Saturday, July 18, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

The problem with Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman is that it's just not a very good novel.  It's a rejected first novel, and that's exactly the way it reads.  It is jerky--the beginning is slow while we meet the main characters and fairly dull.  Even when Jean Louise Finch (i.e., Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird)  reminiscences about life when she and her brother Jem were young, I found myself yawning and itching to get to the main story.  

When Lee finally does get to the main story--that of Jean Louise's discovery that her father, Atticus Finch, and her beau Hank are anti-desegregation--the writing came alive, for awhile.  Her dialogue became sharp and her prose incisive.  However, Lee wasn't able to sustain her flashes of brilliance and the novel meandered as Jean Louise fell into stream-of-consciousness wrestling with her new reality and how to reconcile it with her memories of being raised by Atticus and their housekeeper, Calpurnia.

This is an ambitious story arc, and I think the editor who rejected Lee's manuscript was right.  To Kill a Mockingbird is a much tighter story, with clear cut villains and heroes and a moral center that is undeniable.  It's an easier story to tell and more suited to Lee's style as a writer.

I don't have a problem with the story of Go Set a Watchman--that of an idealist returning home to find her heroes have feet of clay and having to finally start to think for herself.  I just don't think Go Set a Watchman tells this story very well.  I never really believed that Atticus kept his racism completely hidden from Jean Louise her entire life.  How could she, who claimed to be "color blind," never have seen what her straight talking father believed?  It's not like she never returned home for visits.  

Despite it's problems, I want to reiterate that there is some powerful writing in Go Set a Watchman--the scene in which Jean Louise argues with Atticus is one of the saddest scenes I've ever read, but in the end, I just didn't believe it. Lee never made me believe that Jean Louise was duped by her own father.  And the first job of a writer is to make the reader believe that what he or she is saying is true, insofar as creating a believable world, no matter how fantastic or far-fetched it is.

Go Set a Watchman laid out the bones of a story that needed to be reworked and rewitten and revised and shaped and pruned, but it never was.  

While Lee developed To Kill a Mockingbird out of the backstory contained in Go Set a Watchman, it's too bad she didn't tackle the "you can't go home again" part of Go Set a Watchman and give us a novel that works.

The editor who rejected this novel all those years ago was right.  This novel wasn't ready for publication.


  1. Thanks for this - I'm not going to read this book just yet. I may later - next year perhaps. It's a pity it falls short after all the hype - though I can't say I'm surprised.

  2. I have to agree. I don't think it helped the pudding was a bit over-egged by the media. To read some of the columns(far from all), the Atticus of Watchman and Atticus of Mockingbird are irreconcilable; I had no trouble seeing one in the other. And because that part made sense to me, I think I was more upset by Calpurnia's rejection of Jean Louise, especially because that never felt adequately explained.

    What impresses me really is that someone looked at Go to Set a Watchman and saw with editing it could be great; as a piece of literary artefact I find it fascinating.

  3. Thanks for getting this review out Hot off the presses Jane!

    This book is indeed the talk of literary folks the world over. The rough and unrefined nature of this is something that I thought might characterize the work when I heard about its publication.

    I am also torn a bit, while it sounds like this book raises really important questions and themes in its own right, I believe that to some extent Atticus Finch has become an important cultural and aesthetic symbol. I am concerned that this book may have damaged or destroyed that symbol.

  4. Initially, I wasn't going to read this now, but I decided to go ahead and take a look when my copy comes. It is part of American literature's history now, the "rest of the story." I appreciate having your take on it as a guide and cushion for what I'm likely to find there.

  5. Well done, my friend!

  6. Thanks for the word on Watchman; your analysis seems very astute. I recently wrote about rereading Mockingbird in preparation for Watchman but after some of the reviews I decided to wait a bit. I dont think Atticus's racism would be unknown to Scout either.