Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
Go Set A Watchman: Harper Lee, July 22—26, 2015
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊
Go Set A Watchman is the much-anticipated prequel/sequel/first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. What you take from it will depend greatly on what you’re looking for.
As has been widely reported, Watchman is set 20 years after the events of Mockingbird, and was the manuscript originally presented to Lee’s publishers. They rejected it, and suggested she write a book based on the childhood flashbacks, which became Mockingbird.
This is therefore not a prequel, as it’s set after Mockingbird. And it’s not a sequel, because there are inconsistencies and repetitions. It is a forerunner to Lee’s only other, and very famous, novel on racial inequality. This book should be approached as a fascinating insight into the writing process and viewed as a landmark document.
The plot, such as it is, sees Scout – now going mostly by her given name Jean Louise – returning for the fifth time annually to Maycomb from New York and observing how much things have changed. During this visit, she discovers something disturbing about Atticus and the novel builds to a showdown between the pair.
Unlike Mockingbird, which was set over three years and blended a myriad of small town storylines, Watchman‘s present-day narrative is focused solely on these few days and the consequences on her relationship with her father. By comparison, it feels anaemic without the immersive richness of its counterpart. Much of Scout’s time is spent reflecting on how much things have changed; it comes across like a bit of a reunion documentary where we just note how old everybody’s become.
The best sections are Scout’s childhood flashbacks with Jem and Dill. These self-contained vignettes have so much more of the warmth and charm we recognise, and Lee’s publishers were right to make the suggestion they did. These bonus stories make Watchman worthwhile, just to return fleetingly for these few incidents.
All of the most notable characters from Mockingbird are back in some form. The one exception is Boo Radley, which is satisfying because Scout notes at the end of Mockingbird that she never sees him again. Jem appears only in flashback, as does Calpurnia with the exception of one scene – but what a gut-wrenching scene that is!
A new character is introduced in Henry ‘Hank’ Clinton; the childhood friend of the Finch children and Atticus’ surrogate son. It niggles because he’s absent entirely from Mockingbird, and has very little in the way of personality. His main function appears to be presenting Scout with an inner conflict about whether to accept his recurring semi-platonic marriage proposals.
There are other anomalies beyond the sort-of retcon of Henry. Atticus and others, for example, have taken to calling Aunt Alexandra ‘Zandra’, something unusual and quite unthinkable in Mockingbird. Of course, this isn’t sloppiness because Watchman is not a sequel. It was replaced by Mockingbird in its entirety. This is obvious from the passages which repeat almost word-for-word sections of its successor. As an interesting anomaly, the now-ancient case of Tom Robinson ended in acquittal in this new continuity.
The major issue that many have identified is the treatment of Atticus in the book. Remember Atticus, the morally perfect role model and inspiration to many a lawyer? You know, AFI’s greatest ever hero in film, one of Book Magazine’s greatest literary characters of all time, so inspiring that Alabama State Bar elected a monument in his honour and an entire pro-equality movement remains named after him to this day? Yes, he’s in for a bit of a PR headache now. He’s had a bit of an ethics transplant.
Crucially, the Atticus of Watchman does not diminish the Atticus of Mockingbird. He doesn’t become the Atticus of Watchman; if anything, the Atticus of Watchman becomes the Atticus of Mockingbird. The revered Atticus we love replaces his forerunner. The drama in Watchman comes from Scout’s father failing to live up to her near-idolatrous perception of him, but in Mockingbird there is no suggestion that this might happen, and that is the definitive and final draft of the narrative. The tensions between Scout and Atticus, and Scout and Calpurnia, are best understood in context of Mockingbird, though. The impact is told, not shown, without this background.
So what is the bottom line with Watchman? As a book in its own right, it’s mediocre. Neither the characters or setting resonate much because it’s all very surface-level and observed by Scout in visitor-mode. The plot explores similar themes of racial equality, gender and class issues but in a more direct, preachy way. Had this been published at the time it was written, it would have faded into obscurity. However, in the context of Mockingbird it’s a fascinating piece of supplementary literature that lays bare Lee’s mind, and allows some precious bonus visits to the dusty old town of Maycomb.
Read it, enjoy it, but remember the circumstances and context of its writing and publishing.