and the Sotheby's specialist found the manuscript. They say she knew full well that it was the same one submitted to Tay Hohoff in the 50's that was reworked into Mockingbird, and that Carter has been sitting on the discovery, waiting for the moment when she, and not Alice, would be in charge of Harper Lee's affairs.
He again questions how commentators are treating the character of Atticus as though he were a real person and are deliberately trying to argue that the character devolved with age as opposed to evolved during development. He quotes Lee herself from one of her last interviews in 1964 where she said "I think the thing that i most deplore about American writing---is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this- the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea." He states that "A publisher that cared about Harper Lee's legacy would have taken those words to heart, and declined to publish Go Set a Watchman, the good idea that Lee eventually transformed into a gem. That HarperCollins decided instead to manufacture a phony literary event isn't surprising. It's just sad."
Stephen Peck, son of actor Gregory Peck has also expressed concern. Responding to the question of how he thinks his father would have reacted to the book, he says that his father "would have appreciated the discussion the book has prompted, but would have been troubled by the decision to publish it." Peck notes that his father considered Lee a dear friend. She gave him the pocket watch that had belonged to her father, on whom she modeled Atticus and that Gregory wore it the night he won an Oscar for the role. The documentary A Conversation with Gregory Peck shows Peck's daughter Cecilia naming her son Harper after the author who remained a close family friend. Stephen, who is president and chief executive of the United States Veterans Initiative, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides services to homeless veterans, goes on to say “I think he would have felt very protective of her,” and that his father would have counseled Lee not to publish Watchman because it could taint Mockingbird, one of the most beloved novels (in) American history.
“Not to protect himself, but to protect her,” Peck said, also noting that the decision to publish it was made not long after the death of the author’s sister Alice Lee, who had long handled Harper Lee’s affairs. “You just don’t know how that decision was made… If he had to, he would have flown down to talk to her. I have no doubt.” Later in the article, which was posted in The Wall Street Journal he says, “To me, it was an unedited draft. Do you want to put that early version out there or do you want to put it in the University of Alabama archives for scholars to look at?”
Peck said he doesn’t believe the depiction of Atticus in Watchman will affect his father’s legacy. "The Atticus of Watchman is a completely different character from the Atticus of Mockingbird," he said, "even if it’s borne from the same imagination." He notes that the role was the hallmark of his father’s career, and of all the characters he played, the cerebral civil-rights hero was the one closest to who he was in real life. “He so deeply felt the words that he said in Mockingbird that you could barely separate the two,” Stephen Peck said. “That was his best self. Those were his deepest, most closely held ideals. He was thankful every day that he got that part.” Asked the question if Watchman had been published 20 years after Mockingbird, instead of 55 years later, would Gregory Peck have taken up the part again? Stephen answered, “I’m not at all sure my dad would have played this one.”
Like Peck, others have also questioned the context of the book's release, not in matters of consent, but that it has been publicized as a sequel as opposed to an unedited first draft. There is no foreword to the book and the dust jacket, although noting that the book was written in the mid-1950's, gives the impression that the book was written as a sequel or companion to Mockingbird which was never Lee's intention. Edward Burlingame, who was an executive editor at Lippincott at the time of Mockingbird's release has stated there was never any intention, then or after, on the part of Lee or Tohoff to publish Watchman. It was simply regarded as a first draft. “Lippincott’s sales department would have published Harper Lee’s laundry list,” Mr. Burlingame said. “But Tay really guarded Nelle like a junkyard dog. She was not going to allow any commercial pressures or anything else to put stress on her to publish anything that wouldn’t make Nelle proud or do justice to her. Anxious as we all were to get another book from Harper Lee, it was a decision we all supported.” He said that at in all his years at Lippincott, "there was never any discussion of publishing Go Set a Watchman."