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.

EXPeriencing the Roller Coaster of Emotions for Go Set a Watchman

Cover image via the New York Daily News. It looks like it’s probably a temporary cover, but I’m digging in.

Most of the time I find out about breaking news on Twitter, especially when it’s of the literary sort. Not on Tuesday. On Tuesday, February 3, my best friend texted me a link to an article with the following URL: “www.themarysue.com/oh-my-god-harper-lee.”

“Oh my god Harper Lee” what?? Then I saw the title of the article (“Harper Lee’s Second Novel Will Be Published in July, Is a To Kill a Mockingbird Sequel”) and had just two words to say:

Holy. Shit.

What former English major hasn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird at least three times, watched the movie at least 10 times, and wondered what another novel from Harper Lee would be like? We will no longer have to wonder come this July when Go Set a Watchman is released. Written before MockingbirdWatchman features Scout as an adult and Atticus as an old man. “It is a compelling and ultimately moving narrative about a father and a daughter’s relationship, and the life of a small Alabama town living through the racial tensions of the 1950s” (The Washington Post).

Not long after my friend texted me, my coworker–also a former English major–said, “Did you hear Harper Lee is releasing a second novel?” I said yes. She said, “I already pre-ordered it on Amazon. The article I read said their initial print run was only going to be two million copies.” So I said, “I think I might go preorder it now.” Her response: “Do it.”

I did.

Later that day, I was checking Twitter, and amongst the overjoyed and excited tweets about Go Set a Watchman, someone tweeted that the news was “troubling” and shared a link to an old Vulture/Slate article about “The Decline of Harper Lee.” I read part of the article and was immediately thrown into misgivings myself. Was Lee pressured into releasing Watchman? Does she understand what’s happening? Should I not want to read this book?

I tempered my excitement and tried to let the anticipation die down a little inside me. I felt guilty for being excited because maybe Lee doesn’t want this book to come out and I’m contributing to an old woman’s exploitation by ordering the book.

Then, a couple days ago, I read a new article. This one from The New York Times. This article, “After Harper Lee Novel Surfaces, Plots Arise,” features a more in-depth interview with the attorney who found the manuscript, as well as more reactions from Lee’s friends. The passage that struck me most was:

What should have been a triumphant literary discovery — a find that could significantly add to the legacy of one of the country’s most cherished authors — quickly morphed into a puzzling controversy. While there have often been debates about works that were discovered and published posthumously, including unfinished novels by masters like Vladimir Nabokov and David Foster Wallace, it is rare for a living writer’s literary intentions to be cloaked in so much uncertainty.

Residents of Monroeville gossip that Ms. Lee is mentally infirm these days, does not recognize old friends, could not possibly have signed off on the publication, never wanted to do a second book. But those who are closest to her scoff at such conspiratorial theories, saying Harper Lee, now 88 and admittedly frail, remains fully capable of making up her own mind.

They’re right. We shouldn’t be gossiping about Lee’s health and wondering if she was pressured or cajoled into publishing this book. We should be celebrating its discovery. This will bring her much attention in the coming year, which she probably doesn’t necessarily want as she’s somewhat reclusive. But on some level, she is welcoming it by allowing the book to be published. She could have said no, and I believe her lawyer, friends, and publisher would have respected that. It would have been published immediately after her death anyway, no doubt. But this way, she is able to be celebrated in her lifetime with another literary accomplishment that will no doubt be a wonderful read, if not an American literary masterpiece.

Now, I don’t know Harper Lee, so this could just be me making myself feel better about how excited I am for Watchman, but after reading Lee’s attorney/friend Tonja B. Carter’s more detailed interview, I am confident in my excitement:

Answering questions on Saturday through both emails and text messages, Ms. Carter said that Ms. Lee is “extremely hurt and humiliated” at the suggestion that she had been duped.

“She is a very strong, independent and wise woman who should be enjoying the discovery of her long lost novel,” Ms. Carter said. “Instead, she is having to defend her own credibility and decision making.”

Again, I don’t know Lee, but many of the people speculating that she’s been duped into publishing this novel don’t know her either. I’m going to trust those close to her that she didn’t know Go Set a Watchman still existed and that she’s excited about its discovery and publication. I’m not going to feel guilty about it, nor that I pre-ordered it from Amazon. I’m going to excitedly wait for my copy to arrive this summer, where I will promptly sit on my porch and devour it.

After I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird two or three more times, of course.