Go Set a Watchman (2015), by Harper Lee

This is a review of Harper Lee’s highly-ancticipated second novel/prequel/abandoned debut Go Set a Watchman. For some thoughts on its more famous predecessor, To Kill a Mockingbird, click here.

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Let’s put aside the unsavory circumstances surrounding this book’s publication, which become more contemptible the more you read about them. Let’s also put aside the sturm und drang about this alternate side of Atticus Finch and what it means for us and our collective image of him as a faultless paragon of virtue.

Let’s focus instead on what we have in front of us, which is an artistic tragedy, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think.

If Harper Lee really did want Go Set a Watchman published, then it’s a shame she didn’t revisit these pages 20 years ago, with her faculties still intact, and give them the proper treatment they needed. This could have been a really extraordinary book — even, daresay, better than To Kill a Mockingbird (I know, I know!); more urgent, more unsettling, less fantastical — but instead we’re left with this patchwork effort that only hints at its full potential and will exist forevermore as a conversation piece for the literary-minded, a tedious meta-debate, rather than as a fully realized, integral work of art that I contend it should have been.

You can almost see why Lee’s literary executors thought this would be worth publishing in its current form, with just a “light copy edit,” and that the result would be more than a shameless money grab. I can imagine the powers that be sitting at an august conference table and persuading themselves, in all good faith, that there was meat on the bone here.

Because, in all honesty, I see it too. I see what everyone in Harper Lee’s circle wants to see in this book, and that with a few more passes through the quality control department, could have been. As I started reading, and the drama of its literary provenance faded away, I found myself really rooting for it. I became far more interested in the story Lee was trying to tell in Watchman than I am in the story she did tell in Mockingbird, which has always been a pandering piece of nostalgic wish-fulfillment, albeit an immaculately written one.

Consider the premise: a grown-up Jean Louise returns from the cosmopolitan progressiveness of New York to the traditional Alabama of her childhood, having to reconcile her rapidly evolving worldview with the stubbornly racist one shared by everyone around her, including her beloved father. What an important story to tell, one that was playing out for so many people around the country at the time. Go Set a Watchman could have been a needed source of inspiration and confirmation that the struggle was torturous but necessary.

I have a theory: while abandoning Watchman for Mockingbird was a good move for Lee commercially, and ostensibly the right move for us culturally, it was decidedly not good for Lee artistically, because it painted her into a corner that she couldn’t get out of (and, with a permanent stream of royalties, left her with little incentive to try).

The best parts of Mockingbird are the small, lovingly recalled moments of Scout’s childhood in Maycomb. Those who haven’t read it in a long time may forget that Tom Robinson and Boo Radley don’t even make appearances until after the first hundred pages.

But the commercial success and critical anointing of Mockingbird ensured that Lee would no longer be permitted to write similarly small, finely observed portraits of life in the Jim Crow South. (The movie certainly didn’t help.) Henceforth she would be called upon to make Grand Statements about Grand Issues, the kind of writing that constitutes the least successful moments of both of these books. When Lee’s characters start expounding on race relations in direct ways, her writing becomes didactic and, frankly, naive.

It’s impossible to speculate, but I sometimes think Lee’s literary legacy would have been better served if she could have continued writing quiet, almost inconsequential narratives with her poetic grace, examples of which shine through even in this early draft.

What Watchman lacks in its present form is a sense of authority, a unifying vision that future drafts would likely have supplied. We have a series of episodes that don’t really cohere, interspersed with a series of anguished dialogues between Jean Louise and her inner circle. The flashbacks to childhood and adolescence were supposed to add context to her present-day arguments, but they too often feel like separate short stories shoehorned into the real story. And the book concludes with a final sequence that wraps things up with all the grace of an after-school special.

And that’s the real tragedy of Go Set a Watchman, not that it’s been published under unseemly circumstances (though it has), but that we didn’t get the best version of this story that it (and we) deserved. It’s like we got the outtakes of a beloved album — the ones that feature demos and vaguely sketched-out ideas that became the basis for better songs — except we never got the original album. All we got were the demos.

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