For the past few weeks, Harper Lee’s sophomore publication Go Set a Watchman has been the talk of the book community. I’ve seen countless articles trying to align Watchman’s controversial Atticus with the heroic father figure of To Kill a Mockingbird. Response to the novel has been split, as has acceptance. I have little to contribute to the discussion that hasn’t been analyzed already, but here are some thoughts on my reading experience. Minor spoilers ahead.
Firstly, I came into reading Watchman as a Mockingbird fan. I knew the history—that Lee had initially pitched this novel, was rejected, and decided to go in a different direction to write the book that would make her famous. When I purchased my copy, I didn’t expect a sequel but a behind-the-scenes peek at what led Lee to her magnum opus.
For the first half or so of the novel, I was pleasantly surprised. Scout’s grown-up voice as Jean Louise Finch felt as polished as a daughter of Atticus would, but not without her hints of tomboyishness. It was easy to accept her as the adult incarnation of the child character I know. Educated in New York, Jean Louise returns to Maycomb to visit her aging and ailing father, Aunt Alexandra, and an on-again off-again sweetheart. While kind-of-boyfriend Henry is ready to settle down with Jean Louise and take over Atticus’s practice, she hesitates to commit to a traditional Southern life, particularly when Maycomb’s small-town charms prove to be more nostalgic than present.
We’re treated to an extended flashback of Scout, Jem, and Dill putting on a play, one of their favorite pastimes in Mockingbird. Jem and Dill are largely absent from the novel—Jem for good reason, Dill not so much, as he’s brought up fondly twice and never mentioned again. I felt teased by the buildup of his character and thought perhaps Lee had been planning for Dill to return and whisk Jean Louise off to an adventurous life traveling the globe, but scrapped the idea. (I would totally read that book, by the way.)
The second half of the novel feels more draft-like, paced less cleanly, with Jean Louise’s narration not always syncing with her characterization from the earlier chapters. The number one point of controversy readers are discussing—Atticus’s about-face regarding race relations—hardly feels like it comes from the same book. It may sound as if I’m too sentimental over the original novel and not accepting the development of Watchman’s Atticus. In actuality, I find Atticus’ character flimsier in Watchman.
Presumably, Lee had started off revising Watchman before shifting gears to Mockingbird, which might explain why the first half of this novel is so much stronger than the second half. While in Mockingbird Tom Robinson’s case was always directly connected to who the Finches were as characters, to their relationships and ways of thinking, and to Boo Radley, however, the race relations subplot of Watchman feels disjointed in the narrative. As I was reading, I could practically pinpoint the shift, which is why I imagine her abandoning editing this to write Mockingbird somewhere in the middle.
For Jean Louise to return to Maycomb and find it not as she remembered as a child makes for a logical conflict, as does extending that deconstruction to Atticus; the setup and the integration of race relations both compel readers. In fact, Watchman’s most heart-wrenching scene, Jean Louise’s visit to Calpurnia’s house, is a home run communicating our protagonist’s dysphoria seeing Maycomb in a new light. That moment feels like the novel’s climax, yet Jean Louise must still face her father.
Jean Louise seems much too mature for her ultimate conflict to be getting over her childhood idealization of her father. More than that, Jean Louise’s behavior in her confrontation with Atticus lacks the intellect she proves in the first half of the novel and is scripted in a way that would make a large ham (“damn ham,” if you will) proud. The novel’s poignant commentary dwindles to what might be called a tantrum, credited to Jean Louise’s gender. The lesson she learns from this exchange (as explained to her by her uncle)? Atticus isn’t perfect. Why does a conflict that starts off so interesting peter out into such a lackluster finale?
Because Watchman is a draft, not a novel.
Do I regret reading it? Not at all. I got a bunch of passages that gave me insight into characters I know and love, and I feel that I’ve glimpsed Harper Lee’s writing process. Yet it has always been foremost in my mind that this is the draft that editors and Lee herself rejected in favor of Mockingbird. This isn’t Atticus reimagined more complex or surprising; this is prototype Atticus. This is a prototype book.
Despite that, Watchman was a unique and exciting read for me. Discouraging others from reading it or refusing to acknowledge it would be a mistake. All the book does is tell a story, a possible future that readers may or may not accept. If there’s anything Lee has taught me, it’s that it’s a sin to silence a voice that only serves to share with us.
If you’re interested in reading Watchman, definitely check it out. Any thoughts or reactions? Share them with me in the comments below!