Reaction: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set A WatchmanThis isn’t a review, exactly. There’s certainly no shortage of reviews out there, for those who want to find them. I thought I’d just go ahead and share a few impressions, having finished the book today — if for no other reason than to get my thoughts straight.

So, background: I think everyone knows by now about the hoopla surrounding the discovery of this “lost” manuscript by Harper Lee. The debate continues to swirl around the question of whether the author truly wanted this book published, whether she’s in a position to be able to give full consent, and whether this book should have seen the light of day. Nevertheless, here it is.

To further recap the history, Go Set a Watchman was written before Harper Lee wrote her masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird. The story goes that Ms. Lee’s editor read Go Set a Watchman and then sent the author back to rewrite it, placing the emphasis on Jean Louise’s childhood and thus changing the setting from the 1950s to the 1930s… and the rewritten novel was To Kill a Mockingbird.

So really, Go Set A Watchman is neither a prequel nor a sequel — it’s a first draft.

In Go Set a Watchman, we see Mockingbird‘s Scout as a young woman in her mid-20s. Jean Louise is bright and independent (as you’d expect from knowing Scout), lives in New York, and at the outset of the story travels back to Maycomb, Alabama for her annual visit home.

Her beloved father Atticus is an old man with arthritis, still practicing law, but barely able to use his hands. His sister Alexandra has come to live with him and take care of his daily needs, and his brother Jack is around for company and conversation too. Atticus has taken on a younger lawyer to nurture in the early stages of his career, and this young lawyer, Henry Clinton, is Jean Louise’s devoted boyfriend. The housekeeper Calpurnia, who raised Scout and her brother Jem, has retired and moved back with her own family. And, sadly, Jem himself is dead, having died of a heart attack in his early twenties.

The action, such as there is, shifts between Jean Louise’s experiences during her visit and her vivid memories of her childhood, which are the sharpest and most enjoyable parts of the book. It’s easy to see why an astute editor wanted the author to expand the stories of Scout, Jem, and Atticus. In Go Set a Watchman, we get some new scenes of childhood, with an especially painful segment on Scout’s puberty and the terrible consequences of her misunderstanding how babies are made.

Atticus comes off as the offbeat, wise father we know and love in many of the scenes between him and Jean-Louise, and her Uncle Jack is really stellar as a slightly batty old man who loves to quote the classics, has a passion for Victorian literature, and somehow manages to sneak usable pearls of wisdom into his ramblings, quotations, and allusions.

So, onward to the controversy. I was actually on vacation the week that this book was released. I turned on the TV that morning, and every single morning talk show was busy proclaiming, more or less: UPROAR! ATTICUS FINCH IS A RACIST! ATTICUS FINCH WENT TO A KKK MEETING! And yeah, okay, that’s true, but I do feel as though many in the media were overly eager to swoop in on the sensationalistic aspects without context or clarity.

Yes, Atticus is a racist in Go Set A Watchman. He doesn’t hate African Americans, exactly – but in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1950s-era decisions on desegregation, he is upset, to say the least. He sees African Americans as lesser, as children, not educated or developed enough to be able to handle the rights that states are now being forced to grant.

“Jean Louise,” he said. “have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?”

After further explaining why they aren’t capable of fully participating in society with equal rights, he points out the practical and political drawbacks

“Honey… Use your head. When they vote, they vote in blocs.”

And still more:

“Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life. They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet…

Jean Louise is furious and broken-hearted to discover the truth about Atticus’s beliefs. She feels that he pulled the wool over her eyes all her life, making her believe that he believed in one thing when the truth was something else.

“Jean Louise, I’m only trying to tell you some plain truths. You must see things as they are, as well as they should be.”

“Then why didn’t you show me things as they are when I sat on your lap? Why didn’t you show me, why weren’t you careful when you read me history and the things that I thought meant something to you that there was a fence around everything marked ‘White Only’?”

It’s Uncle Jack who prevents Jean Louise from fleeing Maycomb in anger, resolved never to return and never to see Atticus again. And this is the piece that I found the most affecting — Uncle Jack (after hitting Jean Louise across the face so hard that she almost loses consciousness, which was weird and disturbing), gets her to stop for a moment and to listen. He explains to her how, in essence, one of the hardest parts about becoming an adult is realizing that the perfect people from our childhoods are flawed humans like everyone else:

“… now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings — I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.”

In To Kill a Mockingbird, we see Scout’s coming of age tale, but Go Set a Watchman in its own way is Jean Louise’s coming of age. As Uncle Jack points out, she’s finally emerged into her own person, rather than the girl who confuses her father with God. And in recognizing this, she can find a way to keep Atticus and Maycomb in her heart and in her life, even if she sees actions and ideas that she hates. As Uncle Jack explains:

“… the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right.”

There are some interesting ideas and points to be made, and some bear more thought, and I’m sure will be discussed for some time to come. The shattering of childhood idols is a major milestone, and Jean Louise faces the universal task of finding a way to love a flawed parent, despite how very strong those flaws are.

(I realize that I’m not really addressing Atticus’s views on race and segregation, and that’s because I don’t really think it’s necessary. If this book had been published in the 1950s, as originally intended by Harper Lee, I think the content would have been truly provocative. Here and now, it’s a window into a world that’s so clearly passed that I don’t really feel the need to spend time on Watchman‘s Atticus, why he feels the way he does, etc.)

I think, if this book existed in a universe that didn’t also contain Mockingbird, the message might be a more acceptable one about growing up, recognizing the imperfections of people we used to think perfect, and trying to find a way to move forward and fight for what’s right without having to completely disown the less savory parts of our family, our home, our past.

But the idea that it’s Atticus who’s shown to be so imperfect is certainly a hard one to swallow, given how for decades Atticus Finch has been pretty much everyone’s ideal of a perfect father as well as a noble and decent man. How do we reconcile the two?

For me, I decided to read Watchman, as much as I could, as a separate and distinct entity. As a story of a Southern-born girl coming home and facing hard truths, it’s interesting. The reminiscences of Southern childhood are as charming as they should be, and Jean Louise has that ornery, contrary streak that we’d expect of a girl who behaved so rambunctiously as a child.

I’m not a Mockingbird expert by a long shot, and I’d guess that those who are will have a lot more to say about Watchman than I do. I read Mockingbird once in high school (many years ago!) and once again earlier this year. And I love that book… and Go Set a Watchman doesn’t change that.

Go Set a Watchman is interesting as a glimpse into an author’s process, as well as providing a view of what Harper Lee’s intentions were when she first began writing a novel. Also of note, of course, is the fact that Go Set a Watchman has been published as is, unedited, and it shows. Especially in the first half of the book, the writing itself is inconsistent and there are rough patches which clearly would have been polished and refined if this book had been intended for publication. The action and pacing are also inconsistent, and the pieces set in modern-day Maycomb involving Jean Louise’s dates with Henry and her aunt’s social Coffee held in Jean Louise’s honor tend to drag a bit. There were definitely times where I felt as though I were reading a draft of a novel, rather than a novel itself.

The question of whether Go Set a Watchman is a good novel in and of itself is one that’s hard to answer. It simply can’t be read in a vacuum. It exists because Mockingbird exists, and we read it to see what it is in light of what we know about Harper Lee, to see how the characters we love from Mockingbird were treated in her first go-round.

So, no, for someone with no attachment to To Kill a Mockingbird or for someone who’s never read it, I wouldn’t say they should rush right out and read Watchman. There really isn’t a reason to, except to compare and contrast with Mockingbird.

Bottom line: There were parts of Watchman that I enjoyed, especially the memories of Scout’s childhood and adolescence. I found the conflict around Atticus’s racism and Jean Louise’s reaction to this discovery to be quite interesting, and some of the arguments and speeches made at the climax were really well-written and insightful. My best advice? Read this book to see what it is, see if you find any good food for thought in it, and see how you respond to the fuss being made over Atticus’s character. But hold onto everything you cherish about Mockingbird — there’s no need for that to be tarnished.

It’s almost like reading fan fiction or a sequel written by another author (kind of like how Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley is to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind). You can read it to be informed about the pop culture happening of the moment, or as a piece of literary entertainment, or as a “what if” scenario. For me, I choose to see it as a “I suppose this is one way it could go” situation. I read this story of Atticus and Jean Louise, and found some interesting points, but in my mind, these are not the same Atticus and Jean Louise/Scout whom I already know. The Atticus and Scout from Mockingbird remain, for me, the “real” versions of themselves.

And that’s how I choose to think about it.

15 thoughts on “Reaction: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

  1. Nicely written! I agree with you. I thought the most enjoyable moments were Jean Louise’s reflections on her childhood. They really illustrated how TKAM developed from this. For me, the most disappointing part was the adult Jean Louise who I really didn’t care for most of the time. Her tirade against Atticus also didn’t ring true to me because in my opinion she displayed some racist tendencies herself.

    • True, although in the context of the time and place, I suppose Jean Louise would be considered quite the liberal. I found it a bit confusing that they kept talking about the Supreme Court without being more specific about what case(s) they were talking about. I ended up googling Supreme Court decisions of the 1950s to figure it out. 🙂

  2. I’m very happy I read this review of yours, because I’m not going to read the book. I’m not a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird in the first place, so I really don’t care to read this one. My impression, from reading your review is that this book is actually very similar to TKMB in themes, though it’s different in treatments.

    What I find really distrubing is the editorial oporation behind it. I don’t know whether Harper Lee is really in a position to give permission to publish this first draft, but I don’t have much doubts that the publisher is just trying to gane as much as possible from this operation.
    What’s the meaning of publishing a first draft? Everybody knows a first draft isn’t meant to be read by the public. It’s incomplete, it’s possibly confusing, and it can even give off ideas which aren’t really the intention of the writer, because at a first draft stage ideas aren’t expressed as best as they could. I know because I’ve written first drafts, and I know sometimes readers can understand a completely different thing only because at that stage my ideas are expressed in such a primitive way they are basically comprehensible only to me.

    And, sorry, but just at this time where self-published authors are trushed everyday because they publish without editing (or much editing), a publisher puts on the market this?
    Nobody is going to convince me that there is anything but money-grabbing behind it.

    So, no, I don’t care for the novel, because this is not a novel, in my opinion. Crafting a novel is a long, hard job that’s made up of many attempts. As I understand it, Go Set a Watchman is just the first step in the long way of a novel birth, and if Hasrper Lee, so many years ago, agreed to lay it off, it means at the very least this was not the novel she wanted to write and she possibly thought she wasn’t expressing what she really wanted to express… and which she did in TKMB.
    It will surely be intersing for Harper Lee’s fans, but I don’t see what it can offer to any other reader.

    • Thanks for commenting. I think we’re really on the same page. Your last line is how I feel: “It will surely be interesteing for Harper Lee’s fans, but I don’t see what it can offer to any other reader.” I did find it interesting as a piece of the process leading to TKAM, and I’m not sorry to have read it in that context… but I agree that I’ll never be convinced that Harper Lee is on board with the publication of this book. The circumstances are too murky, and it does seem like a money-grab in many respects. I wish she were able to speak publicly and assert how she feels about it, but since that’s not possible, it really does leave the entire project in doubt.

  3. Great post Lisa! I haven’t found the time to read it yet, but I find I was holding my breath as I read your post! It’s actually very insightful but without giving the details away.
    As for the racism in the book, I’m sorry but that’s to be expected due to the time the book was written. Things were different back them, people on the whole were a lot more narrow minded. I don’t agree with it, but that’s who things were back then. It’s like when I read The Color Purple, I was shocked by the racism in it! But that’s how things were back then.
    I was going to re-read Mockingbird before this book, but I don’t think I will. As you suggest, I’m going to treat it as a piece of fan fiction instead 🙂 and thank you for the heads up about the editing 😀 That stuff normally gets on my nerves 😛
    Have a great day,
    Amy x

    • Thanks, Amy! You’re right, of course, about the racism being representative of the time. I think the reason it’s so shocking here is because it’s the great Atticus Finch saying these things — because otherwise, to hear these opinions voiced by a white man in 1950s Alabama fits in with the time period. Of course, the opinions are heinous, but not surprising for that point in history. I’d love to hear what you think once you read it!

  4. I just don’t know if I want to read this or not! –> ” it’s a first draft” pretty much sums it all up for me — I’m just not sure I want to read something that wasn’t intended to be published as is. But at the same time, this is a bit of a major literary event. So again, I JUST DON’T KNOW!

    • Hmmm, if you’re interested in seeing what the fuss is about, I’d say go ahead and read it from the perspective of checking out the literary event. I think it’s impossible to read this book separate from the “event” aspects of it, or to treat it as any other book you might pick up for pure enjoyment. It’s definitely weird to read a book and at the same time not be sure whether the author ever wanted us to read it!

  5. Great post. I read this book as well. I still love her writing, but this one was not as good as To Kill A Mockingbird. I do think that is to be expected though. But here’s the thing: people are acting like Atticus being a racist is a new thing. The fact that he chose to represent a black man in To Kill A Mockingbird doesn’t mean he wasn’t a racist. In TKAM, he didn’t even let their black maid eat off the same dishes as them. That says a lot. And this book takes place in the deep South, in the 50’s and Atticus is in his seventies. I really think it would be weird if he wasn’t a racist. I did love the scenes where Jean Louise was confronting Atticus about his beliefs. Honestly, Jean Louise seemed like kind of a racist herself, just not as big of one as Atticus I guess. I do love that part of the book was her realize that Atticus isn’t perfect.

    • Right, it would be unusual for someone of Atticus’s age, at that time and place, to not have the attitudes he expresses — but I think that’s part of why people love him so much in TKAM, because he manages to step outside what’s “normal” and go with his conscience.

  6. This is a really fair, well thought out review. I’ve been wary of reading Go Set A Watchman for exactly the reasons you’ve explored here — I don’t want it to tarnish To Kill A Mockingbird. But approaching the novel from the standpoint of it being a separate entity, a scrapped draft, something that is what it is but doesn’t affect or change or dispute the story and characters we know and love in TKAM, is I think the smartest, most level-headed path to take with this story. Thanks for this review, I appreciated it.

    • Thank you so much! I know there are a lot of opinions out there about the book, its existence, its controversies, etc, but this is how it works for me to think about it. I appreciate your comments!

  7. Thanks for your balanced review – I decided not to read it, but I like the way you approached the book. If I did ever read it, I’ll try and do the same.

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