Skip to main content

Go Set a Watchman


Go Set a Watchman

Warning: This review comes with a disclaimer. And not the one you would expect. There has been so much media attention and controversy surrounding the publication of GO SET A WATCHMAN, and whether or not Harper Lee truly wanted it published or if she had been manipulated into doing so by her representatives. The state of Alabama was even called in to investigate charges of elder abuse. (The state determined that Lee was of sound mind when she “was able to answer questions about the book to investigators' satisfaction.”) No one was more cynical about the circumstances than me. A lifelong fan, I had accompanied my friend, writer Shannon McKenna Schmidt, to the author’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in 2007 to research a book that she was co-authoring on literary travel (NOVEL DESTINATIONS with Joni Rendon). And almost immediately we were put through our paces by Lee’s sister, Miss Alice Lee, an attorney and her representative. Shannon had to explain why we were in town, what kind of book she was researching and how it related to Lee. Her privacy and literary legacy were that guarded.

So when it was announced that this notoriously low-profile author who had repeatedly said she wouldn’t publish a second book was going to do just that, I was instantly wary and disbelieving. The historic publication of WATCHMAN has made headlines worldwide. And the anticipated backlash has only just begun. It’s hard to follow a first novel like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, a classic that has been on school curriculums for decades and has been adapted into a timeless film with the legendary Gregory Peck becoming the visual archetype of a man who stands up for justice no matter what the cost.

Did Lee intend for this to be published in her lifetime, or is she being controlled by a puppet-master attorney calling all the shots? To get swept up in the scandal of it all would be a reader’s first mistake. The second would be to approach this novel as anything other than what it is --- a first version of what later would become the classic story of right and wrong in the American South. This isn’t TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD II. This is what Lee wrote in the mid-to-late 1950s; she handed in to her editor, and it was mutually decided to put this version aside in order to focus more on the character of Scout as a young child, through the prism of a young child’s idealized version of her father. To fall prey to those mistakes would rob the reader of what could potentially be a fascinating and enlightening look into the writing process of an author trying to wrangle many topical issues of her day (amazingly, many of which resonate so strongly today).

So, having said that, I would recommend to readers, most of whom I’m sure are fans of Lee’s, that if you want to enjoy WATCHMAN, remember to approach it realistically --- as an early version that was reworked and reconfigured many times, one that contains glimpses and glimmers of the classic story that it would eventually become after much careful sculpting by the author and her gifted editor, Tay Hohoff. If one approaches it almost like a scholar, not expecting a prequel to MOCKINGBIRD but rather appreciating the peek inside the process, then the reading experience will be a much more rewarding one.

"[I]f the reader approaches WATCHMAN with the proviso that this is a first version of a classic story, the early outline of what was to be, it can be enjoyed on this level --- as an example of how the writing process can be long and laborious and mutable."

Unlike the scrawny tomboy of MOCKINGBIRD, WATCHMAN is narrated by 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch, still “Scout” to most of her family and friends in Maycomb, Alabama, who is returning to the South of the mid-1950s from New York City, where she currently lives, to visit her aging father, Atticus. As with most twenty-somethings visiting their small hometowns, one observes things with a slightly jaundiced eye. Due to his arthritis, getting around is tougher for Atticus these days. Instead of meeting Jean Louise at the station, he sends Hank, his employee at the law firm, makeshift/honorary son, and Jean Louise’s sometime boyfriend. This trip seems to serve a dual purpose for her. Of course, she wants to see her father, but it’s almost as if the adult Scout is testing the waters, almost in a Jane Austen-like fashion, to see if she could (or should) return here for good; to accept a life where she would marry Hank, have children, take care of her father, and join the ranks of the good Christian citizens of Maycomb. But we see that Jean Louise still maintains all the spark and stubbornness of young Scout as she immediately bristles and rails against this picture. Responding to Hank’s frequent proposals of marriage, she admits her fear of the outcome: “It’s just that I’m so afraid of making a mess of being married to the wrong man --- the wrong kind for me, I mean. I’m no different from any other woman, and the wrong man would turn me into a screamin’ shrew in record time.”

One thing that seems to remain unwavering to the adult Scout is her idealized version of her father: “Atticus Finch’s secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex: where most men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss, no fanfare, and no soul-searching. His private character was his public character. His code was simple New Testament ethic, its rewards were the respect and devotion of all who knew him. Even his enemies loved him, because Atticus never acknowledged they were his enemies. He was never a rich man, but he was the richest man his children ever knew.” Which may explain her fear of committing to one man --- so few of them were like Atticus. 

But then she catches Atticus and Hank in attendance at a Citizens’ Council meeting from her perch in the balcony of the courthouse (in a scene that slightly mirrors the classic court scene from MOCKINGBIRD), and overhears the crowd listening to the racist bluster of the speaker who denounces a government that is attempting to “mongrelize” his South by integrating whites with the black population. Aghast that her father is silently listening to this bigotry, she reflects back on a case he handled when she was young, where he defended a young black boy who had been accused of raping a white girl. He won an acquittal for the boy (a very different outcome than the Tom Robinson case that was at the heart of MOCKINGBIRD). So how could he stand there and listen to this drivel?. The weight of what she has just witnessed makes her sick to her stomach: “The one human being she had ever fully and whole-heartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, ‘He is a gentleman, in his heart, he is a gentleman,’ had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”

The reader, too, has a visceral reaction to seeing his or her hero succumb to the racism of his peers. But when Jean Louise confronts Atticus about his attendance, and subsequent silence, in the face of what she perceives as hate-speech, he responds much like any man of his age and era. (Of course, this misconstrued nugget of info is what every review or article is latching on to: “Atticus is racist!”) It’s the ageless trope of entering adulthood by finally seeing your parents for who they are --- people with faults. Her Uncle Jack lectures her that this realization was bound to happen: “…now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up…you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings --- I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us.” One also thinks that perhaps in this early draft of the story, Atticus is a more realistic version of the author’s father, A.C. Lee, and the Atticus in MOCKINGBIRD is the romanticized one. Many of the arguments between the adult Scout and Atticus uncannily mirror issues being discussed today (especially the discussion of states’ rights versus federalism), and the scene of Aunt Alexandra’s coffee gathering exhibits a comic observation worthy of Bridget Jones.

So, if the reader approaches WATCHMAN with the proviso that this is a first version of a classic story, the early outline of what was to be, it can be enjoyed on this level --- as an example of how the writing process can be long and laborious and mutable. No one judges the film The Godfather on the basis of Francis Ford Coppola’s storyboarded notes. The same thought process applies here. This is MOCKINGBIRD in its earliest stages, not the classic we’ve come to know and revere. I can see book groups now, going into overtime discussing the issues and differences between this and the 1960 version. No matter the reasons behind its publication, WATCHMAN can and should be appreciated for exactly what it is.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on July 17, 2015

Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee

  • Publication Date: May 3, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0062409867
  • ISBN-13: 9780062409867