Go Set A Watchman: A Miss, not a Hit
Apprehensive, that's what I've been. Delighted, but skeptical. The publishing event of the decade, a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, a newly discovered Harper Lee novel. That's pretty exciting, all right. Almost unbelievable, given that Lee is hearing and sight impaired and in a nursing home, her sister Alice and her lawyer both having passed away, and her affairs resting in the hands of a new solicitor, one Tonya Carter, who brought this miraculously discovered manuscript to the attention of Harper Collins. I'm sure she only had Lee's wishes at heart, don't you think? Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice, but who am I to question the ethics of such a stellar publisher? Fishy provenance, greed and bad reviews aside, I had to read it, if only to form my own opinion.
So I did. While there are passages that are enjoyable and glimmers of brilliance here and there, it was a bit of a slog, sometimes confusing and ultimately, saddening. Such a cause celebre for what is ultimately a fraud. Shame on you, Harper Collins. Couldn't someone on your staff have at least edited this a little, and to call this a "sequel"? To make matters worse, the horrified politically and historically ignorant shrieks of "Atticus is a racist, our icon is tarnished beyond repair" have done nothing but increase your sales. Harper Lee doesn't deserve this debacle, and if there is any justice, let us hope she is beyond understanding that it is her stellar legacy that is in danger of being tarnished by what looks like the greed of others. Go Set A Watchman should have stayed in whatever dusty file drawer it was languishing in, a first draft that should have remained there.
Let me be more specific. We meet Scout, now 26-year-old Jean Louise, coming home to Maycomb from New York for her annual visit to Atticus, some time in the 1950s. Given the politics in play, the time period is likely post 1954 and the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education de-segregation ruling, but it's never spelled out. We never find out what Jean Louise does for a living, but she seems to have been living in a bell jar when it comes to Southern problems, even though she supposedly comes home at least once a year. Her brother Jem has dropped dead of a heart attack two years before, and this event is given short shrift by Lee's characters, except to suggest she come home to care for Atticus. Time is fuzzy, since we are told 18 years have passed, but ages don't seem to add up, a fine point, but still. Aunt Alexandra's grandson Francis is now her son instead, and Uncle Jack now lives in Maycomb as well as Henry Clinton, Jean Louise's boyfriend, who is Atticus's heir apparent in his law practice, an oddly patient man who sees his fiance only once a year. On the second day of her visit, Jean Louise witnesses a town Council meeting, where Atticus introduces a racist speaker who rants about segregation, mongrelization and other unsavory topics. Although no one else ever speaks, Jean Louise assumes they are all rabid racists and goes into a tailspin, leading her to confront her Uncle Jack, then Henry and finally Atticus about their views. That's the basics. In between, Jean Louise reminisces about her childhood, and in one of these flashbacks, she, Jem and Dill playact about an evangelist's sermon in what has to be the most boring 16 pages in the book. In another, a twelve year old Scout, uninformed about the birds and bees, is convinced she's become pregnant from being kissed and decides to kill herself by jumping off the water tower 9 months later, the day before the baby's born. This isn't charming, it's just preposterous. We never thought Scout was mentally deficient, but she would have had to be to make this nonsense believable or readable.
The magic of Mockingbird is gone, or perhaps hadn't been developed yet, as we know Lee's editor told her back then to re-write the book, concentrating on Scout's younger days, which she did, producing the masterpiece we all know and love. The difference in the quality and style of the writing between the two books is almost enough to evoke the specter of the rumor that Lee's friend Truman Capote was in fact a co-author of the finished Mockingbird, hotly disputed back in the day. The writing in Watchman is amateurish, clunky, and badly needs an editor. There are many issues, from character development to point of view problems, which could have been addressed, but were not, perhaps from a desire to preserve the original writing, in my opinion, a huge mistake. In what possible literary world would Atticus Finch say to his beloved daughter when she finished college, "it was high time she started shifting for herself and why didn't she go to New York or somewhere" ? Or Uncle Jack, frustrated with Scout's anger, backhand her in the face to the point of bloodying her nose? Or Jean Louise herself "giggling" five minutes later over Jack's whiskey drinking? She may have deserved it, because this Scout, Jean Louise, isn't an impulsive but clear-eyed child, but a woman who's shrill, self-righteous and quite a pain in the ass. Still, in this world of Southern mores, no gentleman, particularly Uncle Jack, would ever strike a woman, especially his beloved niece, and she would scarcely be amused so soon afterwards.
As for Atticus and every other white person in Maycomb now being a rabid racist, this is mostly hysterical hype which has been profitable for book sales. Apparently, people forgot this is fiction. In Watchman, Jean Louise is portrayed as near perfect, a Joan of Arc who's always been "colorblind", which is ridiculous. In Mockingbird, she's who she is, a child of the segregated South, who says in regards to Tom Robinson's treatment, "Well, Dill, after all he's just a Negro." Atticus is still exactly who he's always been, a Southern gentleman of exceptional intelligence and kindness, raised with certain standards and beliefs, but now one trying to preserve the world he's always known because he's even more afraid of what may come. It was well meaning but wrong men just like him who unfortunately slowed the progress of civil rights but also didn't promote the hatred of others like the Ku Klux Klan. Atticus himself explains to Scout he joined the Klan in his youth to find out who the men behind the masks were, as you should know your enemy. It was us, mainly through watching Gregory Peck personify him, who elevated Atticus to the godlike status he really didn't deserve in the first place. He isn't evil, and he also isn't God.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a book I loved and cherished, like many others. To be able to write like Harper Lee is an aspiration many of us have held. I deeply resent what has occurred with the publication of Go Set A Watchman, from beginning to now. Lee's representative and Harper Collins should be held accountable for this mess, and especially for tarnishing not Atticus or Scout, but Harper Lee's legacy, and the reverence she has engendered in the literary community. I cry foul, we deserve better.