Reflections on Go Set a Watchman

I speak for almost everyone of my generation when I praise To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It was published in 1960, the year I was born. I read it as a high school freshman when it was assigned. I assumed it would be the usual boring nonsense I was supposed to read.

I was wrong: a few pages into this book was hooked. I still remember the first line: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” The book entered me into a world I only recognized peripherally. Growing up in (Northern) Virgina I knew there was racism in the justice system and that African Americans didn’t enjoy the “innocent until proven guilty” or “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” But reading this book I was faced with a black man (Tom Robinson) who was not only clearly innocent but in danger of his life only because he was accused by a white man (Bob Ewell).

Throughout this book I came to admire Atticus Finch, Tom’s attorney. Atticus was the father of Scout, the book’s narrator. He had no agenda but justice and knew that Tom was innocent. Things didn’t turn out well for Tom but Atticus clearly came out as the hero. From both the book and the 1962 movie (where Atticus was played by Gregory Peck) we all hoped for the courage and moral compass that led Atticus to do what he did.

We also wished Harper Lee had kept writing. She apparently retired and didn’t write anything else and we felt that loss. A few years ago we learned that she was elderly and no longer able to live independently.

But we also learned that someone found a manuscript she had written before To Kill a Mockingbird. This started a debate that continues to this day. From what I’ve been able to read, Miss Lee wrote a book (now called Go Set a Watchman) before To Kill a Mockingbird.

So here’s the problem: Did Miss Lee intend to publish this earlier work? Many of us believe that she submitted Go Tell a Watchman to her publisher only to have the publisher tell her to rework it. She did and the world received To Kill a Mockingbird. Given that she may well have decided to bury Go Set a Watchman. Frankly, I wish she had. Or at least spend part of the last 50 years reworking Go Set a Watchman.

Maureen Corrigan has an excellent review on National Public Radio and I couldn’t agree more.

This book is a mess. Most of us who didn’t like it point to the treatment of Atticus Finch. Here is an avowed racist, a man who believes the federal government had no business ordering the desegregation of schools. He was a member of the KKK and is now a member of the racist Citizen’s Council.

But even that aside the book didn’t work. My spin is that this book is about Scout (now called Jean Louise) who returns to her home some twenty years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Where she once idolized her father she is now horrified by him and his views. Growing up she based her moral compass on his and now finds she can’t, and needs to develop her own moral compass. But this book is sloppy in writing, with several asides that contribute nothing to the story.

I suspect that Harper Lee never intended this book to be published; if she had she would have rewritten it. She would have made it better. Someone is going to make a great deal of money off this. As for me, I’m glad I borrowed the book and won’t contribute to it.

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