Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Despite all of the hubbub surrounding the release of Go Set A Watchman, the masses have another work by Harper Lee in their hands and for that, regardless of how it got there, they should be rejoicing. What is most interesting here, is less the plot (it’s incredibly thin) and more Lee’s process of revising Watchman intoGo Set A Watchman by Harper Lee Mockingbird, something we will likely never have more than a fleeting glance into. These two novels will surely find their way into creative writing and literary theory courses—the most pertinent question being, how did the characters and story of Watchman evolve into the characters and story of Mockingbird? For this, we may never have definitive answers, but we do need to acknowledge that Watchman is NOT a sequel to Mockingbird but, as Lee herself says, “the parent”. The Scout and Atticus of one are not the Scout and Atticus of the other. Atticus did not ‘turn into’ a racist in Watchman because this is not the Atticus of Mockingbird. And the sooner we embrace that fact, the sooner we can look at both as stand-alone pieces of literature.

That said, Watchman is Harper Lee through and through. There is an ease to her prose, though she hasn’t quite found the finesse she would have in later years. The extended passages devoted to the mendacity of Southern living in the 1950’s (revivals, urbanization, etc) will remind you of similar passages in Mockingbird (the Christmas scene, the trip to Finch’s Landing, etc). They also bring the narrative to a standstill as they did in the former. The problem is that the narrative, being weak to being with, makes any diversion feel as though it derails the little momentum built to that point.

Less a plot driven novel than Mockingbird, Watchman is more a case-study of one young woman trying to come to terms with both recent developments in her life and the life she left behind when she moved away from home. The “she” of note is, of course, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. She is returning home to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City to visit her ailing father, Atticus. Her will they/won’t they beau, Henry Clinton, is Atticus’ right-hand man, both professionally and personally. And from the moment Scout arrives back in Maycomb, things begin to unravel.

There is no dramatic trial in Watchman. There is no Boo Radley B-story, either. There aren’t even amusing but necessary diversions, like Atticus shooting down the rabid dog. None of that. Instead of a concrete, linear plot, we are left with two wavering narratives: (a) Scout remembering moments from her childhood, and (b) Scout dealing with various revelations in her current life. These two devices never fully work. The former provides for some of the more memorable scenes in the novel. One such moment is when Scout thinks she is pregnant because a boy french kisses her—possibly proving why Lee’s editor suggested she rewrite the novel with the young Scout being the protagonist. The present-day dealings with her father and Henry (we all know, thanks to various media reports, that they are Segregationists and unapologetically so) feel rushed and disjointed. Lee struggles to make Scout’s confusion, anger, and apathy fully realized; she dabbles in all three but hesitates to make Scout’s emotions entirely realistic and relatable. In many ways, this is where the ball is dropped—here was a beautiful opportunity for Lee to explore what familial love is and how it grows and evolves as the individual grows and evolves; it was left relatively unexamined.

In the end we are left with a Scout who is stuck between loathing and resenting the men in her life for their narrow-minded views, and a Scout who can’t bring herself to separate from those men because they are her family. This missed opportunity for analysis on Lee’s part, even with an ambiguous ending, is what is the most frustrating. A question is posed: What does it mean to love someone who isn’t the person you thought they are? It’s not a particularly original question, and Lee’s making it about a racist father isn’t particularly inspired, but given what we know she is capable of, I found myself wanting to see how she would have explored the answer.

What needs to be remembered, throughout all the criticism, is that this was/is a draft. HarperCollins has said that the copy that went to press was, more or less, an exact replication of the manuscript that was found. Who knows how much revision was made, if any at all. Taken as a draft, the work stands on its own two feet, however wobbly. 

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