Tara's Reviews > Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
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There has been a great deal of controversy over the circumstances of this book's publication (which may be justified), and also a great deal of hysteria about its content - which, I would argue, is not justified. Essentially, Go Set a Watchman was the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, but although the main characters of Scout and Atticus are the same, it is very different in many respects. Firstly, it is set in the 1950s, with Scout returning to her hometown as the civil rights movement is gaining momentum. Mockingbird, on the other hand, focuses on Scout's childhood during the Jim Crow era.

Although Mockingbird's publication coincided with civil rights, and subsequently became something of a liberal beacon, Watchman is far more political in its focus. By portraying an older Atticus, frightened by change and reverting to the same prejudices he once challenged, Lee chips away at his heroic status. Some readers will be upset by this, and indeed some seem unable to distinguish the boundaries between fiction and unreality. I think the movie of Mockingbird, with Gregory Peck's Oscar-winning portrayal of Atticus, was more simplistic than the book and is probably more culpable for this tendency towards Atticus-worship than Lee herself. It seized on the civil rights angle, which while progressive for its time, was only one aspect of Mockingbird.

Watchman certainly complicates Lee's legacy, but while she doesn't exactly resolve this dichotomy, by smashing the 'white saviour' myth, Watchman certainly opens up a more nuanced dialogue than has existed for decades. Can a man be good, decent, and also fundamentally racist? Could a principled lawyer also, by upholding the system, be part of the problem? Of course he can, yet many readers (mostly white, I suspect) refuse to accept this. Lee's handling of the issue is rather didactic, but her conclusion is important: that we must be willing to listen to others, to engage with them, even when their attitudes seem abhorrent. As with Mockingbird, the final message is one of love. In the early 21st century, when America can claim the symbolic victory of a first black president, and yet everyday racism is still rife, Watchman may have found its moment.

So if its treatment of racism is more daring, is Watchman better than Mockingbird? No, it isn't. By pitting Scout against the older generation of Finches (plus a half-hearted marriage plot), it omits many of the elements which made Mockingbird a masterpiece. There is no Boo Radley here, while Jem and Dill are only mentioned in retrospect. The Radley storyline, in particular, introduced a more personal take on intolerance which Watchman lacks. With so many flashbacks, it's hard to settle in one era: and Lee's style, in Watchman, is more telling than showing. And yet there are many small instances of beautiful writing here, and much of the wry humour that made Mockingbird so delightful, and is an early manifestation of Lee's self-professed wish to be 'the Jane Austen of Alabama.'

Lee's editor was absolutely right to sense her genius in Watchman; and conversely, she was also right to guide her to its fruition in Mockingbird. Watchman, while not in itself a great novel, shows the first flowering of a great American author. It might be loosely compared to Charlotte Bronte's first novel, The Professor, which was rejected by publishers. She went on to write the masterpiece, Jane Eyre, and The Professor would be reissued after her death. Like The Professor, Watchman is a 'coming of age' novel, and clearly autobiographical - perhaps a little too much so. But for any true admirer of Harper Lee, it is well worth reading.
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Reading Progress

July 13, 2015 – Started Reading
July 13, 2015 – Shelved
Finished Reading

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message 1: by Carl (new)

Carl Rollyson Wasn't the novel's editor a woman?


Tara Carl wrote: "Wasn't the novel's editor a woman?"

Ah, OK - from the name I couldn't remember!


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