Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. HarperCollins, 2015.
Here there be spoilers.
Yesterday was a day that made literary history. I was in line at approximately 6:35 AM to get my free tote bag and coffee from Barnes and Noble and then read the book until I finished. I have many, many thoughts.
First of all, I will say that I was a person who read every article I came across about “Watchman,” including reviews, leading up to the release date. So I began reading the book with some preconceptions based on two major pieces of information harped on by the press:
1. Even though it takes place in the chronological future, the book was written prior to “Mockingbird.” Lee submitted it for publication but was rejected. Lee’s editor told her the flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood were the best parts, and snip-snip, the book became To Kill a Mockingbird. So even though it was published and marketed as a sequel, it’s actually more of a rough draft. More on this later.
and 2. Atticus is now a white supremacist.
Prior to reading the book, I found this article, which pretty much explains all my feelings about these 2 issues perfectly, so I will not repeat them here.
These factors, along with the did-she-really-want-it-published controversy inevitably shape my reading of the text. And all of this begs the question many people have been raising, including myself: do we read this as an autonomous novel or as a literary artifact?
I prefer the latter because it leads to more interesting questions about the writer’s process and the implications of publishing this work in 2015, a year that is proving to be just as timely concerning the book’s themes as when the book was written in the 1950s. But this is supposed to be a review, right? I’m getting on with it.
Approximately the first 3/4 of the novel are wonderful. Jean Louise, a 20-something now living in New York City, comes back to Maycomb for a visit. The majority of the book is a mix between this visit and flashbacks to her childhood in Maycomb, some of which readers will remember (there are passages verbatim from “Mockingbird”), and some of which are new. Although the novel is not written in Scout’s first-person point of view, the reader does not miss any of her spunk and humor, for it still shines through the third-person limited. Lee’s prose is just as it is in “Mockingbird”: charming, witty, frank, funny. And Scout is everything you would imagine a 20-something-year-old Jean Louise Finch to be: strong-willed to the point of stubbornness but with a nostalgic soft-spot. As a 20-something too, I was finding myself extremely drawn to this older version of Scout, as well as to the stories of her childhood we hadn’t seen in “Mockingbird.” One in particular struck me the most in which a young Scout fears she is pregnant after being told by a schoolmate that you get pregnant by French-kissing. The panic and the eventual relief she feels upon learning the truth are so perfectly described that I thought I had finally found my literary doppelganger. As an adult, Jean Louise is frustrated with the “Maycombian” ways still firmly rooted in people like Aunt Alexandra, and again I couldn’t help feeling a connection with her frustration there as well. I had a strong positive reaction to the book initially because of my connection to Scout and the prose that so naturally brought me back into her world.
But the narrative then takes a sharp turn. There is very little action in the climax of the novel; in fact there is no action at all, it is all words – characters spewing words at each other that conclude with an apology and a “The End.” The only conversation that reads well is the one between the ladies at Coffee – a masterfully written scene that teeters back and forth from the ladies’ truncated conversations and Scout’s burning thoughts. But that was earlier in the story and does nothing to redeem the later climactic conversations between Scout, her father, and her uncle. Upon the discovery that Atticus is not quite the righteous saint she thought he was, Scout’s reaction seems to parallel the reactions of many readers that their beloved hero is a bigot. Narrative-ly, this is all well and good; we understand what a shock this is to her and we feel for her. But this is something that should have taken another hundred pages or so for Jean Louise to grapple with before coming to the presumed resolution that one shouldn’t idolize people because their motivations and actions and morals are all more complicated than you think, etc, etc, etc. What happens instead is a diatribe that leaves the heroine with no time to grapple, resulting in a slapdash and half-hearted conclusion. The fight between Atticus and Scout at the climax should have taken her WAY more than a slap and a heart-to-heart from her uncle to recover from. The complexity of their arguments toward one another is something that a person cannot resolve within themselves in the span of one afternoon, especially someone as obstinate as Jean Louise. So the end fell apart. It was as if Lee just wanted to have the thing over and done with.
But now I must come back to my original question: do we read this as an autonomous novel or as a literary artifact? As a literary artifact, it doesn’t matter whether or not the resolution was unsatisfying. As a literary artifact, the fights and discussions Scout has with her father and her uncle don’t have to be seen as climactic disappointments, because those particular pages offer incredibly interesting analysis and comparison between this novel and “Mockingbird.” Scout, Atticus, and John Finch discuss with passion the racial issues of the time, and the last parts of the book are rife with lines that college students will no doubt be tearing apart and writing theses on. Especially when considering “Watchman” as a first draft of “Mockingbird,” an infinite amount of scholarly doors have now opened. While the last part of the book killed the narrative, it resurrected the study of Harper Lee’s work.
This is why I give it 3/5 stars. The book will not last as a classic. In 50 years, it will be an asterisk in literary history for those interested enough to study Lee’s development as a writer. “Mockingbird” will continue to shine on as the great American classic it is, and only the English majors and literary scholars will revel in the all the interpretive possibilities and insights “Watchman” gives them to puzzle out…an opportunity of which I am admittedly quite jealous.