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.
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
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.)
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.