I wasn’t sure I wanted to read Go Set a Watchman. Any book that is published after the author is reportedly too ill and senile to participate in the process is highly suspect at best. Given that it was “discovered” (from where Lee had purposely hidden it from us) only after the death of her sister and advocate is downright disturbing. I do feel I have betrayed a writer by reading the publication of work she did not want brought to the public. I make no attempt to ennoble this act. I read Go Set a Watchman for selfish reasons and I have wronged Harper Lee by doing so.
At first, I tried to tell myself I “should” read it because, as a literary blogger that focuses on fiction with a strong sense of place, I “need” to review Go Set a Watchman; that I would be remiss if I didn’t. But Scout would never let me get away with that sort of self-important rationalization so I’ll just be honest with you. I was curious. I was selfish. I wanted more of Harper Lee’s writing voice.
You know what I’m talking about. She has the strength of character to be honest but the sincere love for her community to be kind. Through the fiction of To Kill a Mockingbird she points out the flaws, hypocrisy, and self-interest of racist attitudes but does it with insightful compassion and deep affection for her family and community. Scout is the literary twin sister of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. She cuts through the crap people tell themselves to reveal the ugly truth inside them but does so without her own agenda and free of guile or cynicism. I need more of that in my life. I think we all do. I was greedy and wanted to hear Lee speak in the language of fiction some more. I can only hope she might have the same compassion for me reading the abandoned version of her efforts as she has for the racist community of her childhood.
What you read when (if) you read Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird. It is an unsuccessful effort to compassionately convey the complexities of white southern attitudes towards blacks. It got too preachy, too much righteous indignation toward the fine folks of Macolm and not enough insightful realization. When grown-up Jean Louise does come to recognize the nuance of human integrity and social progress it is not through a childlike epiphany, it is through a long and tedious sermon from her uncle. I suspect Lee recognized that this version, while still morally upright, failed to be engaging to a reader. In this effort, she discovered she was really good at writing childhood scenes and came up with the idea to try conveying her upright theme through the eyes of Scout as a tomboy child instead of as an annoying, cynical new-graduate home from college. It was the right decision.
Am I sorry I read Go Set a Watchman?
Maybe… a little… I’m not sorry I read it but I am sorry I lacked the moral conviction not to. It didn’t ruin the magic of To Kill a Mockingbird for me. I appreciated (so very much!) the insight into Harper Lee’s writing process. I feel like I got a glimpse of how her beautiful writing voice developed, how revision strengthens a work of fiction, how point of view can make such a difference in narrative. I am grateful for those insights. But what I selfishly loved most of all, was hearing Lee speak again. Go Set a Watchman has glimpses of that beautiful nostalgia, compassion, and sense of justice that makes To Kill a Mockingbird such a favorite of all who read it. I am grateful for my (cruelly stolen) opportunity to possess just a few more of those literary gems. Yes, even the ones she didn’t want me to have.
As an abandoned draft, there are inconsistencies between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. Not just the painful experience of growing up and seeing the adults you idolized as a child are actually flawed human beings like yourself, but actual differences in the facts of the plot. For example, In Go Set a Watchman, Scout remembers Atticus winning the acquittal of Tom Robinson. Kind of the whole point of To Kill a Mockingbird was that even though the proof was overwhelming that Tom was innocent, the white jury convicted him anyway. So if you succumb to the temptation of reading Go Set a Watchman like I did, do so with a full understanding of what it is: not a sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird, but an early, failed, and abandoned literary attempt to convey the theme of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Go Set a Watchman was just a stepping stone to the great American classic you have come to love. Reading it is like seeing clues to how the magician does the trick. If you are interested in learning how to make that kind of magic, Watchman will give you marvelous insights. If you just wish to bask in the glory of the unspoiled illusion of effortless perfection, you might want to give it a pass.
What about you? Have you read Go Set a Watchman? Will you? What do you think?
Read ~ Write ~ Wander
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