A Review: Go Set a Watchman
by Emily Hedges*, September 3, 2015
Fans of To Kill a Mockingbird have already heard—Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (Harper Collins July 2015) doesn’t reflect well on everyone’s hero, Atticus Finch. The timing couldn’t be worse. With the Charleston shootings still on our minds and the phrase “black lives matter” as a rallying cry instead of an obvious truth, we needed him. We needed Atticus’s courage and ethics to be a sign of hope. Maybe that’s why we were all so ready to accept the story of a found manuscript after all these years. We felt the gods were sending us a sign, like Mockingbird was for the Civil Rights South.
Watchman was written and set in the mid-1950’s in the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education. Atticus, who was willing to sacrifice everything to defy the racist establishment in Mockingbird, set in 1936, now sees a different threat looming over the South. Grown up Scout returns home and finds Atticus part of the Macomb County Citizens’ Council, an organization he knows is racist, but feels is their only protection against the federal government (and organizations like the NAACP) usurping the community’s right to determine what and how institutional changes are made.
The fact that Watchman is more about state’s rights than civil rights was always going to be disappointing to me and many fans of Mockingbird, but it’s the preachy way it’s done that makes the novel unpalatable. I think this happens because the story is more about groups than individuals. Where Watchman gives us “negros,” Mockingbird gave us Tom Robinson; where Watchman gives us racists, Mockingbird gave us Bob Ewell; where Watchman gives us the Old Sarum folks (poor whites), Mockingbird gave us Mr. Cunningham. I think this lack of compelling, fully developed characters is what forced Lee to resort to long stretches of didactic dialogue to carry her political message. This is particularly evident in Parts V, VI, and VII where Atticus’s brother, Dr. Jack, is portrayed as a two-dimensional interlocutor, a patient, patriarchal figure that forbears Jean Louise’s passionate tirades about race, guiding the exchanges with patronizing questions and long-winded homilies. There is nothing of the tender charm found in interactions between Scout and Atticus from Mockingbird.
For all its faults and disappointments, it’s almost worth reading Watchman just for Scout’s childhood flashbacks, a few precious scenes where we can once again romp through a lazy, hot summer afternoon with Scout, Jem and Dill. It’s like watching deleted scenes from your favorite movie. In these moments especially, and throughout the novel, Lee’s voice visits you like an old friend. Passages like this:
“Alexandra had been married for thirty-three years; if it had made any impression on her one way or another she never showed it. She had spawned one son, Francis, who in Jean Louise’s opinion looked and behaved like a horse, and who long ago left Macomb for the glories of selling insurance in Birmingham. It was just as well.”
I think it’s obvious that Watchman was the place Lee fine-tuned her characters and worked through plot and point-of-view. For that, we should appreciate that Watchman helped make Mockingbird a masterpiece. Appreciate it, but don’t publish it.
There was just too much money to be made. More than 1.1 million copies sold in the first week. As a recent New York Times op-ed pointed out, it’s no coincidence the manuscript was “discovered” within months after the death of Lee’s old protector (her sister Alice Lee) by her new protector, a woman who worked in Alice’s law office. Supposedly Lee, 89 years old and suffering from dementia in a nursing home, granted consent.
Since publication everyone has wondered, and worried, how Go Set a Watchman will taint the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Many have said they don’t think it will, but I don’t agree. I can’t help feeling like a character from my other favorite American novel, The Great Gatsby, a character whose “count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.” I wish I could go back and un-read this book. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel guilty of shooting a mockingbird, because Atticus was right—it is a sin.
*A native of Muskogee, OK, Emily Hedges is a published writer in a master’s program at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH. Emily lives in Lebanon, NH with husband Joe and three beautiful children. Thank you, Emily, for setting the bar for insightful literary criticism and for trusting Views from the Edge to publish your work. – Gordon