How to read ‘Go Set a Watchman.’

How to read ‘Go Set a Watchman.’

Note: this isn’t a review; there are plenty of those to be found and this blogger doesn’t have one in her. 

If you’re feeling uneasy about Harper Lee’s newly released novel Go Set a Watchman, you’re in good company. The book’s provenance is murky, Ms. Lee’s intentions about it unclear (if you’re feeling charitable towards its publishers). The state of Alabama actually launched an elder care investigation into the events surrounding its publication, and while it found no evidence of mistreatment, the doubts linger.

Watchman is being called a rough draft of Mockingbird, its sequel, or something in between. It’s also being called too good to be true: rumors are flying that the timing of this release is too uncanny to be believed, and Watchman was fabricated for commercial gain.

Others compare Watchman to Lee’s character Boo Radley: it’s cruel to drag this manuscript into the light; it’s not meant for the public’s eyes.

In spite of its suspicious origins, the book was published last Tuesday, and readers must now decide if they will read it at all, and if so, how to approach it.

Watchman Mockingbird

I considered not reading it, but eventually decided to buy myself a copy (since I was #356 on the library waiting list by the time I got around to requesting it, and that was still well in advance of the publication date).

Every reader must decide for herself how to approach this book.

One can let Watchman stand alone, and read it completely independently of Mockingbird. I think this is craziness.

One can read Watchman as a sequel, of sorts. In it, a 26-year-old Scout (now going by her given name, Jean Louise) returns home from New York City to check on her ailing father. She is dismayed by heightening racial tensions in her hometown, and shattered by Atticus’s participation in a local segregationist movement.

Read this way, Watchman is a story about growing up: about realizing that our families are broken and our heroes flawed, sometimes devastatingly so. Read this way, Watchman obliterates Atticus Finch as archetype, although it does make Malcolm Gladwell’s harsh criticism of Atticus in his highly controversial 2009 New Yorker piece look a lot less crazy.

One can read Watchman as a first draft of Mockingbird. The two books are obviously constructed from the same raw material: her own experiences, her personal background, her imagination. I’m sympathetic towards this approach, especially because Lee’s narrative voice is exactly the same. But for all their similarities, I don’t believe the books share enough common ground, plot-wise, to truly view Watchman this way.

Instead, I think Watchman is best read as the first imagining of Mockingbird. It’s the seed, but it’s not anywhere close enough to be called a first draft. Watchman is heavily biographical, opening with a twenty-something girl returning to Alabama after a long absence in New York City—a journey Lee herself made, perhaps with similar results.

Watchman is Lee’s debut novel—albeit an unpublished one—with a debut’s typical faults: the structure is weak, the phrasing gets clunky, the characters unpolished. (Although it’s important to remember that the published version of Watchman didn’t undergo the regular editing process that published manuscripts are almost always subjected to. It was copyedited, but otherwise printed almost exactly as found.)

But of course, Lee’s first manuscript wasn’t published back then. Her editor liked her writing, but told her, Write something about Scout when she was a girl.”

And so Lee took her angry young woman and made her a child; she turned her aging bigot into an ordinary hero. She transformed her decent coming-of-age story into an enduring classic.

(I read Watchman as though its Atticus was an entirely different being than Mockingbird’s Atticus, and as though its Scout was entirely different from Mockingbird’s Scout. Not just older characters, but different characters who happened to share the same name. Depending on which reviews you read, this is either wise or naive.)

If you choose to skip this book, I understand that decision. I do think that serious students of writing or literature will be enthralled by the ties between the two works. The comparisons are rich, and many.

My advice: get this book from the library, if you can stand the wait. (Although I feel obligated to tell you that Reese Witherspoon narrates the audio version, and the sample is pretty fantastic.)

UPDATE: The giveaway is now closed and the winner has been notified. Thanks for playing! Your other option: I accidentally pre-ordered two copies and I’m giving away my extra. Leave a comment sharing your favorite Mockingbird moment to enter. (If you’ve never read it or seen the movie, leave a comment saying so to enter. If you don’t want to enter the giveaway, share your favorite moment anyway and add “no entry.” U.S. only, 18 or older, giveaway ends Wednesday July 21 at noon eastern time.)

Books mentioned in this post:

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman
As a standalone book, this was far from amazing, but serious students of writing or literature will be enthralled by the ties between Watchman and Lee's beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird. The comparisons are rich, and many. I had complicated feelings about reading this one but I'm so glad I did. (Here's how I approached this controversial work.)
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About the Book

Publisher’s description:

A historic literary event: the publication of a newly discovered novel, the earliest known work from Harper Lee, the beloved, bestselling author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

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. Moving, funny and compelling, it stands as a magnificent novel in its own right.

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Series: bestsellers worth reading
Genre: Literary Fiction
Tag: 2015 Reading Challenge
Length: 288 pages
ASIN: 0062409859
List Price: 12.99
Audiobook Price: 3.95 (Whispersync)
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218 comments

  1. Veronica says:

    I have never read it or watched the movie… But TKAM is actually the book I chose for the “A book you should have read in High School” challenge!! So winning a copy of Watchman would be awesome, so I can read them together 🙂

  2. Adele says:

    I am one the few people on this earth who hasn’t yet read Mockingbird! But it’s in the plans for this summer–and I would love to read this one as well (afterwards).

  3. Kathleen says:

    I read it in high school, and then I re-read it when my younger brother had to read it for school so I could talk about it with him. On the re-read I realized that it was really one of my favorite books and I was so pleased to discover that.

  4. Kandace says:

    I thought I had read it in school but now I’m pretty sure I have not. Moving to the top of my reading list. I’d love to win a copy of the new book. Thanks for the giveaway!

  5. Carol Ann says:

    Chapter 29 when Scout sees Boo Radley in the corner:

    “… and our neighbor’s image blurred with my sudden tears.”

    It gets me every time!

  6. Paula says:

    I’m one who has not read either and I am fascinated by Watchman. I love the idea of comparing the two books and contemplating what really could have been the original intent. Intrigue!! Thank you for your take on it.

  7. PreK Teacher says:

    I read Mockingbird so long ago, but I still rate it as one of my favorites. It has been on my list to reread for a long time. Maybe now I will get around to it!

  8. Kendra says:

    It’s been so long since I last read TKAM, so I can’t even remember my favorite part. I just remember loving it and have planned on a reread this summer, especially with the new release of Watchman.

    I had mixed feelings about whether or not to read Watchman, but I loved your take on it as well as the discussion on Books on the Nightstand. I’m convinced that I want to experience it with realistic expectations of what it is.

  9. Jennifer says:

    my favorite mockingbird scene is the interaction between the kids and Boo, when he leaves gifts for them in the tree. i can’t ever see a hole in a tree without thinking about that.

  10. Tanya says:

    Most of my favorite scenes have been listed, but just in case it hasn’t been mentioned, I appreciate Sheriff Tate’s decision to “let the dead bury the dead.”

  11. Alena says:

    My favorite TKAM moment was when Scout, and Jem first meet Dill! I’m still uneasy about this new release, but your insights helped! I think I will read it after all 🙂

  12. Sarah says:

    It has been several years since I read To Kill a Mockingbird. I chose to read it on my own and I loved it. I remember reading it over summer vacation and finishing it rather quickly. I loved the whole thing, but I do remember being mad as well at various parts. It is a book that I plan to reread soon! -Especially since at this point, I hardly remember what all happens!

  13. My favorite Mockingbird moment is when Mr. Ewell (I think I spelled that correctly) confronts Atticus, spits in his face, and Atticus just walks away. Such a good example to set for a child. (No entry)

    You make some great points in your article. I posted my pre-reading thoughts about it here: http://www.kennethscottharris.com/go-set-a-watchman-not-a-sequel/

    Personally, I approached it as a separate entity, alternate universe, first draft, etc. I was completely dismayed by all the “click-bait” headlines, despite trying desperately to avoid spoilers. After reading it, however, I can view it as a loose sequel without losing too much sleep about it (though there are still quite a few inconsistencies).

    It is definitely an in-depth book. I was pleasantly surprised. Worth a second, closer read for sure 🙂

  14. Allison says:

    I read TKAM in High School, but barely remembered it, so I bought it the other day and read it again (got through it in about 2 days!). I truly LOVED it. I think my favorite part (and there were a LOT of them) was just after Atticus and Calpurnia left to go talk to Tom Robinson’s wife, and Scout picks up a tray of cookies says to herself, “if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.”

    THAT was where I most identified with Scout.

  15. As a teenager in Arizona, I was on the speech/debate team. I loved Mockingbird and, for some reason, choose the courtroom testimony as my monologue. But I’d have to say my favorite Mockingbird moment was actually re-reading the book after moving to Georgia and living both in the Atlanta suburbs and in more rural small towns. This experience brought a whole new perspective to my reading.

  16. Kelly E. says:

    There are so many wonderful scenes … I think my favorite part is when Scout, Jem and Dill sneak off to where Atticus is standing watch at night over Tom Robinson in the jail. The kids get worried about Atticus’ safety and run to protect him and that’s when Scout recognizes Mr. Cunningham, the man who’s been bringing walnuts to the Finches to pay off his “entailment” to Atticus. “Entailments are bad, aren’t they Mr. Cunningham?” The angry mob just breaks up and walks away because of the innocent words of a child. SO moving.

  17. Mandy says:

    My copy of TKAM was my mother’s. She bought it the year it came out.She, too, claimed it perfectly described her childhood in Alabama. She had a father very like Atticus and a brother very like Jem. An avid reader, it was her favorite book, and one of her most treasured possessions.

    She entrusted the book to me one summer when I was about 12, and I (also an Alabama native) fell in love with the characters and the story.I can still remember rushing through my chores so I could get to my favorite reading spot in the hammock beneath our plum trees to devour TKAM. After her death, I inheritied the book, and I have read it several times since.

    I have two children. I have since lent the book to them. I read it to my daughter several years ago (she’s since reread it on her own), and it is on my son’s reading list this summer. The school they attend takes its 8th graders to Monroeville, Alabama (Harper Lee’s hometown and not very far from us) every year to see the play based on the book. It is performed outside the courthouse that was used in the film (you should go see it if you’re a fan of the book).The same courthouse where Harper Lee’s real Daddy practiced Law. Her sister was also a lawyer in town until her death (which precipitated the discovery of GSAW). My own Daddy used to spend summers in Monroeville- about the same time Harper Lee would have been growing up there.

    I mention this because, no offense to non-southerners, I think it’s difficult for people who did not grow up in the South somewhere around this time period to really appreciate all the nuances of this book. Though I was among the first generation of Alabama schoolchildren to attend desegregated schools, I read the book a bit differently than my parents, and my children see it differently than I. I’m so glad I was able to discuss it in depth with my Mother before she died because I don’t believe I would have had as rich an understanding of the book. More on that in a moment.

    It is difficult for me to pick a favorite passage. All the ones mentioned are worthy and are among my favorites as well, so I’ll point out a few that weren’t discussed. I love the passage at the beginning of the book describing Maycomb. In particular, “Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” We had air-conditioning in our house growing up, but I still knew some old folks who did not, and our schools didn’t have air conditioning until I was in Junior High. That description so captures summertime in the South in those days before air conditioning! I knew ladies who smelled of talcum powder and never missed their afternoon nap!

    I also love the passage near the end of the book when Scout tells Boo, “You can pet him, Mr. Arthur, he’s asleep. You couldn’t if he was awake, though, he wouldn’t let you…” Doesn’t that line capture all three personalities perfectly? Boo’s shyness, but longing for human interaction? Scout’s role as intermediary, and we all knew Jem so well by this time that we knew, not only was Scout exactly right, but how mad he was going to be at missing all the excitement!

    I, too, had hesitations about reading GSAW, but in the end I couldn’t help myself. For me, initially, it did take away a bit from the magic of TKAM, however I have been thinking about it ever since, so it must have a power of its own.

    I like to think GSAW was Harper Lee’s initial, gut reaction to coming back home to Alabama and seeing it through different eyes for the first time after becoming more “worldly”. Through her conversations with Atticus and her Uncle in GSAW we, the reader, imagine she was able to resolve her feelings, but with more than 50 decades of different perspectives between us – we (or at least I) didn’t exactly get it. In TKAM Lee’s rewrites must have forced her to immerse herself and, as a result her readers, into the lives of her characters. We became the characters, which gave us clearer understanding. We understood things from the point of view of Atticus, Miss Maude, Boo, the children, Sheriff Tate, Tom Robinson and even Mayella and Bob Ewell. This is, what I believe, makes TKAM a masterpiece.

    That’s why I say I’m not sure people who didn’t grow up in the South during this time period will ever fully appreciate the delicate balance so richly portrayed in the book.Harper Lee managed to balance all that was right with small town Southern life with all that was wrong about racism. We Southerners lived through that time period (or are just slightly removed from it), and because of that we have a slightly different perspective than those who didn’t. We had black nannies and maids we loved and felt were part of the family, but we also knew people, good people, who thought desegregation would ruin us all. We had to learn how to balance that somehow. It hasn’t been easy, and it’s not been fully accomplished yet, but TKAM helps us understand that the possibility exists – if we put ourselves in one another’s shoes. Every side can have some right and truth to it. TKAM isn’t simply a commentary about racism, it’s about understanding EVERYONE’S point of view. Discrimination in the South was, and remains, a very complicated issue and Harper Lee did a masterful job helping us understand that.

  18. Flo says:

    Thanks for this post! I pretty much did what you did. It was suggested to me (after I took a Facebook poll on whether I should even read it) that I should read it as separate characters so as not to taint my view of Mockingbird. I honestly don’t remember much from Mockingbird, having read it only once in school. So that happened a little by default. Granted, by the time I got to it, I had already seen some reviews, so it was hard to completely keep the two separate. But I checked out the audiobook from the library and listened to it. Here is my review: http://www.booknerdsacrossamerica.com/2015/08/go-set-watchman-by-harper-lee.html

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