Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
First things first; Go Set a Watchman is not the sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s also not a ‘companion piece’ to use the oddly nauseating line being trotted out by the publisher. It is a first draft of material in the creation of a masterpiece and I rather think that it would have been better if it had stayed buried.
Go Set a Watchman follows Jean-Louise ‘Scout’ Finch as she returns to the town of Maycomb from New York as a young adult. More metropolitan than those around her, she is torn between an almost-engagement with an eligible Maycomb gentleman and her more free life in New York. Jean Louise’s life is thrown into disarray when she sees her heroic father Atticus attending a pro-segregation meeting, shattering the image she has held of him.
I’ll begin with the positives; there are moments in Go Set a Watchman that reminded me of just how good Harper Lee is. There are some wonderful flashbacks to Scout’s childhood which are delightful and there’s a spark and wit which is particularly evident in the first half of the novel; this began to make me believe that Go Set a Watchman wouldn’t be so bad. Lee’s prose is wonderful, crackling with energy and life. Things fall of the rails when the main plot gets going, with lengthy scenes of pro-segregationists arguing their case while Jean-Louise ineffectually tries to counter them. I’m not arguing that Harper Lee is sympathetic to their cause, but you can see why she abandoned this for the clarity of To Kill a Mockingbird. Some have criticised To Kill a Mockingbird‘s depiction of a white savior sweeping in and fighting racism and I can see how something like that would be problematic in this day and age. At the time though, Atticus Finch would be a necessary icon, a beacon of shared humanity. He may not be believable, but he’s not meant to be, he’s an idealised vision of what people could be.
Some have also claimed that Go Set a Watchman presents a more nuanced and realistic depiction of ingrained racism, but I’m not sure if that’s true. The novel uses Jean-Louise’s visceral reaction to the racism around her to further her character development and interesting relationship with her father, but in the process the actual victims of this racism are largely forgotten. There is one very powerful scene involving Calpurnia, the black housekeeper readers will remember from To Kill a Mockingbird, which undermines an idealised view of white/black relations, but it is far too brief and glossed over in favor of the relations between it’s white characters. Once again, I want to make clear that I’m not criticising Harper Lee herself; she clearly recognised these issues with Go Set a Watchman herself when she abandoned it in favor of the immeasurably superior To Kill a Mockingbird, but this novel risks tarnishing her legacy.
Atticus may be the character people always remember, but it’s always been Scout that made me truly love To Kill a Mockingbird. We get flashes of that person in the first half of Go Set a Watchman, but her character development in the second half is pretty poor. We’re asked to accept that the latent racism in Maycomb is a massive shock, one which makes her physically ill, which just doesn’t quite seem right. She winds up rather irritating by the end, viewing the racism which suffuses Maycomb as something most painful to her, not to…y’know, the actual victims.
Go Set a Watchman may be worth a read purely as a curio, but it’s not worth much more than that. The best thing that can possibly happen is that this book fades from memory and Harper Lee’s legacy is not tarnished.