EXPeriencing Go Set a Watchman

Cover photo via Entertainment Monthly.
It’s been more than two months since my last blog post, but after buying my first house and dealing with all the insanity that comes with that, I think I’m finally ready to dive back into blogging and keeping up with this little project. Thanks for reading!

What a roller coaster of thoughts and emotions I had with Go Set a Watchman. The initial exhilaration, trepidation, and anticipation surrounding the book’s announcement and release; hearing of Atticus’s racism; actually finally receiving the book and sitting down to read it—then stopping for over a month with just 100 pages to go while buying a house—and finally sucking it up and finishing it. Whew.

Now that I have finally finished the thing, I can give it my informed opinion and “rating”: a solid huh verging on meh. Of course, you can’t just leave it as huh-meh. It’s Harper Lee’s undiscovered manuscript! It’s To Kill a Mockingbird’s first draft! Huh-meh doesn’t really take all that into account or give Watchman the necessary context to understand how it came to be. And indeed, I think you must take that context into account when you read the novel, or it could not only be a confusing reading experience for you, you could completely ruin To Kill a Mockingbird.

That said, you MUST read To Kill a Mockingbird before Go Set a Watchman. Even if you read TKAM in high school, I would highly suggest you read it again. And in this case, yes, even watching the movie would be acceptable. But you have to fully absorb TKAM again before you try to read Watchman. You also have to be aware of and understand that Watchman is the first draft of TKAM. I think that context is vital to understanding not just how novels are created, but how TKAM came to be in the first place. I also think it’s important to understanding the vibrant characters of Scout and Atticus and see where they came from in Watchman to how they became the characters we know and love from TKAM.

Which, examining the characters, is where some of the problem is in regarding Watchman as a fully-developed, publishable novel: the characters just aren’t quite there. You get a lot of internal thoughts and exposition from adult Scout (yes, I refuse to call her Jean Louise as she is mostly referred to in the book) as she comes to the realization that her father is not, in fact, an infallible god. However, there’s not a lot of additional substance to truly understand her heartbreak—if you don’t have the context of TKAM to draw on, that is.

In TKAM, Atticus is an infallible god (not just to Scout, but to all of us), so when Scout sees that he’s actually racist, you can see where her heartbreak comes from. But without that in-depth look at her childhood and her childhood vision of Atticus’s great deeds, his actions in Watchman—while on the deplorable side of his character—aren’t exactly world-shattering for the casual observer.

His actions are further played down when you read about the Tom Robinson trial. It’s reduced to four paragraphs in which there are no names, few details, and you learn “the only reason [Atticus] took this [criminal case] was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy go to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense” (109). Atticus knew the charges were false, and took the case so “he could live peacefully with himself.” Lo and behold, Atticus “accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl.” But Tom (or who becomes Tom) is acquitted because it was determined it was consent, not rape. “Consent was easier to prove than under normal conditions—the defendant had only one arm. The other was chopped off in a sawmill accident.” So yes, it’s great Atticus got the acquittal and can live with himself. But according to Watchman, he certainly didn’t like it: “After the verdict, [Atticus] walked out of the courtroom in the middle of the day, walked home, and took a steaming bath. He never counted what it cost him; he never looked back” (109-10). Those four paragraphs to attempt to convey, in part, what made Atticus infallible in Scout’s eyes as well as in ours, only to be left with a feeling of insincerity and disappointment. It’s certainly not a stretch to see Racist Atticus from this vantage.

But the book wasn’t all bad or mediocre. I actually did enjoy some parts of it, specifically the parts—the sparks—that are the building blocks of and become To Kill a Mockingbird: young Scout, Jem, and Dill playing; the background and explanations of Maycomb County and its history that are copy+pasted into TKAMScout’s recollection of childhood that causes her to come to terms with being an adult… Huge kudos to Lee’s editor who read this manuscript and saw the potential behind the story of young Scout and her childhood and had Lee build upon that. Because honestly, Go Set a Watchman is a solid first draft. Maycomb County is a solidly built world and the Finch family a solidly built set of characters. They make a decent story.

But how they were developed into To Kill a Mockingbird, now that’s a classic.

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