Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

When I first heard that HarperCollins was releasing what people were calling a “sequel” of sorts to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, I was skeptical. Who wasn’t? On the one hand you have a reclusive, aging author who has avoided the public eye her entire life and doesn’t seem interested in publishing anything else. On the other hand, there’s a big publishing company with this unedited draft someone happened to find in the vault. Okay, sure. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the most major publishing event of this century so far. This book is going to make HarperCollins a ton of money, which they know. It all sounded like a “quirky” Jason Reitman movie waiting to happen.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_Watchman But clearly, as someone who works in publishing, is interested in writing, and likes TKaM, I was going to have to read Go Set a Watchman. I put it off. I read all the reviews claiming that it destroys the legacy (we’ll get to this in a minute) of TKaM and portrays Beloved Father Figure Atticus Finch ™ as a racist. I read the advance first chapter, published online by various media outlets, and felt my heart sink when I found out that Scout’s brother Jem, so prominent in TKaM, was dead in this version of the story.

Then, I read the whole thing myself. Reader, I finished it in an afternoon. There are plenty of problems with Go Set a Watchman, even setting aside the questionable choice to publish it at all (which you can read about in more detail here). But I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, much more than I had expected.

Here’s the thing: Go Set a Watchman isn’t a standalone novel. It’s a first draft of TKaM, and that’s the only reason why it’s such an interesting read. If I were evaluating this novel on its own, I would say that the dialogue is frankly terrible (all speeches, no real conversations), the plot, such as it is, is poorly paced, and the climax doesn’t work. It is very, very clear that this particular draft was never edited and was instead reworked. A short flashback scene was expanded into what would become TKaM. I don’t think that Watchman needed to be published to such fanfare or marketed as a “sequel” or “continuation” to TKaM, because I feel that is quite misleading, but it’s fascinating to read. In Watchman, readers can trace exactly what editing is and what it does.

How does editing change a book? The point is that the average reader will never know. Editing is supposed to be a behind-the-scenes, invisible hand kind of activity. And yet here we are with a record of how one of the twentieth century’s most famous books became itself. Even non-publishing-nerds can agree that that’s kind of cool. You can see traces of TKaM in Watchman, of course. Even in her late twenties, Scout (now mainly referred to as Jean Louise) is all sharp edges and angles. When she visits Maycomb as an adult, she doesn’t fit in any more than she fit in when she was a child who refused to wear dresses. And the flashback scenes where Jean Louise reflects on her childhood adventures with Jem and Dill are the best parts of Watchman—funny, so realistically childlike, and poignant, especially because Jem is dead in this version of the story.

The New York Times has more information on Harper Lee’s original editor, Tay Hohoff. You can see how she would read this draft and see that it would work better as a novel told from a child’s point of view. When it became TKaM, the book got tighter and less preachy. The dialogue became real dialogue instead of two characters performing soliloquies at each other. As a historical document, Watchman is interesting reading. As a novel, well, it needs some work (which is just what it got). But there are flashes of Lee’s brilliance throughout, especially in her use of details (clothing, quirks) to establish character, and her ability to evoke mood and atmosphere in few words.

So is Atticus Finch racist? Not more racist, and certainly a lot less, than any other average seventysomething white man living in rural Alabama in the 1950s. Watchman‘s portrayal of Atticus can only be surprising to you if you a) never got past the stage of childhood where you idolize your parents, or some other parental figure, or b) know nothing about the civil rights movement and what American society was like in the 1950s. Newsflash: all white people are at least a little bit racist, even today.

Jean Louise finds out that Atticus was once a member of the KKK (only to keep an eye on their activities, someone claims) and that he’s now joined a sort of concerned citizens’ group that wants to preserve segregation and keep Black citizens of Maycomb “in their place.” This is a fairly realistic portrayal of the insidiousness of racism. Even someone like Atticus, a lawyer who appears to believe strictly in the law and justice above all else, is blind to the way his cultural upbringing has shaped his beliefs. Prejudice creeps in. Jean Louise, who has escaped to the marginally more enlightened New York City, is horrified to learn all this about her father, a man she idolized. They have a cringe-worthy confrontation that feels a little bit like a scene in a drama major’s thesis project. Jean Louise accuses her father of being racist and inconsistent. He accepts her insults because he knows she has to strangle her idealized version of him in order to finally grow up. There’s something interesting there, but it’s all a little undercooked.

Even so, Jean Louise’s realization that her father is just a man is moving, and his characterization as a lawyer who still thinks that Black people are “in their infancy” as a people is cringe-worthy, but not inaccurate to the period in which the novel was written. As a novel about race (certainly the last thing I am qualified to opine about, but here we go), where Watchman really fails is in its refusal to allow Black characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. TKaM got away with this, at least in part, because it’s told from a white child’s point of view. Scout is necessarily blind to the deeper forces at work in Maycomb. In fact, that’s the point of TKaM—she learns about the evils of racism through the trial of Tom Robinson.

But as Lawrence Hill points out, except for Calpurnia (who has a very small role in Watchman), there are no “three-dimensional, fully rendered black character[s] in either book.” The brouhaha over whether or not Atticus is racist obscures the larger point: that we’re still idealizing a white saviour from a novel published in 1960. TKaM is a snapshot of race relations at a particular time in American history. It’s written from a white perspective. It’s not a guidebook. If its subject matter, about Black men being falsely accused of crimes and white society turning a blind eye, is still relevant today, that’s a sad commentary on our failure to change, not a sign of the book’s timelessness.

And Atticus isn’t a god. Whose fault is it that Atticus turned out to be a mere mortal? Not his, and certainly not Harper Lee’s.

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One thought on “Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

  1. I just read this book and i’m really convinced that the rumours are true that she didn’t write to kill a mockingbird, that Capote wrote (or severely edited) it. I was surprised by how bad Watchman was.

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