This 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.