Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

There is a lot about Harper Lee’s second novel that has the potential to depress you. There is the question of whether or not Lee is in the right state of mind to allow for the book to be released at all. We may never get an answer to that question. There is the fact that the book challenges our perception of characters like Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her father Atticus Finch. Set a number of years after the events of Lee’s iconic, era-defining work To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman features a Scout who is unable or unwilling to break her connections to the past. It features an Atticus who is not going to wholly resemble the character we met so many decades ago. Some people have chosen to dismiss the book without even reading it. I can’t say those people are wrong.

When I finished reading Scout’s return to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, and when I had absorbed the shocking allegations about her father, I wish I had kept my curiosity to myself. It was inevitable that I was going to read the book, but I wish I could have taken the same route as many of my friends. To them, Mockingbird was too important to them to consider a sequel that may not have ever been designed for public consumption in the first place. To those who are still on the fence about whether or not Watchman is worth reading, I can only tell you that it might be best to remain on that fence. Go Set a Watchman is not only a challenging work, in terms of what it forces us to reflect upon with its characters, but it is not also not particularly well-written. 

There are flashes of the brilliance that Harper Lee displayed in Mockingbird. Unfortunately, those flashes are few and far between. There is no doubt in my mind that Lee wrote this book at some point in her life. I’m just highly skeptical as to whether or not she ever intended to publish the thing. It’s also important to remember that although the book is technically a sequel, it was originally designed as a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. If you read Go Set a Watchman, and you find the differences between that book and Mockingbird to be bizarre in their vastness, keeping this fact in mind might make you feel better. I can’t say it did much to improve my view of the work. As I read through the book, as I tried to compare the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird to the older, shockingly ignorant Atticus of Watchman, knowing that I was technically reading an earlier draft of Lee’s more famous release did little to improve my perception of things. 

Watchman did not feature characters I recognized. Try as I might, I couldn’t shake the notion of this book looking and speaking like a hollow sibling of Mockingbird. There are familiar characters, and there are moments in the book that reveal that Harper Lee was a writer of extraordinary insight and depth, but we don’t get enough of those moments to make the more difficult components to the book easier to digest. In the end, the only thought that comes to us again and again with Go Set a Watchman is that it is a pointless release. Nothing is gained from its existence. Harper Lee does not need the money. We do not need to find out that Jem is dead, that Calpurnia will go to her grave feeling wounded beyond repair. We do not need to know that Scout is an emotional cripple. We certainly do not need to know that Atticus views the black people in his community and beyond as feeble children. It’s not a question of whether or not I hate the book because it challenges my way of looking at these characters. Go Set a Watchman is a gross failure because it does not make significant additions to this universe. It does not add depth to these personalities. It simply takes a first draft of a magnificent book, passes it off as a sequel, and expects us to accept our difficulties in comparing the two works as simply a lack of interest in being confronted. Being challenged is one thing. Being forced to accept this sequel as a legitimate, engaging continuation is another matter entirely. If you do not accept Go Set a Watchman, it’s not because you can’t handle learning unpleasant things. It will almost certainly be due to the fact that you can’t handle this hollow sibling trying to pass itself off as something more than a grim cash-in by people who could care less about Harper Lee’s wishes, or about the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The first draft theory makes sense. This book reads like a mediocre first draft, but with enough in the way of encouraging elements to suggest that the first draft has enormous potential to be something greater. That concept of something greater would eventually be realized as To Kill a Mockingbird. Reading through Go Set a Watchman, you will wonder again and again about what a sequel to Mockingbird could have actually accomplished. That is, if Harper Lee had set out to write and publish such a thing from the very beginning. My curiosity towards reading this book is a curiosity shared by tens of thousands, perhaps millions. I keep this in mind, and I tell myself that I was perfectly willing to come back to this world. I just don’t care for the form this world apparently took on from the events of one book to the next. These worlds were never meant to be set in chronological order. When you combine that knowledge with long, poorly written passages, and dialog that is clearly meant to be a placeholder for later bouts of inspiration, it’s hard not to be cynical.

I wanted a sequel. I just wanted Harper Lee to actually be on board with the whole thing. Even if she wasn’t, and even if Go Set a Watchman was on equal terms with To Kill a Mockingbird in every possible way, I would still be disappointed. Go Set a Watchman is a heartless exercise in greed. The fact that it is so painfully average just makes even worse.