Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

**Warning: mild spoilers up ahead.**

Year of First Publication: 2015

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2015

Number of Pages: 278

Publisher: Harper Collins

Genre: Fiction

Subjects: Alabama, civil rights, racism, families

Note: this post contains an affiliate link.

I had been waiting eagerly for the release of Go Set a Watchman since early February when Harper Collins first announced that it was going to be published. I had very high hopes for this novel when I first heard the news, but as the actual release drew nearer, I began to take a more pessimistic view of it. What if Atticus does turn out to be the villain of this story? What if the quality of the book lets me down? What if this book ruins To Kill a Mockingbird for me? As it turns out, only one of those fears was warranted.

You probably know the storyline already, so I won’t spend too much time recapping it here. Suffice it to say that this novel takes place in the 1950’s, when a twenty-six-year-old Scout, now living in New York City, travels to Maycomb and finds that the peaceful little Southern town she knew and loved as a child is quickly slipping away from her. As the times and the country change, she is set at odds even with the people closest to her.

Harper Lee in 1962, two years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Harper Lee in 1962, two years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

First of all, the background: this isn’t a sequel in the traditional sense, nor is it a “prequel.” It’s actually an early draft of what would later become To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee pitched this novel to her editor first, but the editor was far more interested in the glimpses Lee gives into Scout’s childhood than she was in the actual story. After several rewrites, Lee eventually arrived at To Kill a Mockingbird in its current form and published that instead. The manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was thought to be lost until Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter found it among some of Lee’s papers. According to the Watchman‘s publisher, Lee asked that it be printed as it was found, with only a copy edit. The novel that was published last week is not really even a finished novel; instead, it’s a rough idea of the novel she would later write.

That being said, I wouldn’t call it a terrible book as some have, but it certainly was less entertaining, less edifying, and less artful than I expected.

Let’s begin with the plot: the entire story takes place over the course of about three days. 278 pages covering three days ought to tell you something about this story’s pacing. The story would not have run so long, however, had it not been for those flashbacks from whence sprung Mockingbird. While some of them were interesting and enjoyable, others seemed to contribute almost nothing to the plot of Watchman, in addition to being incredibly awkward to read (Maybe I’m too squeamish, but I could have gone my whole life without hearing about the incestuous tendencies of Old Sarum’s residents).

Then there was the writing itself. I would highly recommend this book to discouraged young writers so that they can prove to themselves that even Harper Lee was not born writing like Harper Lee. A few times, I found that Lee was guilty of overnarration. For example, in the scene where Scout finds her father and her fiancé attending a meeting of a pro-segregation organization, Lee hits us again and again with descriptions of Scout’s sweaty palms, her queasy stomach, her trembling limbs. The same thing happens whenever Scout receives a shock, whether it’s mental or in one case, physical. For me, these laundry lists of symptoms only made the narration dull.

Another narrative trick she seems to have beat to death is her descriptions of a party. Shortly after Scout arrives in Maycomb, her aunt Alexandra arranges a “Coffee” in her honor and invites several of Scout’s former grade school classmates. At the party, these women quickly begin chit-chatting about their husbands, their homes, and their children, none of which Scout is interested in. To show how monotonous and silly these conversations seem to Scout, Lee writes paragraphs like this:

Mr. Talbert looked at me and said . . . he’d never learn to sit on the pot . . . of beans every Thursday night. That’s the one Yankee thing he picked up in the . . . War of the Roses? No, honey, I said Warren proposes . . . to the garbage collector. That was all I could do after she got through . . . the rye. I just couldn’t help it, it made me feel like a big . . . A-men! I’ll be so glad when that’s over . . . the way he’s treated her . . . piles and piles of diapers, and he said why was I so tired? After all, he’d been . . . in the files the whole time, that’s where it was.

Occasionally, it was funny, but after four paragraphs of narration like that, I was ready to move on.

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters as Atticus and Tom Robinson in the 1962 film adaptation of TKM. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Gregory Peck and Brock Peters as Atticus and Tom Robinson in the 1962 film adaptation of TKAM. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, we come to the characters. If you’ve been on the internet at all in the last week, you’ve likely heard about the controversy surrounding this novel’s portrayal of Atticus: about how this book supposedly paints him as a virulent racist and the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the South in the 1950’s. While Atticus’s racism is overt in this book, I wasn’t very surprised at the things the character says, as there were already hints of this sort of mindset in the first novel. All Watchman does is bring them to the forefront of the story, whereas Mockingbird lets them languish quietly in the background. Does this mean that Atticus is ruined forever? I don’t think so. As I said in the article linked above, whatever prejudices Atticus holds are the collateral damage that comes with being born white in nineteenth century Alabama. Growing up around racists is liable to make one a racist, particularly in a time and place where those beliefs are encouraged not just by family and friends, but by the entire society. For that reason, Atticus’s prejudices should in no way negate the decency of his character, for even in Watchman, he still proves to be an exceptional fellow.

Of all the characters in this book, the one who disappointed me the most would have to be Scout. In trying to portray Scout as a strong, independent young woman, Lee instead succeeded in making her obnoxious. Throughout the book, Scout treats even her friends and family with a sort of haughty disdain. In arguments especially, she somehow manages to be less mature than her six-year-old self. Even when I agreed with the point she was trying to make, I couldn’t stand the vicious, hard-headed way she made it. I hoped she would come out changed at the other end of the novel, and she did to a degree, but that change came so fast and in such an odd way that it was almost hard to believe.

Go Set a Watchman isn’t completely without redeeming qualities, though. One thing it does marvelously is help to shed some light on the myriad motivations behind the pro-segregation movements of the 1950’s. With conflicts like these, we often tend to make generalizations about the people involved and why they did the things they did. This book shows that race relations in Alabama were not nearly as cut-and-dried as we often think. This book is also a gold mine for Mockingbird devotees like myself who are interested in the evolution of Harper Lee as a writer.

And perhaps that’s the best reason for reading Go Set a Watchman: as a study in literature. As a novel, it’s To Kill a Mockingbird not quite grown up yet. While Watchman‘s depictions of racism, rancor, and division had me feeling depressed, Mockingbird was inspiring and uplifting without being any less honest about the evil in the world. Watchman makes you want to lament; Mockingbird makes you want to do. It was interesting to see how the book that I love so much developed over time and how Lee changed as a writer in the two years between Watchman and Mockingbird. For that reason, I’m glad to have read Go Set a Watchman.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

  1. Very interesting thoughts on Watchman. I agree with you, the novel provided very good insight on Harper Lee’s writing evolution. I wonder how Mockingbird would have been different (or if it would’ve even existed) if her editor hadn’t suggested writing it from the perspective of Scout as a child.

    It was interesting seeing Scout go from tomboy to young lady, but it felt like there were a lot of holes missing. Maybe its’ just me being greedy, because the flashbacks were my favorite part of the novel, but I wanted more of those as well. Could’ve done with more of those stories and less of the unnecessary elements of the novel you mentioned: the “Coffee” descriptions, etc. Also, her growing up in this novel, compared to Mockingbird, was much more harsh and abrupt which I think contributed to the overall uneasy and unsettled feelings of this book. All of these things added up did make her character disappointing. I went into the book expecting to be let down most by Atticus’ character, when ultimately it was Scout who was most discouraging.

    Thanks for writing! Just finished the book and needed to get out those thoughts about it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I thought it was a little strange too that Scout so suddenly goes from fighting and roughhousing to buying party dresses and fretting about school dances. It seemed like the change came over her too quickly to be realistic.

      Liked by 1 person

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