Given the ugly racial plot twists in Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman—Atticus is a card-carrying member of the KKK!—it’s somehow fitting that the novel has been plunked into this summer’s emotional debates about #blacklivesmatter and Confederate flags and police violence. Viewed strictly through the prism of race, Watchman is a more accurate reflection of the 1950s South than the beloved To Kill A Mockingbird ever was, as well as a difficult reminder of how far we haven’t come.
It’s also become a flash point for book lovers. By many accounts, Lee, 89—diminished by a serious stroke, and nearly blind and deaf—is mentally sharp on some days and addled on others. That, combined with her decades-long refusal to publish another book, makes this novel look to some like a petty cash grab by the people surrounding her. Unfortunately, publication has confirmed my fears about the project: Watchman is a mess.
Scout Finch, now 26-year-old Jean Louise, is visiting Maycomb when she discovers that her family, including her beloved father, Atticus, are closet racists. (Side note: As a child of the South, I recognize this Atticus all too well—someone who fights publicly for equality but privately holds very different views.) Jean Louise wonders, “What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved? Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually though the years until now?” If that sounds clunky, it is. Though Watchman has a few stunning passages, it reads, for the most part, like a sluggishly-paced first draft, replete with incongruities, bad dialogue, and underdeveloped characters, because it is a first draft—of Mockingbird. Lee’s formidable editor, Tay Hohoff, read the manuscript and said something along the lines of, “The flashback scenes, where Scout is a young girl? That’s your novel. Forget the Jean Louise stuff.” Hohoff spent years coaxing these flashes of genius into a very different book. That is an amazing accomplishment—and the kind of artistic nurturing that simply doesn’t exist in the publishing world any longer.
Look, I’m very aware of the fact that no reviewer is going to be able to stop the Watchman juggernaut. I just want people to understand two things: First, this is all about the money. And second, reading Watchman will forever tarnish your memories of one of the most beloved books in American literature. D+