For years, Harper Lee lived as an enigma, a writer of a single novel that has become a key piece of American Literature, and a mainstay of high school English. Before she wrote that novel, however, she penned Go Set a Watchman. Publishers rejected that book, but she continued to work with its characters, settings, and themes. The first result was a series of related stories about Jean Louise "Scout" Finch's childhood, which developed into the first half of To Kill a Mockingbird. The second was a reconsideration of Watchman's brief recollection of the time Atticus Finch defended a Black man accused of rape. That became the rest of Mockingbird.
Go Set a Watchman finally appeared in print in 2015, to acclaim and outrage.
Readers have tended to approach the novel in one of two ways:
As a historical document that demonstrates the process that led to Mockingbird.
As a sequel that recontextualizes and, in the eyes of many, ruins Mockingbird.
I suspect very few people read it as a work on its own, but perhaps that is where we should start.
Publishers were right to reject Go Set a Watchman. The writing is excessively expository. The narration shifts inelegantly between third person and a kind of stream-of-consciousness. The plot rambles in occasionally interesting ways before arriving at an unsatisfying ending that might have occurred several chapters sooner. Watchman focuses on a young woman's return to the southern small town where she grew up, a place "so cut off from the rest of the nation that some of its citizens, unaware of the South's political predilections over the past ninety years, still voted Republican"(7). She gradually realizes she can't go home anymore. Her town has grown harsh and hard. The man she might have married, and the father she long admired, both reveal themselves to be racists.
Atticus Finch, is, at least, a particular kind of racist. He believes the law should apply fairly to all and, back in the 1930s, he successfully defended a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. But he despises the NAACP, regarding them as outside agitators upsetting the American South by trying to hasten the political emergence of an African-American population he considers not yet fit to wield political power. He is willing to work with a racist "Citizens' Council" in order to steer that group in non-violent and legally palatable directions. Above all, he wants to remain in a segregated society.
Scout wonders when her beloved town grew so unfriendly and overtly racist. We wonder how much of that change has actually occurred, and how much amounts to a change in her perspective.
We also, hopefully, shake our heads at the casual, endemic nature of racism. Atticus Finch and his empowered associates focus on their own trumped-up fears that their rights are being denied, even if that includes the perceived right to treat others as second-class citizens. His inability to regard certain people as full citizens or even true human beings should feel depressingly familiar to people living in 2016.
As a novel on its own, then, Watchman is a mediocre book by a writer with great promise. Those familiar with Mockingbird see Lee's characters, and likely the writer herself, struggle with what it means to be a white Southerner at a time when the Civil Rights Movement is emerging. Maycomb and its characters already exist, but they lack the literary polish-- and the nostalgic haze-- we see in the Mockingbird. And we recognize Lee's instincts as a writer, in taking a minor incident from this book and developing its potential as the central story of To Kill a Mockingbird.
The millions who pre-ordered Go Set a Watchman wanted to read the sequel to that novel, and find out what happened to the beloved American characters. While it might not be the best way to approach a novel that predates Mockingbird, that approach makes of Watchman a far more interesting book. This is not because we flash back to Scout's first period or learn Jem's eventual fate, but because we're forced to reconsider the events of Mockingbird.
Many people were shocked to hear of Atticus's racism. They shouldn't have been. Years of naïve reading by teens in English and American Lit classes, buttressed by Gregory Peck's heroic performance in the 1961 film adaptation, led many readers to overlook his flaws. The Atticus of the novel lives in a small town where races exist separately, and Atticus holds an honored position in the social hierarchy. He can easily slip into the role of White Savior, bemoan the lack of justice afforded African-Americans, and continue to live comfortably alongside the people who enforce the unjust system. He does not want the social structure to change; he just wants the law to keep it orderly and somewhat fair.
Atticus's harshest criticisms he reserves for white men "who'll take advantage" of a Negro's ignorance"(118). He regards non-Caucasians (or, at least, most non-Caucasians) as children needing protection and guidance. Whether such a man would have grown into the bitter and more overtly racist Atticus Finch of Watchman may be debated, but the proposition is not far-fetched.
If we read Watchman as Mockingbird's sequel, we also have to consider the role of Scout's perspective
For the most part, the geography, history, and personalities of Maycomb remain factually unchallenged by Watchman. The major exceptions occur when Scout recalls the trial of Tom Robinson (unnamed in Watchman). Mayella Ewing, the alleged victim, is 14, and not 19. Her actual interactions with Tom remain undetailed, but they sound a good deal more sordid than what we eventually see in Mockingbird. And Atticus wins the case. I grant that Lee most likely changed those details to better serve her story. However, if we read the text on its own merits, and as part of the Mockingbird narrative, those changes become chillingly instructive. Scout recalls the story differently as an adult, because she was viewing Maycomb through the eyes of a trusting child, and her father through the admiration of a loving daughter. The unfair conviction and eventual death of another human being, an African-American man, really didn't amount to an important detail for most of her life. Scout's recollections of the trial have been colored and driven mainly by her perception of her father and his triumphs.
It will be interesting to see the eventual fate of Go Set a Watchman. Will it last in the culture as a look at a celebrated author's early efforts, or will it lead Mockingbird's most naïve readers to reconsider how they understand that text?
We also must ask if, as time progresses, Mockingbird itself will retain its place in literature and popular culture, or become an historical curiosity, a problematic study of childhood, racism, and a world we have come to see with different eyes.