Daily Book Review: 'Go Set a Watchman'

Sunday, September 13, 2015 - 6:37pm

All right, two things.

1. The publication of this book. Harper Lee is a sight and hearing-impaired 89-year-old stroke victim. In November 2014, her protector, her sister Alice, passed away. Since then, her accounts have been taken over and seen after by the same woman who “discovered” the manuscript of “Go Set a Watchman.”

Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee

HarperCollins

July 14, 2015

Whether or not Ms. Lee gave publication consent or was even in a position to give definitive consent is unclear at best. At worst, as Joe Nocera of The New York Times wrote, “...the publication of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ constitutes one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.” You can read more about the novel’s unsettling road to publication in Nocera’s article and by reading any review of the book.

2. According to Ms. Lee’s former editor, Tay Hohoff, “Go Set a Watchman” is the first draft of the book that would later become the classic race novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In fact, Hohoff described “Go Set a Watchman” as “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel,” but that “the spark of a true writer flashed in every line.” Indeed, many passages from “Mockingbird” are replicated in “Watchman,” of which you can read more about at qz.com.

With these facts in mind, we belatedly review the book. Not because we approve of the way Ms. Lee’s work has been treated, but because “Watchman” has two covers and pages in the middle, and so it should be discussed. Onward.

"Watchman" takes place during the civil rights movement and follows Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as she returns to Maycomb two decades after the events of “Mockingbird.” In the novel, we’re re-introduced to Calpurnia, Uncle Jack, Aunt Alexandra and Atticus and meet Henry “Hank” Clinton, a young 30-something local lawyer/war hero/Maycomb darling who’s been pining after Jean Louise since his senior dance. Immediately, the novel adopts a grim tone when we learn that Jem, Scout’s brother, passed away some years ago.

Hohoff was exactly right when she said that Ms. Lee showed “the spark of a true writer” in “Watchman.” What the novel lacks in focus, it makes up for in depth. Ms. Lee’s descriptions of Maycomb, while ill-placed, are specific and clever. Told through a somewhat limited third person, Jean Louise’s observations are a bright spot, exhibiting glimmers of that unique perspective from which “Mockingbird” was written. Ms. Lee colors Scout with a shade of cynicism, carefully coated over a youthful optimism that rings true in her attitude and her humor:

“Her favorite game was golf because its essential principles consisted of a stick, a small ball, and a state of mind.”

Unfortunately, where “Watchman” swerves off course are the exact places where “Mockingbird” earned its status as a classic. Characters, while not entirely flat, are predictable and insincere. Like politicians, you know what they’re going to say and you know it’s (usually) going to be condescending.

Not to suggest that an unlikable character can’t be an important or a well-developed one, though most of the characters in “Watchman” do deserve a brick in the face. But that fact alone doesn’t make the book not-so-great.

What makes the book not-so-great is a lack of cohesion and a fumbled approach to a significant question: How do you deal with the fact that someone you love has done (or is doing) something utterly, unfathomably unforgivable? Is it unforgivable? Or is it merely reprehensible?

I’ll explain.

At the book’s halfway point, Jean Louise sees her father Atticus at the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, i.e. a white supremacy meeting. Their goal: Combat desegregation. Resist the Supreme Court and the civil rights movement.

This scene, perhaps above any other, highlights the ocean of difference between “Mockingbird” and “Watchman.” Jean Louise, after seeing her father as a Council board member, mistily remembers how he used to be, how she’d thought of him before this moment: “The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted.” To Jean Louise, Atticus “had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”

But before you too take up arms against a fictional character, remember: This is a different Atticus, a man who no longer exists or acts in the interest of a novel like "To Kill a Mockingbird," but exists in “Go Set a Watchman” one moving part in a machine with different priorities. Those priorities demand that a hero be villain. But we lose that hero for the good of a book we don’t love, and that hurts.

But no matter how much we think about reading “Mockingbird” in eighth grade or watching ol’ Gregory Peck lean back in his rocking chair to spin a monologue, Atticus’s racism is not poor writing. It’s a complication of something that matters a great deal to a great many. But it’s not inherently bad.

Other stuff is.

Where a later draft might’ve navigated Jean Louise’s corrupted idolization of Atticus with a certain degree of misdirection, “Watchman” plows full steam ahead, like a train hitting a brick wall. In the final third, Jean Louise has three separate, yet nearly indistinguishable conversations with Uncle Jack, Henry and Atticus. The talks are harsh and difficult. At one point, she screams at Atticus for not raising her like a bigot, for not bringing her up in prejudice, for not letting her be ignorant, dumb, happy. In moments like these, one sees the seeds of brilliance that would later grow into “Mockingbird.” 

But these climaxes are repetitive, full of ramblings and intangible debates. The result is a numbing series of chapters that could’ve been better spent with action and concrete stakes.

Where “To Kill a Mockingbird” soars in its pace, action and concision, “Go Set a Watchman” is in need of grounding, especially in its final third. It’s got the pieces, the wit and something to talk about, but it’s too shapeless to stand on its own legs. “Watchman” is a compelling read with a compelling voice, but, ultimately, a first draft. Worth reading, yes. Worth re-reading, no.

But can “Watchman” tarnish Harper Lee’s legacy? I doubt it. It’s the first pass at the work that would become one of the capital-G Greatest novels in American literature. For that reason alone, “Go Set a Watchman” is worth every page, every word, every moment of your time. It is an artifact, and like any artifact, it should be studied.

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