Book Review of "Go Set a Watchman"
Thursday, September 3, 2015
Posted by: Christina Mimms
By: Harper Lee
Reviewed by Donna Lamberti, History Teacher, UMS-Wright Preparatory School, Mobile, AL
The biggest challenge I have when I write anything, whether a book review like this or a short story or an academic paper, is the revising and rewriting of my original draft. Once I have taken the time to put my words down on paper, it is not easy for me to see those words in new and better formations. I suspect that this is one of the things with which writers of all ages and abilities struggle. Convincing a writer that her first idea really may not be her best idea and further convincing that writer to put the time in to rewrite and revise and rewrite some more is not easy. If Harper Lee’s newly published work Go Set a Watchman tells us anything, however, it tells us that such convincing and such rewriting is worth it all and more.
By now, most people know the background to the publication of Go Set a Watchman. In the late 1950s, Lee spent a year writing a first draft of a novel and sent it to her editor Tay Hohoff. This first draft was, of course, Go Set a Watchman. Hohoff, although impressed by the quality of the writing, knew that more work was needed, and went about prodding and poking Lee to revise and rewrite as good editors do. Fortunately for us all, Lee allowed herself to be convinced that her first idea was not her best, and over the course of a couple of years, Lee rewrote and revised, turning Go Set a Watchman into the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee did not just write a prequel to her original draft; she literally transformed the original draft into something new and better. HarperCollins Publishers decided to publish Lee's original first draft, Go Set a Watchman, advertising it as a sequel 55 years later. In calling Go Set a Watchman a sequel, HarperCollins gave to the work a significance it was never meant to have and obscured the real lessons that could be gleaned from reading the first draft of a novel by one of the world’s most beloved authors.
HarperCollins got away for a time with calling Go Set a Watchman a sequel because it is indeed set 20 or so years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it is indeed set in the same fictional town of Maycomb, AL. Some references are made to the trial of a young black man that is at the heart of Mockingbird, but these references are quite brief. A reader unfamiliar with Mockingbird would not necessarily give these references undue attention. Characters who bear the same names and some similarities to those in Mockingbird appear in Watchman. Because such characters share the same names as one another and some similarities with their counterparts, a reader could be forgiven for thinking they are the same characters. They are not, of course.
Watchman is the story of a 26-year-old, single, college-educated woman named Jean Louise, who lives in New York. The story chronicles her annual trip home to Maycomb to see her father, Atticus Finch, and other family and friends. Returning to Maycomb in the mid-1950s, just as the Supreme Court is handing down landmark decisions like Brown v. Board, presents quite a bit of culture shock for Jean Louise after having lived several years in cosmopolitan New York. Despite her annual trips home, she seemingly knows very little of recent happenings “on the ground” in the South. Thus, she is shocked to her core when she learns that her father, who once defended a young black man from false charges of the rape of a white woman and who she believes is as “color blind” as herself, is now a member of a (white) citizens’ council. The book, then, is about the dissonance between what Jean Louise thought she understood as a child and what she now understands as an adult about race, her father, and herself.
There is some fine writing in Watchman, and the germ of an idea that is more than ordinary hidden within its pages. The characters, while not fully dimensional, are not exactly flat either. The pages turn easily and one wants to know what will happen next, and how it will all turn out for Jean Louise and her father. The dialogue at the start of the novel is quite good, although by the end, Lee’s characters run a tendency to long-winded lectures, especially Uncle Jack and Jean Louise. If To Kill a Mockingbird never existed, Watchman could likely hold its own as a decent enough novel in its own right. But therein lies the problem: Mockingbird does exist, and Watchman cannot possibly measure up. Knowing what Lee eventually did with the story of that trial that makes such a fleeting appearance in Watchman, and knowing what she did with the character of Atticus Finch, makes it difficult to not see the flaws in Watchman.
The most glaringly obvious problem for the reader is the narrator, Jean Louise. The reader is asked to believe that a 26-year-old who has had a very close relationship with her father her whole life never saw or heard anything to suspect that his feelings toward race relations in the South might be less than wholly liberal. Thus, when she is finally confronted with the knowledge that her father is not as progressive with regard to race as she is, and as she once thought he was, she has a mild breakdown. For this not to happen until Jean Louise is 26 years old is hard to swallow. Perhaps if Jean Louise had been ten years younger, that part would have been more believable and perhaps this is where Lee’s editor Hohoff first came to the rescue.
One can almost hear the questions and suggestions of Hohoff to Lee: Why is Jean Louise so devastated by the knowledge that Atticus is a member of a citizens’ council? Why does it strike Jean Louise as so out of character? Tell me more about Atticus. What was this trial Jean Louise recalls, and how did Jean Louise see her father at the time of the trial? Tell me more about that. Thus, Lee went back and told Hohoff more and rewrote and revised, and over time, the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird appeared very different from the Atticus Finch who first appeared in Watchman. More importantly, the story and the writing at the heart of Mockingbird ended up being just plain better than the story and the writing at the heart of Watchman. The dialogue is sharper and the narrative is seamless. Once that became clear to all those involved in the publication of Mockingbird, Watchman could be relegated to what it always was: a good first draft, nothing more and nothing less. It remained that way until 2015, when HarperCollins published Watchman as a sequel.
Some argue this is all very unfortunate. Some refuse to read Watchman, and some who have read Watchman are now deeply angry and disappointed. They feel as if the rug has been pulled out from under them because characters they knew and loved seem to have betrayed them, forgetting that these are not the same characters. To my mind, the only thing unfortunate about the publication of Watchman is the way in which it was done. If HarperCollins had been clear from the outset that this was not truly a sequel, that Watchman was simply a first draft, and that the characters in Watchman should not be read as the same characters generations of readers fell in love with in Mockingbird, all would be well. Many likely would not have read it all, and those who did read it would have known how to do so, what perspective to take on the work as a whole. It is really too bad that the publishers muddied the waters with that little word sequel.
Having said this, it would be unfortunate if people completely turned away from Watchman, especially teachers and students of literature and history. There are many lessons to be learned by reading both Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird together – lessons about creativity, the writing process, and historical context. It can show a student who is struggling to let go of a first draft that his best idea may be waiting for him if he is willing to trust the revision process. The student of history could examine how the Atticus Finch of the 1930s in To Kill a Mockingbird may have come to be the Atticus Finch of the 1950s in Go Set a Watchman by studying life in the South during those decades. These are just two ways the finished novel and its first draft could be used in the classroom.
My best advice for anyone picking up Go Set a Watchman is simply this: never forget that this is no more and no less than a first draft. So long as one keeps that in mind, Watchman is not as much of a disappointment as it might seem. Through its revision, we all get to enjoy the beauty that is and always will be To Kill a Mockingbird.
Donna Lamberti teaches AP U.S. history and college prep U.S. history at UMS-Wright Preparatory School in Mobile, AL. She can be reached on Twitter @donnalamberti or via email at DLamberti@ums-wright.org.