About a month ago, what has to be the biggest literary event of my lifetime went down when, 55 years after Harper Lee’s mega-classic GNOAT (greatest novel of all time) contender To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Collins published her second novel, Go Set a Watchman. To say the book was widely and greatly anticipated is an understatement; we had patrons trying to get on the inevitably massive hold list for it as early as the beginning of February. The excitement gave way a bit to concern as reports began to surface that the novel was only being published all these years later due not to Harper Lee’s wishes, but rather to pushing and possible advantage-taking by a caretaker with que$tionable motives. When the book finally reached the eager hands of readers and professional reviewers, people lost their Atticus-lovin’ minds, for both good and bad. I did my best to avoid finding out too many details in the name of remaining spoiler-free and not having my opinion prematurely influenced, but I got the sense there were generally negative vibes among readers. With hearty, equal doses of optimism and apprehension, I read it last week, and now am compelled to share my fractured thoughts, which I will attempt to do while spoiling as little as possible.
After digesting Watchman for nearly a week after reading it and gathering more information about the circumstances of its publication, I find that my opinion of it varies drastically depending upon the lens through which I view it. I initially looked at it as a sequel to Mockingbird, if not a true sequel then at least a canonical work, and my feeling upon finishing the book, much like that of many other Mockingbird fans, was disillusionment. Those who have read it will know exactly why, and for those who haven’t, without revealing too much, suffice it to say there’s sadly truth to those rumblings you may have heard about Atticus Finch, racial hero of Lee’s first novel, coming off as somewhat racist. If you operate under the assumptions that the characters presented in Watchman are one in the same as those in Mockingbird and that the latest book is meant to give us insight into what has become of those characters 20+ years later, then it’s hard not to be disturbed by what we see from Atticus. Some of his actions and views contrast sharply with those of the progressive proponent of equitable treatment we admire from Mockingbird. Atticus is but one component of the novel (the main focus is Scout), but it’s hard for me to get past my feelings about what became of him (or worse, what he may have been all along but readers never realized because we idolized him as Scout did), and my inability to shake those feelings colors my opinion of the novel as a whole. I kept waiting for him to reveal that everything was just a big misunderstanding, that he took the stance he did solely to teach Scout a lesson, but no dice. Granted, for a man in 1950s Alabama, his views were still more favorable than most, but he failed to live up to my lofty, and probably unfair, standards for him. However, maybe none of my disenchantment matters, because…
…Go Set a Watchman is a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Arguably the opposite of a sequel, it is the original manuscript Harper Lee presented to her agent in the 1950s. The agent suggested that it would make for a better novel if told from the point of view of a young Scout, Lee embraced the idea, and the joint labors of author and agent produced Mockingbird. As a result of my effort to avoid having my reading experience spoiled, I didn’t become aware of this crucial bit of history until after I read Watchman. When viewed as a draft, my initial Atticus-based disapproval of the book can almost be thrown out, because the Atticus of Watchman was morphed and refined by Lee into the Atticus of Mockingbird, and for all we know, the original Atticus was never meant to see the light of day; he was wiped away in the editing process, and we were ultimately presented with Lee’s finished version of him. Perhaps Lee intended to keep his character arc intact and wrote Mockingbird Atticus as a younger version of Watchman Atticus with the intention of the former eventually becoming the latter in the fictional universe she created, but I’d like to think that if she were to ever set out with the explicit intention of writing a sequel, the Atticus of that novel would be significantly different from the one we were given in the existing faux-sequel. While the knowledge that Watchman is a draft does ameliorate my misgivings about the fate of everybody’s favorite fictional lawyer, it kinda leaves me not knowing how to properly process it. Because it’s not an independent work, but rather just an earlier, albeit very different, version of a finished work, I feel like it might make the most sense to view it as a fascination or curiosity, like an object in a museum, rather than hold it under the microscope as we would a complete piece of literature.
That said, perhaps it’s most fair to the work itself to evaluate it as a standalone work and set the existence of Mockingbird completely aside, as impossible as that may be to do, when assessing it (after all, if you believe all the info that has come out about the circumstances surrounding its publication, a Mockingbird-less world is probably the only one in which Lee herself ever once intended for Watchman to exist). If I could hypothetically push aside everything I’ve been exposed to previously about Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo, Calpurnia, Atticus, Gregory Peck, the town of Maycomb, and everything else, and approached Watchman with fresh, unbiased eyes, I’d say it was pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. It’s slow in places and wanders at times, but the story of an older, more world-savvy young woman(Jean-Louise, aka Scout) returning to her childhood home in small town Alabama in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and struggling to reconcile her feelings and views after having her world rocked by the surprising, upsetting outlooks and actions of the community members and of her own loved ones, is a compelling one. It’s filled with flashes of the same strong writing we were treated to with Mockingbird, and the lesson Scout learns about the importance of being her own person is quite powerful and affecting, and if we look at Atticus merely as Scout’s somewhat racist dad whom we just met in the beginning of the book rather than as our darling with a backstory from Mockingbird, the manner in which she learns it isn’t nearly as bothersome. Yes, as a standalone work, Go Set a Watchman, even in the unpolished draft form in which it has been delivered to us, is a quality book worth reading.
Sadly, it will never be able to stand alone; it will always live in the gargantuan, bird-like shadow of its predecessor, which will forever skew our opinion of it and keep it from achieving the full appreciation it probably deserves. Had Harper Lee not listened to her editor, perhaps Watchman would have been the only novel of the two to enter the world, and it would likely be viewed much differently. However, I’m sure I’m not alone in strongly preferring to live in a world in which a good novel like Go Set a Watchman goes underappreciated than one in which a great novel like To Kill a Mockingbird never existed.