Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

When I heard that Colin (my bro) was reading Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, I  asked – in an effort to be all zeitgeisty – whether he’d be willing to write a review of it for me, especially since I don’t think I’m going to be reading it for a while. So, thanks Col, you’ve written a blinder! Make him feel welcome and enjoy his review – but, be warned, it is a bit spoilery. No more than most reviews, but… well, you’re warned!

Go Set a WatchmanIn years to come, I am confident that the phrase “Go Set a Watchman” will only ever be used when prefaced with the words: “Actually, she also wrote…”. Harper Lee’s unexpected follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird, written in the 1950s but only published last week, has great value as a curio but not much more.

That is not to say that Watchman is a bad book, but I am confident that it would not have been published in its current state if it were not for its links to Mockingbird: the reason I can say this with confidence is that it’s already true. For those who haven’t been following the history, this text is (apparently) exactly as it was when submitted sixty-odd years ago to a publisher, who suggested that the most interesting bits were the flashbacks to Jean Louise Finch’s childhood, and that perhaps Harper Lee could write some more about that. The result was Mockingbird, and thus Watchman is – despite being set 20 years later – really a first draft rather than a sequel.

I knew all of this before starting the book, but was surprised to discover on the first page that, unlike Mockingbird, it wasn’t written in the first person, and although it predominantly followed Jean Louise (a.k.a. ‘Scout’), we would later also get the points of view of Atticus Finch, Aunt Alexandria and Uncle Jack among others. Nothing wrong with that, but the contrast with Mockingbird was immediate, and this is of course the key problem with the book: by inviting constant comparison with one of the greatest novels of the 20th century (and, unimaginatively, one of my favourite books), it never really stood a chance. Not only can it not justify the comparison on merit, but given that the likes of Scout, Alexandria, and Jack are already familiar to the reader, it jars when they act ‘out of character’. And then, of course, there’s Atticus…  more on him later.

Before I get carried away, I should cover off the plot. Whereas Mockingbird was set over several years of Scout’s childhood, Watchman takes place over just a few days, following Jean Louise – at the age of 26, she is rarely called Scout – on her return from New York to Maycomb county to visit her ageing father, Atticus. While there she thinks back, in extended flashbacks, to her childhood in Maycomb with her late brother Jem, housekeeper Calpurnia, and sometime neighbour Dill. So far, so Mockingbird. But, as well as remembrances of childhood games, we also get recollections of Jean Louise’s first period, her first kiss, and her off-and-on romance with Hank Clifton, an apparent lifelong friend whose total absence from Mockingbird is the first sign that attempts weren’t necessarily made to keep the books consistent. Hank, in fact, is still living in Maycomb, learning the law under Atticus, and apparently eager for Jean Louise to marry him and settle down. Jean Louise’s attitude to Hank is curious throughout, as she occasionally confirms vaguely that she will marry him, only to recant a few pages later without either party seeming particularly concerned.

If Hank is thinly drawn, he is not alone. Jean Louise is well fleshed out – perhaps this should not be surprising, given that Harper Lee’s writing was heavily autobiographical – as a young woman torn between loyalty to her native Alabama and an affinity with the more progressive views of New York. Other than her, though, characters are either underwritten (Dill, Alexandria, and Calpurnia were better served in Mockingbird) or, in the case of Jack Finch, rather overwritten. Indeed, while Jack’s only purpose in Mockingbird was to serve as a example of an adult who – unlike Atticus – doesn’t understand children, in Watchman he is a sage counsel for Jean Louise, as well as being an idiosyncratic aficionado of Victorian esoterica. I imagine he was fun to write, but I can also understand why he was significantly toned down for Mockingbird.

I should reiterate that this book is a first draft, so it should be no surprise that we don’t get characters of the richness of Mockingbird. In fact, Watchman is very readable – I finished it in a couple of evenings – and though sparse, I can certainly see the spark that led the publisher to ask for more. Sometimes this would have very literally been a case of expanding on what was already there – Watchman includes passing reference to Mrs. Dubose, an irascible old lady who shouted at Scout in her youth; this was developed in Mockingbird to become one of the most moving and poignant subplots – but much of the invention of Mockingbird is entirely missing in Watchman. Whereas the former gave us the complex and intriguing Boo Radley, for example, the latter’s most interesting minor character is a preacher who expounds on grammar. I’m in danger of reviewing Mockingbird here, I know, but this draft just drives home what an imaginative creation the finished novel was, too often reduced (in schools and elsewhere) to being simply a book about racism.

Ah, racism. If you have been paying attention to the news you might have spotted that Atticus, having been the hero of Mockingbird and possibly literature’s most fondly-regarded lawyer, is now ‘racist’. Before starting the book I took this with more than a pinch of salt, being aware that many mainstream views in the 1950s would be regarded as racist now (and also keeping in mind that there are aspects of Mockingbird that would probably not be published now), but in truth this is not merely the distortion of a 21st century lens. Atticus is, in Watchman, a segregationist, and while his views are reasoned and calm, they are enough to horrify Jean Louise (“You deny that they’re human”) as well as today’s readers. For those of us who have a great affection for Atticus – and I have long ranked him as my second favourite literary character, after only Bertie Wooster – this is difficult to take.

To Kill a Mockingbird

I should be clear that Atticus is not drawn as a monster. When Jean Louise describes him as a “n***** hater” (the book’s publishers might be confident enough to print that word without asterisks, but I’m not) she is firmly slapped down by Jack, and in the book’s climactic chapter – by far the most strongly written – where Jean Louise and Atticus finally thrash out their differences, he is described as “compassionate, almost pleading”. His reasoning is based not on hatred or contempt, but apparently on concern: “Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ‘em?” Harper Lee makes no attempt to persuade the reader that Atticus is right, but we are encouraged to see – as Jean Louise eventually does – that it is possible to hold the wrong views without being a pariah. Arguably, in the age of ‘Twitterstorms’ and instant outrage, this message is needed more today than ever before. Sorry, that got a bit philosophical, there, but it is a product of the age that the headlines greeting this book were all about Atticus being a racist, with no thought given to nuance.

If Mockingbird’s fans have seen the tarnishing of their icon, then Jean Louise’s position in Watchman is much the same: on the day following their argument she realises (or, rather, Jack explains to her) that she had previously tied her moral outlook entirely to her father’s, and that, having treated him as a god all her life, it was vital for her to develop her own independent conscience. In the heat of the moment this means describing him as being ‘worse than Hitler’, but by the end of the book she tells him: “I think I love you very much”. It is an absolution of sorts, but still leaves readers struggling to reconcile the Atticus of Mockingbird with the one of Watchman, and perhaps the answer to that is that, despite being based on Harper Lee’s father, they’re not really the same character.

In fact, there are several indications that the world of Watchman is subtly different to the one we’ve seen in Mockingbird. While many characters are the same, and indeed some passages of prose are identical (a description of Alexandria once having had an hour glass figure; an anecdote about Conninghams and Cunninghams appearing before Judge Taylor), the clearest distinction comes in the description of Tom Robinson’s trial. Though not mentioned by name, this is clearly the same case that became the centrepiece of Mockingbird: a black boy with only one arm accused or raping a white girl; one key difference is that in the world of Watchman, Atticus won an acquittal for the defendant. Another is that he did so with an ‘instinctive distaste’ and afterwards immediately went home to take a hot bath.

While it is evident that Watchman was not edited to bring it in line with Mockingbird, it is not clear how extensive any editing process was: it reads too well to believe that it is actually an untouched first draft, despite the publisher’s claims, but on the other hand it has obviously not been amended to make it more understandable for an international 21st century audience. For example, when Atticus says “You slang the Supreme Court within an inch of its life, then you turn around and talk like the NAACP” the reader is clearly supposed to be familiar not only with what these are, but also with what any particular person’s views on them are likely to be. I must admit that I am not, nor am I familiar with the text of the tenth amendment, which is referred to without further explanation.

Overall I am glad that Watchman was published, as it provides a valuable insight into the writing process and just how much a story can develop over time, but – despite its strengths – it should not be mistaken for a valuable piece of literature in its own right. I have read Mockingbird five times already and expect to read it many more; I don’t expect I will ever read this one again.

12 thoughts on “Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

  • July 20, 2015 at 9:47 am
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    Colin, your review is every bit as good as any of Simon’s, so thank you!. Go Set a Watchman sounds exactly as I thought it would be, and I don’t think I want to read it – I feel as if it would taint by love of To Kill a Mocking Bird,.

  • July 20, 2015 at 10:51 am
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    I’ve skip read Colin’s thoughts as I just started reading GSAW. I will try to get a good reading session in after I have finished defrosting the freezer (oh the glamour). Will come back and read more thoroughly when I have finished reading. I too am glad it has been published.

  • July 20, 2015 at 11:20 am
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    While many American readers may not not know the specific details of the references to the Supreme Court and 10th amendment, most will understand they deal with desegregation and states’ rights. They will understand what that means historically, and also that the same issues are still being fought over today without much variation as it relates to race and with similar application to marriage equality. For many in the South it might as well be the1950s.

  • July 20, 2015 at 12:52 pm
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    Excellent review but I disagree with a lot of it. I’m just finishing one myself and liked it a lot better than Colin did. But so nice to have a review from Colin and may we have many more in future, please.

  • July 20, 2015 at 12:53 pm
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    Excellent review, Colin. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. After months of looking forward to GSAW, I removed it from my library hold list as soon as the reviews started appearing. I think I can safely ignore its existence and keep TKAM intact in my heart. (Same as I don’t acknowledge Jill Paton Walsh’s wanton damage to the Wimsey family).

  • July 20, 2015 at 3:29 pm
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    Here’s where I fell in love with Colin: ” I have long ranked him [Atticus] as my second favourite literary character, after only Bertie Wooster …”

  • July 20, 2015 at 3:46 pm
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    Well, this is a thoughtful and intriguing review. If it weren’t for the Atticus-undermining that occurs, I’d be interested in reading the book as an insight into Lee’s publishing progress. However, thankfully this has warned me that my long-held affection for Atticus may be damaged by reading, and therefore I choose to abstain. Thanks Colin, very useful and a pleasant read.

  • July 20, 2015 at 8:21 pm
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    Dear Colin ~ Thank you for your excellent, enjoyable review! You’ve saved me reading the book. Lol! I know it wasn’t your intent; but as my reading time is sorely tried, I greatly appreciate a reviewer’s honesty. It’s a shame to invest several hours in a book, only to put it aside. For whatever reasons! So thank you kindly for allowing me to miss this one without guilt, and go on to something better suited to current interests!
    del

  • July 20, 2015 at 10:00 pm
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    Ta for posting this! I’m planning on reading it, and so far the prospect of Atticus’s casual racism isnt’ upsetting me terribly much — it may be that living in the (American) South all these years has been a practice run for getting the point that someone can be wonderful in certain important ways and still terrible in other important ways, and neither of those two things cancels out the other. But I’m trying not to expect too much of the book in general, as it is a very junior sort of effort.

  • July 21, 2015 at 11:30 am
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    The best review I’ve read on GSAW so far, and there have beeb many over the past few days. *g*

    On balance, I think your review has led me to the conclusion I was heading towards; that I’ll leave well enough alone and not read it. I think in this instance, this isn’t Harper’s natural continuation of the story with considered thought following on from TKAM, it’s just a pre-imagining, a pencil sketch of the characters that would come to life in TKAM and I don’t think I want to read that. I’m not even sure this is where Harper herself would want the story/characters to be now.

  • July 24, 2015 at 4:02 pm
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    Thank you Colin, for the review. I have bought the book but I think I shall keep it out of sight for a few months more.

  • March 22, 2016 at 11:28 am
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    This is a balanced review although describing Atticus as racist shows a Scout like single mindedness – I am glad you added that he is a segregationist.

    Similarly I find the reactions of the other readers to decide not to tarnish their icon by reading the truth is a matter of life imitating art! Y’all will remain immature femenine thinkers!!!! (That’s irony btw).

    To back up Colin’s review, I would strongly recommend anyone not particular familiar with the history of American constitution, do some background reading about the 10th amendment and decisions and debates they faced in 1950s before reaching the crescendo of this book.

    It’s not a finished literary masterpiece but please don’t make that a reason to choose to live in ignorance of how Scout’s understanding of life, love and racial politics matures as all of us should do if we do not want to be bigots ourselves.

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