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.