A Reader’s Journal: GO SET A WATCHMAN, by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman: A Novel
Harper Lee
Audiobook read by Reese Witherspoon
Harper Books (July 2015), hardcover (ISBN 0062409859 / 9780062409850)
Fiction, 288 pages
Source: Public library/audiobook download via Overdrive (Harper Audio, July 2015, ISBN 9780062409898, ASIN B00TABW9Y0)


NOTE: The following contains potential spoilers for Go Set a Watchman.

The story of Go Set a Watchman’s publication has almost overshadowed the story it tells. It may or may not be the first draft of what, after significant revisions, became To Kill a Mockingbird. It may have been “lost” for decades. It was probably edited very little, if at all; it’s essentially a manuscript. It was never intended for publication, and if it weren’t for the mystique associated with Harper Lee and her only novel, it’s almost certain it would never have been released. But it’s been published now—with no shortage of controversy—and it’s become the most-discussed book of 2015. I really hadn’t been planning to read it, but curiosity about it as a literary curiosity made me change my mind.

I don’t count To Kill a Mockingbird among my all-time-favorite novels, but I’ve talked about it here, and said this when I re-read it several years ago:

This was a more meaningful reading experience for me the second time around. I think that having returned to the South for ten years after my original reading of the novel – and then leaving it again – made me appreciate its Southern literary flavor even more, and connect better with the history that informs it. Having said that, I had some trouble buying the enlightened attitudes of the Finch family in that time and place; writing of the 1930’s in the late 1950’s, Harper Lee seems to be foreshadowing the coming civil-rights upheavals of the 1960’s.

Go Set a Watchman portrays the Finches in the 1950s with less enlightened attitudes than they have in the 1930s. Written in the 1950s as the South was beginning to respond to the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, had it been published at the time, it would have been contemporary fiction rather than the period piece that Mockingbird is. In that context, the connections with Southern history are different and the civil-rights perspective feels more appropriate to the time—and sadly, so do Atticus Finch’s racist views.

The events of Watchman, such as they are, take place over just a few days, as 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch—Mockingbird’s Scout—is making her annual two-week visit home to Maycomb, Alabama. She has been living in New York City for several years, and on this trip, she realizes that she can’t come home again…not to stay, at least. She is upset to discover that her father is actively involved in efforts to maintain Maycomb’s racial status quo, and stricken by the understanding that these actions genuinely reflect beliefs that she never realized he held. Life in Maycomb is black and white, in more ways than one, but Jean Louise’s worldview has suddenly acquired shades of gray…and she has no idea how to handle that. Given that the political elements of Watchman are portrayed rather clumsily, it seems that Lee may not have really known how to handle them either.

In a piece for B&N Review, Lizzie Skurnick suggests that the politics of Watchmen are actually beside the point:

Watchman is not a failed race novel or a rough draft of Mockingbird. It’s a novel about Jean Louise becoming a woman.”

Skurnick supports this argument by citing what I thought were some of the most effective, engaging episodes of the novel:

”(T)he childhood Jean Louise gets her period, a teenaged Jean Louise unsuccessfully stuffs her (nonexistent) bra, and her adult self fumbles with the idea of marrying childhood beau Henry Clinton…When Aunt Alexandra throws Jean Louise a much-feared Coffee, her social gathering of the town’s women, we are treated to a stunning chapter worthy of The Group (with notes of Peyton Place). Like an anthropologist, Jean Louise is the silent recipient of the idle chatter that codifies the world of Maycomb’s women “

I think Skurnick is completely on point here. The sections in which Jean Louise reluctantly confronts her transformation from tomboy to woman feel uncomfortable because they feel real—they resonate on an emotional level. The discussions of race and politics feel uncomfortable because they’re just not written very well.

Whether or not Mockingbird really emerged from bits extracted from Watchman is also beside the point, I think. I do think that’s plausible, as there are portions that sound and feel like they could have developed into the novel we know so well, but much of the book is something else entirely. Ultimately, my impression of Go Set a Watchman is that it has some potential, in spots–which, if the backstory is true, Lee’s editor recognized–but as is, it’s inconsistent and has many weaknesses. Not the least of these weaknesses is that while we do end up with some understanding of why Jean Louise might rather live in New York City, we never learn what she does there, or how she landed there in the first place.

Watchman is an interesting document to consider in relation to Mockingbird, but there’s not a lot to recommend it on its own merits—it doesn’t fully work as a standalone novel, and Mockingbird doesn’t need it as a companion. All that said, I’m not sorry I read it, and I thought Reese Witherspoon’s performance of the audiobook made the good parts of the story that much better.

Go Set a Watchman is the subject of a “Book Breakdown” at The Socratic Salon today.

Book description, from the publisher’s website

Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.

Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch—Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.

Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee’s enduring classic.

Opening Lines:

“Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.”

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