Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (2015)


Before opening Go Set a Watchman, I read at least five opinion articles in the New York Times about this much anticipated “new” book by Harper Lee (keep in mind that Watchman was written before Mockingbird but not published until 2015). Most of the opinions—some written by folks who had not even read the book—focused almost entirely on Atticus’s character having morphed from the “justice for all” Atticus of Mockingbird to the racist Atticus of Watchman, leaving the reader wondering which one is the real Atticus Finch. So I’ll chime in with my own ideas, mimicking some of what I read from others, but also, I hope, adding something new.

First and foremost, Watchman comes across as an amateur work. It’s clearly a first (or at least an early) draft of Mockingbird and not a new book or a sequel. I find it most intriguing as an exercise in creating the same story from a different point of view much like I might assign my own students: once a story is “finished,” try retelling it from a different perspective and then compare them and see which one works better. From that sense, reading Watchman was kind of fun and felt like a Where’s Waldo puzzle. I’d read a scene and figure out how or where or what aspect of that scene ultimately became part of Mockingbird and what was changed from its original conception. The strongest scenes in Watchman were the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, so it’s little wonder that Lee’s editor told her to revise the book and tell the whole story from a child’s perspective. Those were the scenes that felt natural, that rolled off the page with ease. By contrast, many of the other scenes, particularly the animosity between Scout and Atticus felt forced and clunky. Lee had an agenda to expose Southern racism from a New Yorker’s point of view—but overall, it just didn’t feel convincing. Scout, despite her 26 years, seemed bratty and immature. Thus, in her conflict with Atticus, she came off as the less likable character.

Since Watchman is set in the 1950s, it makes sense that Atticus would question school integration, the NAACP, and the Civil Rights movement. In fact, the drawback to Atticus’s character in Mockingbird is that he seems too perfect which makes him, at times, not believable. It’s easy to be all about justice and equality in the 1930s when the black population had no rights and no voice. It’s much more difficult to live by this same ‘justice and equal rights for all’ when schools are integrating and the black population (which often outnumbered whites) could potentially gain voting rights and positions of power. In Watchman, Atticus is more realistic, more human. Good or bad, he’s a product of his times. Like many whites (the majority?), he’s fearful, and he has strong reservations about the future and their way of life. Expecting his character to remain unchanged from one book to the other is rather naïve since one is set during the depression and the other during the Civil Rights movement.

The idea that Atticus is a man of justice and yet fears life in the South in the midst of the Civil Rights movement is a valid idea, and one that could have made for a compelling novel. It makes sense to show how these two sides of a man might come into conflict with one another and how that man’s daughter—living in New York City—would not fully understand this conflict. But the way that Lee tries to bring this out in Watchman just doesn’t work. Her racist Atticus seems over the top and disconnected from his other side. Lee is much too heavy handed, and with this approach the dichotomy that she wants Atticus to represent falls apart.

In addition to the flashback sections to Scout’s childhood, the other strong scenes in Watchman are the conversations between Scout and Uncle Jack, a character who has only a minor role in Mockingbird. In this book (especially pgs 195-202 and 260-271), he’s the voice of reason in that he can convey to Scout why the South—with its anti-government blood—will struggle with and push back against a new way of life, an equal rights way of life. Uncle Jack is a much more believable character, and while his musings don’t excuse Southern racist views, they dohelp explain where these views come from. Through Uncle Jack’s character, I think Lee achieves her intended message. The flaws in Scout’s and Atticus’s characters only serve to muck it up.

Watchman offers an interesting and complex premise, but in the end, Mockingbird is the better book–better point of view, better character development, better writing. (fiction)

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