I read it. Driven by the excitement of the release of Harper Lee’s “second” novel and by a sense of guilt in not reading To Kill a Mockingbird in my youth (that I have now found to be more common than I thought), I read the thing.
Some say we readers have been duped by a conniving lawyer and publisher that took advantage of a renowned yet semi-senile author, Harper Lee, in releasing an early and largely unedited manuscript of Lee’s for the purpose of riding Lee’s fame and literary accomplishment into a fortune derived from record book sales. My trust-but-verify policy lead me to actually read the book with the above warnings or stories in mind and determine what the book really is for myself, if it has any value, and if so how much value or enjoyment do I find in it’s pages. Without hearing it from Lee herself we will never know for sure if she had any inclination to release Watchman in her twilight years, but the facts and timetable surrounding it’s release in conjunction with my own reading of the book lead me to agree with critical voices in the media that Lee had no desire to release this book and it likely was released by those in power to gain from it’s publication.
What it is not?
First and foremost. Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel, at least not in the proper sense. Sure it is set later in time like sequels often are but more than progress of time is needed to connect two episodes of a greater “story/history.” A sequel written by the same author or produced by the same film director would be expected to retain key facts or details between parts of the same presumably coherent narrative.
The key bit of information that revealed the disconnect between Mockingbird and Watchman was the result of the trial that played center stage in Mockingbird. Even if you only watched the movie and definitely if you read the book you knew that Tom Robinson was convicted of false rape charges which played a huge role in building tension into the story of To Kill a Mockingbird. In Watchman Tom is acquitted of the charges and the case plays an important but minor role in Atticus’ career and life story. I can’t imagine that a self-respecting author that would allow for such a salient disparity to stand, especially one that would have been easily corrected during the narrative editing process prior to publication and release.
In contrast to key facts not squaring between the books there are some bits that overlap all too well. I know that fiction is different than non-fiction with respect to citations and giving credit where credit is due but it was a bit jarring to find 5-6 instances of self-plagiarism in Watchman. Since I just read Mockingbird some sections jumped out as being really familiar and when I checked there were whole paragraphs that were pretty much word-for-word copies from Mockingbird. I say “copied from Mockingbird” because it was published first. Watchman was a draft that was used for fodder/inspiration to create Mockingbird, and since Mockingbird was published first it would make sense to reword and rework the overlapping character and historical descriptions in a new way that retained Lee’s style but didn’t leave the obvious traces of a poorly done copy-paste job.
So there you are, two points of contention from simply comparing the two texts that scream to the reader something like, “A Pulitzer Prize winning author was most certainly not behind the editing and release of this book!” In addition to the dubious circumstances surrounding the release of the book these points are frustrating indeed, especially with the book marketed as a sequel rather than Lee’s “early draft,” first novel,” or “initial story” which probably would have sold less to those not interested in the development of an author or the effect of a good editor. Most wanted more since Mockingbird has meant so much to so many and we the public wouldn’t haven’t gotten so excited about the release of Lee’s sub-par original idea.
What is it?
Go Set a Watchman is not a bad novel in my mind. Once we dispose of the expectations of it being a sequel it is still a decent read and certainly provokes one to think about life and how we become who we are.
The story is not as engaging from the get go as Mockingbird was. I think this is because we don’t jump right into spooky neighbors viewed through the lens of a 8 year old girl. Rather, we get a story about a woman in her twenties going home to visit family and boyfriend. Not nearly as engaging. The commitment to read the book does not come from the narrative itself but is driven from the reader’s knowledge of the characters built up from the 1960 novel and the curiosity to find out what they have been up to. Without Mockingbird, Watchman would not be as widely read.
The page turning comes later in the book after several trips back to Jean-Louise’s/Scout’s childhood via her recollections on a drive to Finch’s Landing and while sitting on the ground where her childhood drama played out. She finds out that her boyfriend and more importantly her father are associating with people and entertaining ideas that absolutely clash with the idealism and morals she embraced and expected them to share. She becomes physically ill and cannot cope with the fact that her father holds racist views of black people and fears integration. In his old age Atticus limits his personal morals on racism to protecting the disadvantaged black Americans from violence and unjust charges in the court of law. Scout argues with all the people she knows without gaining satisfaction in her longing for understanding why the world of her youth has seemed to abandon and betray her so.
She cannot reconcile the actions of her father because she has assumed that his internal moral compass was the same as hers. Until now she had not realized how much she had come to worship her father and sought for his approval unknowingly. She is faced with the reality that she strongly and painfully disagrees with the man she has respected more than any other. She comes to realize that she must assert and own her individuality and live with the reality of a father whom she now views as morally wrong.
Watchman is a coming of age story, an experience that we all go through one or more times in our lives, often more than we care to voluntarily undergo. In To Kill a Mockingbird Jem and Scout had to grow up faster than Atticus or the other adults would have liked by viewing the trial of Tom Robinson. In Watchman Jean-Louise notes that she went through this growing up and growing apart process once again as she went through college and did not expect or want to have to separate her own ideas from her father yet again.
Yet the lesson is important. We don’t get to choose family or neighbors and we certainly don’t get to choose what ideas or principles of ours they will agree or disagree with. We should expect conflict. We should expect dissonance. It is what we do once we encounter difference that matters. We can run-away (just as Jean-Louise’s intuition tells her to run back to New York) or we can face the music and realize these people that we have loved freely or learned to love over time are just as human as we are. We can accept them as family, as friends, and as generally good people without requiring them to agree with and support our most cherished and special beliefs, dreams, and desires. I think standing and staying with them is how we simultaneously effect positive change and maintain cooperation amidst the ever-present dissonance of life.
–To Kill a Mockingbird: Chap. 20; Atticus pleading to the jury in the 1930s:
“…there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”
-Go Set a Watchman: chap. 17 pp. 245; Atticus arguing with Jean-Louise about NAACP activity and potential integration towards greater equality in the 1950s:
Atticus – “Then let’s put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?
Jean-Lousise – “They’re people aren’t they? We were quite willing to import them when they made money for us.”
Atticus – “Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”