To Unjustly Roast a Mockingbird: Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman

on Wednesday, July 15, 2015
For the past fifty years Harper Lee has been the picture of polished literary perfection. One novel, a universally adored classic, and then complete silence. No other books. No forays into academia. No pontificating from the sidelines. Just perfect, dignified silence. She could very easily have gone to her grave with a reputation that far surpassed many of her peers. Sure, they might have written a library shelf's worth more novels but, at the end of the day, they didn't write To Kill A Mockingbird. When word leaked out last year that a manuscript to a second book - one written before Mockingbird but taking place after it - had been found, the literary world responded with equal parts palpable excitement and absolute dread. That the circumstances about this great 'discovery' were tarred with accusations of exploitation and dodgy dealings didn't exactly help quell the fears.

In the months leading up to the release this week of Go Set A Watchman both sentiments have reached fever pitch. Holy crap have I been giddy with glee over the prospect of reading more from this Grand Goddess of the Written Word. At the same time, holy crap have I been petrified that the conniving lawyer Tonya Carter (go on, sue me), has taken advantage of Alice Lee's death and is not only riding roughshod but also taking a massive dump on Harper's legacy for the sake of a quick buck. To a certain extent I side with the naysayers - this book really ought not have been published. It was a draft manuscript that was rejected by an editor who saw promise in the flashbacks and encouraged Harper Lee to go back and try again, this time focusing on Scout as a little kid. And it's not like Lee or her editor were unaware of a second book following the phenomenal success of Mockingbird. Even if it took a little digging, they could have found it and worked it to the standard of publication if they'd really wanted to. Yes, all indications are that we'd have been better off never seeing Go Set A Watchman. Which brings me to the great difficulty in reviewing it. Is it possible to read and evaluate the novel without the attendant hoopla surrounding it? Can it be read as a companion piece without having to be a comparative one? Or is it destined to be the Grease 2 of literature, if Grease 2 had been made before Travolta squeezed into those impossibly tight leathers?

I'll say this at the outset: Go Set A Watchman is a strange reading experience. So much of it is instantly familiar - Maycomb, Atticus, Scout, many of the other characters as well as the themes - and yet there is something slightly amiss. It is like the contours have softened; we are seeing the devolution of a world into an earlier, sketched form. It is difficult to push the discomfort aside. Perhaps more unsettling is the fact that at the beginning it reads like a rather typical rural pastoral. Jean Louise (aka Scout) returns home from New York to visit her ailing father and instantly falls into some kind of playful romance with his assistant, Henry Clinton. Clinton (surprise, surprise) is not the kind of fellow Jean Louise's aunt wants for the girl - he is, as she says, from "trash". It's all very airs and graces. Atticus, too, weighs in and battle lines are drawn for what seems to be a final showdown between father and daughter. The budding romance takes up the greater part of the first half of the book and, while charming, it lacks the tension and moral power of the masterpiece it later spawned. That is until Jean Louise happens upon a town meeting involving both her father and her lover during which a hellfire segregationist spews the vile small-minded claptrap of the old guard. It's classic "they's takin' our jobs and our women" rubbish but it seems to strike a chord with those in attendance. Jean Louise, her mind opened by big city life, is horrified. Suddenly, the battle lines have shifted. There is an entirely different war in the offing.

Much has been made of Atticus the Klansman in discussions of this book. It seems so incongruent with the man we all revered - the champion of civil rights, the warrior for justice. Yet to simply say the Atticus of Go Set A Watchman and the Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird are completely different creatures would be oversimplifying it. Remember that he is still a product of his time. And, in his explanation, he puts forward a progressive argument, albeit within certain old world constraints. To me he is more the complex character for this schism. What is important to realise is that he thinks he is being egalitarian. We need only think of some of the ridiculous things we've heard our parents or grandparents say while thinking they were showing compassion on critical issues - LGBTI springs to mind - to get where Atticus is coming from. That said, this was clearly Lee's first draft of Atticus as a fully fleshed-out character. Above all else, he is used here to represent one end of the spectrum to allow Jean Louise to represent the other. The latter is, without any doubt, Lee's own. Her voice, too, is Lee's, including the occasional embarrassing stumble into well-intentioned bigotry. In their protracted debate on race towards the end, you can see Lee putting down on paper the ideas that would not crystalise until Atticus was standing in a courtroom in another book. The argument itself is stilted and didactic: Atticus posits one position then Scout counters. Each sortie reads like an essay in miniature. It's hard to reconcile either character with who they once supposedly were.

To my mind, these concerns are rather minor. It is, after all, a draft. Where the book really falls down, though, is in its lack of a central dramatic anchor. At one point, Atticus's former maid's grandson accidentally runs over and kills an old man. He is arrested and, we are told, will be put on trial for manslaughter. Atticus takes the case. With the great courtroom drama of Mockingbird in the back of our head (and a few references to that particular case in Watchman) we are all poised for a showdown par excellence. Alas, it is quickly skipped over and we are back to the great ideological battle between father and daughter. Sigh.

It's not hard to see where Lee's editor was coming from all those years ago. I don't know how long it took her to return with To Kill A Mockingbird, but it is clear that somewhere in the process she struck gold in terms of narrative drive, moral complexity, a workable plot device and, most importantly, some real character development. She also invented one of my favourite characters during that time: Boo Radley. But this is where it all started. This is the clay from which man was formed. Had I not ever read To Kill A Mockingbird I think I would still have liked Go Set A Watchman. Contrary to what a lot of people are saying, it does stand alone as a novel, albeit one that would have benefited from the collaborative editing process that this has been denied. In no way, however, does it harm Harper Lee's legacy. If anything, it gives a bit more light and shade to an otherwise amorphous picture. It shows that she too is human, that she started somewhere and that, just like everyone else, she had to stumble to succeed. Yes, the publication of Go Set A Watchman might be a crass exploitative money grab. I've now bought it in digital form, Australian hardcover and American hardcover to boot. But I'm glad I did. Because now I've met Harper Lee, apprentice novelist. And, between you and me, I have a sneaking suspicion that whatever she writes after this is going to be a classic.


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