This weekend, I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.
I’m not going to revisit the speculation or controversy about its discovery and publication — I’ve written about that elsewhere — except to concede that this does feel like the unpolished draft of a novel, just as most of us expected it would be.
But oh, what a draft it is.
I will agree with some critics who argued that it deserved more polish than it got, and I will also agree with the many fans who complain that it doesn’t hold a candle to To Kill a Mockingbird. I will also offer here that my reactions to this book are colored by two situations: 1) I listened to this as an audiobook, and Reese Witherspoon does a fine job of selling the story she reads; and 2) whether by accident or synchronicity, I wound up reading this at exactly the right time.
In fact, that was probably my first thought on nearing the end of the novel: that whatever the circumstances that brought it out of hiding and onto the bookshelves, it never would have made as much sense as it does right now. Had this book appeared before To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first), or on the heels of it, the impact would have been minuscule at best. But now, all these decades later, when our collective cultural consciousness has had time to build up the mythic figure of Atticus Finch into the same hero-god that the adult Jean Louise has herself come to worship, only now are we ourselves prepared to feel — to viscerally experience — the same sense of disillusionment as Jean Louise does in this book when our beloved Atticus Finch turns out to be — to have always been — so much lesser than we thought him. (That isn’t much of a spoiler, widely reported as it was when the book first came out, but I’m trying to avoid other spoilers in this review. Suffice it to say, Atticus isn’t the only major character you will come to see much, much differently in this book, and each time, the change is almost as heartbreaking — but to my mind just as necessary — as it is in Atticus. So bear that in mind if you choose to read the book.)
And then there are the politics of the novel. One of the shortcomings of this book is that characters are prone to politicking on the page, drifting into long, preachy monologues that feel heavy to my contemporary ear and violate all sorts of givens we’ve come to understand about dialogue and modern fiction. And taken in the time the book was written, those passages would probably have felt even more heavy-handed, a lecture more than a novel. And yes, I do tend to have an allergy to such blatant bias in fiction.
But it is downright eerie — uncanny — unnerving, really — the way the novel’s politics speak to our times now. One only need change the racial slurs (or, more disturbingly, one could leave the slurs exactly as they are) and this could be a novel about the 20-teens as much the 1950s. Which is a terrible thing to consider. One of the most crucial arguments late in the book deals with the speed of social progress and some people’s fierce resistance to it — if not to the progress, then certainly to the speed of it. Things were changing too damned fast and it was bound to end in violence, or so the argument went. But to read this now, to realize that in some ways we are still fighting for that same progress while so many others fight hard and vicious to undo what progress we’ve made, is downright chilling.
There is also the “you can’t go home again” aspect of the story. Because I grew up in the South and still return to my own small(ish) hometown to visit the family that still lives there, I found much to identify with in Jean Louise. Her frustrations at the limitations of the people she grew up with, and then her frustrations with her own limitations in seeing her friends and family and lovers as whole human beings — that fraught interchange between a yearning for home and a revulsion toward home, that chestpain breaking point where you realize everything you once loved not only is gone but was never there to begin with, and then the eggshell creep toward a whole new kind of appreciation (maybe even love, of a sort) for your community as it truly is, warts and all — this is the kind of stuff I love best in literature and try to write about myself when I can manage it. Especially when it deals with the South. But, as Go Set a Watchman itself points out, confronting that takes a certain kind of maturity, a certain perspective that takes time and distance to develop. And I don’t know that I would have been ready to see that on these pages, with these characters, had this book come out years ago.
So, much of my positive response to the novel is, I admit, a matter of timing and perspective more than it is a matter of Lee’s craft and the book’s literary merit. On those latter terms, the book does feel lacking. I don’t take as much issue with the plot as some critics have, or even with the writing (there are some powerful passages in this book, paragraphs and character exchanges that left me exclaiming aloud in awe). But some of the most important points of character development occur in speechy, expository dialogue or in the kind of running interior monologue that has always rubbed me the wrong way, like voiceover in a film. And if I’m honest, I’m not wholly satisfied with the ending.
But then, perhaps that’s part of the point, that dissatisfaction. The imperfection of the story’s resolution feels as disappointing as any reality would when measured against our expectations, and I, for one, have always preferred the realistically unsatisfying over the novelistically resolved.
And in a way, that seems to speak not only for the narrative but also for the book as an artifact of publishing and American letters: Harper Lee’s second novel was never going to feel as satisfying as her first, whether it came out as her “sophomore effort” shortly after To Kill a Mockingbird or it came out as it did, as a kind of manufactured “comeback” or “final word” from the author. Those critics and complainers who, like Lee herself for most of her life, would rather this book have never seen the light of day, perhaps they were right.
But I’m glad I read it. For all its flaws, it still speaks loudly to our human condition, it still speaks softly to my own heart, and it still stands strong as a work worthy of study, even if only in an academic, writer’s-craft sense. So I’m glad I read it, and the next chance I get to teach To Kill a Mockingbird in a classroom, I would certainly assign Go Set a Watchman alongside it. There are lessons we can learn here — about writing, about publishing, and certainly about ourselves — and, painful and occasionally disappointing as it might be, I’m glad this novel is part of my world now.