Book Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee (Harper Collins, 2015)

After reading Furious Hours by Casey Cepabout Harper Lee’s life and career, I decided to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and then to finally read Go Set a Watchman.

Like many others, I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. And like many others I watched the publication of Go Set a Watchman a couple of years ago with my own suspicions around the timing of it all.

Re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird was fantastic. I’m not sure if I’ve read it since highschool but if it I had, it’s still been many years. The novel is deceptively simple. Well-crafted and thoughtful. Funny and powerful. Scout makes the perfect narrator and Atticus is a giant among characters. The book holds up well and I think I appreciated it more as an adult than I did at the age of fourteen.

Reading Furious Hours gave me a better sense of the background of Go Set a Watchman. It isn’t a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird but is rather the first book Harper Lee wrote; the first attempt she made to create the town of Maycomb and the characters of Jean Louise Finch and her father, Atticus. Reading the two back to back it was easy to see the parts that had been lifted right out of Watchman and set into Mockingbird.

Mockingbird also has a much more well-crafted structure. It’s divided into two parts and the division is clear and necessary. It mirrors a division in the life of Scout. Watchman is divided into about eight parts for no discernible reason. The whole plot of Watchman takes place over only a few days, following Jean Louise Finch’s annual visit to Maycomb from her current home in New York. Which brings me to the problem that the book is actually quite weak on plot.

Jean Louise (we might know her as Scout) has returned home to visit her adored father Atticus and her maybe-fiance, Hank. She has never quite fit in with the Maycomb norms but she loves the town as her home. When she stumbles across Atticus and Hank at a Citizens Council Meeting, however, her entire belief system and moral compass is thrown into question. This is Alabama in the mid-20th century after all and, it turns out, her father actually does believe the African-American citizens around him are inferior people.

This is a devastating blow to Jean Louise and to the reader who watched Atticus so coolly defend Tom Robinson in court in Mockingbird. Reading Furious Hours gave me the background to understand that Lee wanted to present real people from the American South, who were complex and had complex feelings toward their African-American neighbours. Someone like Atticus, who believed that all men were equal but still shouldn’t all go to school together. In Watchman he refers to them as children who need guidance. This is painful for Jean Louise who, the book tells has, has the great fault of being colour blind. It is perhaps more painful for the modern reader. I don’t have any of Jean Louise’s belief surround states-rights or the necessity of “helping the Negro”. Neither Atticus nor Jean Louise come out of the novel looking particularly admirable.

At the same time, Watchman doesn’t succeed from a purely novel form either. The reader cares about Jean Louise and Atticus because of Mockingbird. There isn’t enough here to make us care based on Watchman alone. We are told how good Atticus is but the brilliance of Mockingbird is how we were shown who he is through such moments as the shooting of the rabid dog or how he treats Mrs. Dubose. There’s none of that here. If I had picked up this novel without any background or knowledge I think my primary thought would be, Who cares about these racists? (And I don’t even want to touch on how Jem is erased from Watchman. I think that was the saddest part of the book for me.)

In the end, I’m glad I read it, simply because To Kill a Mockingbird is such a touchstone of modern literature. Reading Furious Hours first gave me a greater understanding of Go Set a Watchman but the book on its own comes nowhere near to Harper Lee’s great work.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee”

  1. This is a fantastic review! It’s such a great point that any of the resonance this book can generate comes from the fame and nostalgia of To Kill a Mockingbird, rather than being able to stand on its own merits. From a scholarly perspective, it’s interesting to see the origins of Lee’s great novel, but on its own, this one (and its dubious publication) left me feeling really sad.

    1. Thank you! It was interesting to read the two books back to back but it really drove home the weaknesses of Watchman. In Furious Hours, Cep demonstrates how crucial the editing process was to creating Mockingbird and that, later on, Lee didn’t have any of that support and I think it’s very clear in Watchman.

  2. Another blogger Tweeted that Margaret Atwood’s newest novel, Testament, might be a money grab in the same way that Go Set A Watchman was. However, the controversy over Lee’s novel was not whether she would make loads of money, it was the fact that she was almost dead. She didn’t have the mental faculties to say one way or another what she wanted done with her manuscript. Atwood wrote her follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale for many reasons I’m sure, but if one of them is to make more money, why shouldn’t we? It’s odd to bemoan that most writers cannot make a living off their books, but we begrudge those who do.

    1. Agreed! I’m sure making money is part of why Atwood wrote The Testaments but it’s also part of why any writer writes and publishes and, as you say, why should we begrudge them that? I do think Atwood saw the success of the TV show and wants to capitalize on that.

      Furious Hours doesn’t say much about the controversy around Watchman but the timing is suspicious coming so soon after her sister’s death. Lee and Atwood are a weird comparison to make because Atwood obviously knows what she’s doing. Someone wanted to make money from Watchman, but I don’t believe it was Lee.

  3. Ah, I enjoyed this one much more than you! I think perhaps because I didn’t really feel that Atticus believed in equality in Mockingbird – just that people should be treated fairly by the law – I wasn’t so taken aback at his views in Watchman. And I’m afraid I do feel that it’s probably a more realistic picture of white people in that time and place than she gave us in Mockingbird. I would have loved if her publisher had given her the support to polish this one rather than persuading her to change tack so completely. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it more, but am glad you felt it was worth reading anyway.

    1. I think Watchman really suffered by being read directly after Mockingbird. It made me very aware that it lacked a strong plot. You’re probably right that Atticus in Watchman is more historically accurate than Atticus in Mockingbird. But the character of Calpurnia was really different in Watchman too, or at least that storyline felt unfinished. I wish Lee had been able to write all the books she wanted to. Her list of planned books as laid out in Furious Hours was rather heartbreaking.

    2. Funnily enough, I much preferred Calpurnia in Watchman too. In Mockingbird, I felt she came over a bit too much like the devoted black mammy stereotype and Lee used her to be critical of black people so the white people didn’t have to be. I think it worked so well for me because I’ve been increasingly irritated by the portrayal of black people in American fiction written pre-Civil Rights, and I felt Watchman was much more honest. But I do think Mockingbird is a much more polished and still wonderful book. Yes, I’d have loved to see how her ideas developed over time…

    3. It was kind of shocking to me to have this reveal of Calpurnia hating them the whole time in Watchman but it was interesting and, probably, more honest than the way she was portrayed in Mockingbird. It just felt like an undeveloped plot point. Like, Scout realized maybe this woman who had raised her didn’t love her but then never tried to delve into it or engage Calpurnia in any further way. Cal still felt like a prop to me in both books.

    4. Yes, that’s true – she didn’t really develop that part of the story as deeply as she could have done. I wonder if, back then, it was felt (white) people wouldn’t be interested in the black perspective?

  4. Great review! I completely agree that Mockingbird is the superior and lasting work of this set, though I really appreciated the way Watchman made me rethink assumptions I’d held for years, and the difference between what people show on the surface and what they believe. It was a worthwhile moment in my reading life, regardless of the controversy surrounding it. But that said, I did read it a couple of years ago, and I’m at a different place in my reading life now, where I’m more interested in the facts behind the fiction- I really should pick up Casey Cep’s book! I love that you brought all three into this post, they do make for quite a conversation all together.

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