BOOK REVIEW | Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

REVIEW | Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Review by Mark David Major
(Originally posted March 15, 2017; updated May 27, 2017)

(Book blurb begins) From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpiece, To Kill a MockingbirdMaycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch -“Scout”- returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town, and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past—a journey that can only be guided by one’s own conscience. Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer under- standing and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor, and effortless precision—a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context, and new meaning to an American classic. (Book blurb ends)

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman achieves its greatest value as a historical document about the evolution of Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. As a novel in itself, it is somewhat lacking.

It is much easier for us to appreciate Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins, 2015) if readers understand from the beginning that this novel represents the first draft of her 1960 American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. In this sense, the publishers have performed a great disservice to both fans of To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee herself by marketing Go Set a Watchman as a ‘found sequel’ to the classic novel. As a ‘sequel’ of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is confusing at best and infuriating at worst. However, Go Set a Watchman does represent a fascinating historical document for us to better understand the creative process; specifically, in how Lee evolved the source material from a somewhat adequate novel (Go Set a Watchman) into a timeless classic (To Kill a Mockingbird). In fact, these two novels could easily form the essential core of a very worthwhile Creative Writing class.

As noted by Lee’s editor (Tay Hohoff) at the time, the real strength of the story in Go Set a Watchman is the ‘flashback’ scenes of Scout’s (aka Jean Louise Finch) childhood experiences while growing up in Maycomb, Alabama in the pre-war, segregationist South. There seems little doubt that most readers will notice the same thing about Go Set a Watchman. Hohoff asked Lee to rewrite the novel focusing on these flashback scenes. All readers should be eternally grateful for Hohoff’s sound advice. The result was To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee also creatively turned this critique of Go Set a Watchman to her and the readers’ advantage in To Kill a Mockingbird. It allowed Lee to address issues of race in the segregationist American South in a more oblique manner. This occurs through the venue of a trial and the lens of Atticus Finch’s representation of the accused. This approach is far more preferable to that taken by Lee in Go Set a Watchman, which is a more confrontational, unproductive black-and-white argument (no pun intended), which fails to express anything much of value to the reader beyond the (self-centered) disillusionment of a daughter with her father. Lee’s approach to race in To Kill a Mockingbird is a much more productive exercise for the author and readers since it allows Lee to establish the character of Atticus Finch as the ‘moral center’ of the novel. The disillusionment of Scout – in combination with the misleading marketing as a sequel – means Go Set a Watchman lacks a clear moral center until its last few pages (i.e. in the form of Scout). It is possible that Go Set a Watchman may be truer to life; meaning: reality is always messier than fiction, moral issues are not always so tidy, and so on. However, it means the novel lacks the moral punch of the narrative in To Kill a Mockingbird. The reader only gets a passing sense of Lee’s love affair with the American South in Go Set a Watchman, which – despite its moral ambiguity at the time – comes across as a dominant theme in its more celebrated and loved successor.

Go Set a Watchman
By Harper Lee
Paperback, 288 pages, English
Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (May 3, 2016)
ISBN-10: 0062409867
ISBN-13: 978-0062409867

You can purchase Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee on Amazon here.

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