Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015. Print
I was in sixth grade when I read To Kill a Mockingbird. As much as I knew about anything then, my twelve year old self thought this book was brilliant—the plot, the characters, the setting—all those literary terms that my English teacher Mrs. Lyford kept pounding into our heads became vivid and real. I was in Maycomb in the hot, hot courthouse waiting and waiting. You know that scene? You were there, right? And I remembered it that way until I reread it this year. Guess what? It’s still brilliant, but this time, I was transported to the tree scene with Jem and Scout, as Ewell made his deadly approach. Can you hear him running?
But with Go Set a Watchman, I was nowhere (although I did feel like I was in the Land of Oz toward the end of the story). First a quick overview: Jean Louise, now a twenty-six year old New York City girl, comes back to Maycomb for vacation and a visit with her father. She finds that neither her father’s beliefs nor her lifetime friend Henry’s (Dill?) align with hers anymore. Crisis comes with the work of the NAACP, and Jean Louise (no longer Scout) chooses to pull away from Atticus and Henry and step into her own value system. This step appears to be a birth of sorts and cause for celebration. Now, without To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman might have a chance as a stand-alone novel. Sure the story is disjointed, muddled, and devoid of the rich language of its predecessor, but it is a story and its themes regarding race merit discussion. Still, in my mind, Go Set a Watchman exists only to prove that Harper Lee got it right the first time, and should have left well enough alone.
Harper Lee can write whatever she wants. She doesn’t have to answer to us, her readers. But in Go Set a Watchman, justice and progress move backwards. Why take us so far into the light and then hurl us back into the shadows? What is the point? Why betray us? Here’s the crux: Maybe the point has nothing to do with Harper Lee. Maybe this book isn’t really what she intended.
Here are my hypotheses: Lee wrote a draft or two of To Kill a Mockingbird, got so familiar with the characters that when she wrote a next draft—the bones of Go Set a Watchman—she forgot to introduce them (which explains why the characters have little depth), rejected the draft altogether because she realized she was going in the wrong direction, refocused her efforts on those initial drafts of To Kill a Mockingbird, and went onto brilliance from there. Somehow, someone found the discarded draft that went wrong and capitalized on it. Or, someone read To Kill a Mockingbird and dipped into the story to create a new, deficient thread. I may be way off, of course, but the point is there’s something fishy going on.
In his July 2015 New Yorker review of Go Set a Watchman, Adam Gopnik also raises the question of provenance. Why the switch in voice from the endearing first person (Mockingbird) to the more distancing third (Watchman)? Why is there no genuine character development, but rather only references to how the characters acted in their youth? By the way, these references don’t make sense unless you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird. If it smells like a fish and acts like a fish…
I’m going to pretend that Go Set a Watchman has nothing to do with To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m officially disconnecting them. If you want to save yourself some grief, I suggest you do the same. Or better yet, if you see this book on display in our new book section, just walk on by and make your way up to the third floor, where To Kill a Mockingbird is waiting for a second read.
Lisa M. Kent, Access Services Librarian at Johnson State College, and author of Peace Cottage and Raising Evangeline