Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee


I don’t really want to debate about whether the publishing of Harper Lee’s “newly” “discovered” “manuscript” was morally right or not. In my opinion, at this juncture, probably not? But that wasn’t enough for me to not read it. I was always going to read it, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Go Set a Watchman may not be the novel Harper Lee meant to publish (for good reason), but it’s a historically significant early version of what became To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now so engrained in the canon of American literature it belongs to readers and no one else. That is my biggest problem with the situation surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Harper Lee’s, ahem, “team” seems hell bent on the commercial branding of a significant piece of American literature, and that grosses me out.

[Recommended reading: “What Does Harper Lee Want?” by Claire Suddath on bloomberg.com]

There’s a difference between a novel, and say, anything else you can buy at a Target. Yes, you can buy both To Kill a Mockingbird and flavored Starbucks brand K-Cups at Target, but one of these things deserves a little more cultural respect. I say this as someone currently drinking coffee out of a The Great Gatsby mug, so, like, whatever, but still–that’s my biggest issue at the moment re: Harper Lee drama. The publication of Go Set a Watchman makes me uncomfortable because it will potentially make some shitty people money off the work of an old lady who seriously deserves more respect than that. But let’s not fool ourselves: this novel was going to become public sooner or later, and so let’s talk about it now.

There was a lot of handwringing leading up to the publication of Go Set a Watchman that all exploded when it was “revealed” that Atticus Finch was a racist in the novel. I think all the uproar about that little tidbit is seriously misguided. Go Set a Watchman is really about Jean Louise and her feelings towards her hometown; that and her feelings about learning to see her father as a human rather than a god. Also, just FYI: God, do I hate when people take one two-sentence quote from a novel and use it to review an entire novel they ain’t even read yet.

Go Set a Watchman, like Mockingbird, is a novel about small-town Southern racism. I am adamant about Watchman not being a sequel, because it’s obviously a novel written by a writer trying to get a story down right and failing. Lee succeeded with Mockingbird where she fails in Go Set a Watchman, so I consider this a first draft and nothing else. I also don’t think that she changed Atticus all too much. Jean Louise’s disappointment in her father in Go Set a Watchman happens in part when she realizes that he was always more dedicated to the upholding of the law than to enacting social change. But isn’t that just a little bit more realistic from a Southern lawyer in the civil rights era? And Lee doesn’t condone that in this novel–in Watchman, Atticus is an old man who is admirable because he’s a good father and a hard worker, not for his righteousness. He’s human and wrong, but he’s not a villian. Jean Louise’s journey is to figure out how to love him while also upholding her own moral code, which is more progressive than the town she left behind.

Atticus was the hero of that story, and Jean Louise is the hero of Watchman. Her biggest conflict in this novel is an interior one. She comes back to her hometown during a time of social change and needs to decide if she wants to flea from the ignorance and hatred she sees and finds repulsive, or stay and be a dissident voice. In this way, I think Go Set a Watchman stands alone.

The biggest reason Harper Lee wouldn’t want this novel published simple: the writing in To Kill a Mockingbird is better. This is also why I consider Go Set a Watchman a good story, but overall just a draft. It doesn’t have that ‘finished product’ feel. It also consistently annoyed me by switching back and forth between third person and first person narration. The narration would bounce back and forth into Jean Louise’s head so much that I wish it had just been written in the first person.

In the end, this, like To Kill a Mockingbird, is still a story of white people coming to terms with racial injustice. To Kill a Mockingbird was published during a time when it was needed, but I don’t think we need any more stories of white people worrying about racism. (Not that white people shouldn’t be worried about racism. Of course they should be.) There are stories written by people of color about their own experiences*, and those are just more important and necessary right now. Obviously, Go Set a Watchman was not written in 2015, but I think it’s worth mentioning that it’s long past the time that we need to rely on Harper Lee to give us the quintessential moral narrative about racial injustice in America. We don’t need Atticus to lead the way anymore, babies.

[*For those of you who love To Kill a Mockingbird, and would like to read something written from the perspective of a black narrator, I recommend Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody.]

So, have you read Go Set a Watchman yet? What are your thoughts?


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