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Review Roundup: 'Go Set A Watchman' disappoints

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Hannah McKay/PA Wire/AP

After months of painful waiting and wide-ranging speculation, the reviews of Harper Lee’s surprise second book, Go Set A Watchman, are pouring in. And as we expected, with its discoveries of Atticus Finch as a card-carrying racist and Jem as a corpse (he died of a heart attack, we find out in Chapter 1), critics are seeing Watchman as an underedited, amateur first draft, with only a few fleeting glimpses of Mockingbird‘s genius shining through. However, some praised the novel for its complexity, saying that a more racist Atticus is far more aligned with common 1950s opinions in the American South than the flawless, moral hero he was in Mockingbird.

Here’s what the critics had to say:

NPR, Harper Lee’s ‘Watchman’ Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece by Maureen Corrigan

Go Set a Watchman is a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically, beginning with its fishy origin story. Allegedly, it’s a recently discovered first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m suspicious: It reads much more like a failed sequel. There are lots of dead patches in Go Set a Watchman, pages where we get long explanations of, say, the fine points of the Methodist worship service.”

The New York Times, Review: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Gives Atticus Finch a Dark Side by Michiko Kakutani

“One of the emotional through-lines in both Mockingbird and Watchman is a plea for empathy — as Atticus puts it in Mockingbird to Scout: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.’ The difference is that Mockingbird suggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo and Tom Robinson, while Watchman asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus.”

The Washington PostIn Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ a less noble Atticus Finch by Natasha Trethewey

Watchman is compelling in its timeliness. During the historical moment in which the novel takes place, in states such as Georgia and South Carolina, legislators had begun to authorize the raising of the Confederate flag over the statehouse or the incorporation of it into the design of state flags as a reaction and opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision — thus inscribing the kind of white Southern anxiety dramatized in Lee’s novel. ….

Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it gives us a way to look at history from a great distance. It has been 61 years since the Brown decision, and now we have the hindsight to see the larger impact that Lee’s characters could not quite see: an outcome, as Warren suggested — that ‘desegregation is just one small episode in the long effort for justice.'”

Los Angeles Times — Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ reveals a darker side of Maycomb by David L. Ulin

“It would be a mistake to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman as a sequel to her 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird.

Despite its potential for drama, Lee develops her story through long dialogue sequences that read less like conversation than competing arguments. There is little sense of urgency and key aspects of the narrative — Jean Louise’s naïvete, for one thing, her inability to see Maycomb for what it is — are left largely unresolved.

If I’m hesitant to level such a criticism, it’s because, although Go Set a Watchman comes marketed as an autonomous novel, it is most interesting as a literary artifact.”

BBC, Go Set A Watchman: Book Review by Lucy Scholes

“Whether feelings of disillusionment with Atticus or Watchman’s technical flaws will tarnish the prowess of Mockingbird, only time will tell. Separating the two novels intellectually is easily done; but to invest in this emotionally is a harder task. But while Mockingbird undoubtedly remains the literary superstar, as Atticus remains its hero, Watchman presents a more nuanced study of racial prejudice. In light of recent tensions in America – despite the passing of what we often assume is 60-odd years of progress – this is perhaps a more timely and important portrait than we would like to admit.”

The Wall Street Journal, Book Review: In Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Atticus Finch Defends Jim Crow by Sam Sacks

On one hand, this abrupt redefinition of a famed fictional character is fascinating. Atticus’s ideas about gradualism and states’ rights were commonplace in the midcentury South—a similar attitude is expressed in William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1948), for instance. His provincial convictions and bigotries actually make him a truer, more representative figure than the bespectacled icon of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yet for the millions who hold that novel dear, Go Set a Watchman will be a test of their tolerance and capacity for forgiveness. At the peak of her outrage, Jean Louise tells her father, ‘You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible.’ I don’t doubt that many who read this novel are going to feel the same way.”

The Guardian, Go Set a Watchman review – more complex than Harper Lee’s original classic, but less compelling by Mark Lawson

“A few passages exactly overlap between the two books, principally scene-setters describing Maycomb, Alabamian history and local folklore such as the comical legal consequences of the intermarriage of the Cunningham and Coningham clans. A handful of paragraphs alluding to the Robinson rape case in the 1930s (though with one crucial detail changed) were expanded to hundreds of pages in To Kill a Mockingbird. Encountering these seed sentences, it is hard not to feel some awe at the literary midwives who spotted, in the original conception, the greater literary sibling that existed in embryo. If the text now published had been the one released in 1960, it would almost certainly not have achieved the same greatness.

This is not so much due to literary inferiority, but because Go Set a Watchman is a much less likable and school-teachable book. It belongs to the genre in which prodigals return to find their homeland painfully altered; disillusioned by the “Atomic Age”, Scout has notably lost the sassy swagger that makes her childish I-voice in Mockingbird so compelling.”

The TelegraphGo Set a Watchman, review: ‘an anxious work in progress’ by Gaby Wood

“Though the views that propel it are more radical than those of To Kill a Mockingbird, in genre terms Go Set a Watchman is barely a novel at all. It contains several passages of undigested shouting, of the kind a student might write in a political pamphlet. The climactic scene, in particular, involves a detailed discussion of states’ rights that will be virtually unintelligible to non-American readers. And it’s bookended, rather half-heartedly, with sentimental scenes designed to obscure this and sell it instead as a love story.

Lee has not yet learned how to hide what she knows, and the book is weighed down with literary references. A cat is named after an obscure Victorian poem. Jean Louise quotes Matthew Arnold under her breath, and muses about Wordsworth as she’s mowing the lawn. The explications of Maycomb’s mores – the most transparent vehicle for Lee’s self-described ambition to be “the Jane Austen of south Alabama” – are overworked and underpowered.”

The Independent, Go Set A Watchman – book review: A rough draft, but more radical and politicised than Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird by Arifa Akbar

“It does not undermine Mockingbird  but it makes a reassessment of that story absolutely necessary. Set-text students may now look for signs in that book for Atticus – the racist apologist (when he forces young Jem to read aloud to the openly racist Mrs. Dubose? When he asks Scout to step into the shoes of the lynch mob who want to attack the black defendant, Tom Robinson, in jail?).

In the end, this is the most shocking aspect of Lee’s novel, published 55 years after she was advised to discard it and focus on the children’s story instead – that we will never be able to read Mockingbird in the same way again, and never see Atticus in the same light again. It is the end of innocence for that novel, and its simple idealism.”

Time, Go Set a Watchman Review: Atticus Finch’s Racism Makes Scout, and Us, Grow Up by Daniel D’Addario

Watchman is alienating from the very start: Readers will be dispirited from the first chapter, with the revelation that, in the years between Scout’s childhood and her return to Maycomb, Ala., at 26, her brother Jem has died and her father Atticus has grown infirm. This burst of exposition, as with other clumsy moments of plotting and sporadic jumps back in time, works only because the characters are already famous; a romance between Jean Louise (Scout has embraced her legal name as an adult) and a newly introduced character, Henry Clinton, told in a third-person voice close to Jean Louise’s own thoughts, is less successful yet.”

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