Thursday, August 6, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman: A Novel by Harper Lee --- 278 pages

One of the most anticipated literary events of the year, Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman was published in July, fifty-five years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, long considered an American classic.

Watchman is said to be the original, unedited manuscript that Lee first submitted for publication in 1958. An editor was impressed enough with Lee's talent, to encourage her to re-write the book completely. Mockingbird was the result.

For years Lee steadfastly maintained that she would never write another novel because the overwelming critical and popular acclaim she received for Mockingbird had set the bar for future success impossibly high; she had "nowhere to go but down," she said.

So it should be clearly stated first of all that Watchman, although it could be justifiably mistaken as a sequel to Mockingbird, was actually Lee's first attempt to tell the story of Scout, or Jean Louise Finch, growing up in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama.

It's important to keep that in mind as you read Watchman. Some parts of the book are poorly constructed, imitative, and awkward. But in other parts the reader can clearly see what caught that long-ago editor's eye, and persuaded her to encourage Lee to try again.

Many people who loved Mockingbird have been upset by the different portrait of Atticus Finch in Watchman.  But for those who lived through the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 1960s as opposed to those who only know it as history, the core of Lee's Watchman story rings true.

Lee's fictional Atticus Finch is a man of the same generation as my grandfather. The attitudes and ideas he exhibits, the social and racial caste system portrayed in Watchman, are painfully familiar.   It is natural for an eight-year-old child to idealize her father as her hero. But  for the child to become an adult, it is necessary to outgrow childhood adulation and see that parent whole: human, imperfect, fallible. Jean Louise's shock, anger, shattered trust, and bitter disillusionment rang very true to me.

When I finished this book my first thought was, how I wished that Lee had not been so intimidated by the success of Mockingbird.  I wish she had gone on writing. I wonder what we have missed because she did not.

Click HERE to read the review in Time Magazine.

Click HERE to read the review in the New York Times.

Click HERE to read the commentary in the New Yorker Magazine.

Click HERE to read the commentary in The Guardian.

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