Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman: Better Off Lost?

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Harper Lee. Photo: Christy Bowe/Globe Photos/Corbis

“Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.” These lines are delivered near the end of Harper Lee’s new lost-and-found book Go Set a Watchman, and they neatly explain why the book might have been better off lost.

Instead, to hear the publishers tell it, she traded the contemporary setting of Watchman, circa 1955, for the 1930s, and in writing To Kill a Mockingbird was able to tell a story of simple moral clarity. If it was the clarity of a white savior, well, that’s the best you could find, or invent, in 1930s Alabama, when desegregation wasn’t yet on the horizon. Seeing the present, in the form of a novel, wasn’t a trick she’d mastered. And even if she had, I doubt it would have had the makings of a blockbuster book or a Hollywood film. Moral clarity is harder to come by in fiction that dramatizes the present. Historical fiction, even when it’s set just a few decades back, has a tendency to congratulate the present for overcoming, or starting to ameliorate, the moral failings of the past.

The twin themes of Go Set a Watchman are disillusion and nostalgia. Disillusion has the upper hand as Jean Louise “Scout” Finch comes home to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City, tours her hometown, and finds that things have changed: The house she grew up in is now an ice-cream parlor; and worse, her father Atticus and her childhood sweetheart Hank have joined the all-white Citizens Council that’s trying to stall federally mandated desegregation and ward off the NAACP. The trick in Mockingbird was to give nostalgia the upper hand, and to cloak disillusion in a child’s discovery of the injustices of the adult world. In Watchman, Jean Louise is constantly moving in some state of distress through the altered landscape of her childhood, and “memories” inevitably “stir.” It’s structurally clunky, and paired with the book’s racial politics, it raises the question: Why didn’t Scout see that everything was wrong all along? Jean Louise’s disillusion is overdone (it causes her to vomit, among other things), and it defies plausibility. The third-person narration, in some places omniscient but mostly sticking fairly close to Jean Louise’s point of view, doesn’t help matters. For stretches, especially in the nostalgic passages, Lee’s charm is evident on the sentence level, and this is surely what made her editor believe in her, because Go Set a Watchman is a lousy novel. Boring, sentimental, trite, and a bit ugly. (On the last score, see Scout’s discussion of interracial marriage with her Uncle Jack.)

Abandoning Watchman for what became Mockingbird (and was for a time titled Atticus) was commercially shrewd, and the process of revision made Lee a far better novelist. After its first hundred pages Mockingbird becomes a thriller of sorts, as the taunts of Scout's classmates who call her father a “nigger-lover” lead to the powerfully executed trial scene and its violent aftermath, as Robert E. Lee Ewell, the redneck who accuses Tom Robinson of raping his daughter and is humiliated by Atticus Finch even as he prevails in court, terrorizes Maycomb and stalks the Finch children before Boo Radley comes out of hiding to kill him. The Gothic elements and the stunning suspense of Mockingbird are entirely absent in Watchman. One thing the two books do have in common is a tendency to lapse into didactic dialogues about racial injustice. The difference is that in Mockingbird, one or both of the people talking is always a child, while in Watchman, both the people talking are adults, and at least one is a vile racist.

The spectacle of the discovery and marketing of Go Set a Watchman has been grotesque. From the weird controversy over Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter’s raiding of her safe-deposit box, to the state of Alabama’s investigation of elder abuse (it concluded otherwise), to Lee’s Scout-sound-alike statements issued by Carter (she’s “happy as hell”), to Carter’s hints that there might be another book or two in the safe-deposit box, to Michiko Kakutani’s scoop that Watchman’s Atticus is a white supremacist — one is left with the sense of a wake of aliterary vultures hovering around a helpless stroke victim, counting the Amazon preorders by the millions. The appropriate publication of Watchman would have been a scholarly edition issued a few years after its author’s death. The only person who comes out of this affair looking good is Tay Hohoff, the Lippincott editor who told Lee to start over.

Had Go Set a Watchman arrived as a scholarly curiosity, however, rather than as a preposterously overhyped publishing “event,” it would have taken its logical place in the ongoing debate about the racial politics of To Kill a Mockingbird. For a generation or so, a contrarian club made up of a minority of Mockingbird readers, legal scholars such as Monroe Freedman, southern historians, and Malcolm Gladwell have been arguing that Atticus Finch was less a saint seeking a political miracle than a man invested in the maintenance of the southern Establishment and the rule of the law, including the ones that held up the Jim Crow status quo. Of a man who leads a lynch mob out to murder his client, he says, “Mr. Cunningham’s basically a good man ... he just has his blind spots like the rest of us.” It’s a good definition of a racist: a good person who happens to be inclined to oppress and terrorize people whose humanity falls into a blind spot.

The Atticus skeptics were at first angrily dismissed by the book’s many, many partisans devoted to the novel’s fairy-tale elements, and to the notion of Atticus as a progressive standing somehow outside of time. As it turns out, the people who claimed to love the book most were wrong, and the ones who took issue with it were right. All along, Harper Lee had a more tortured view of the racial politics of the era, and the region, than her readers did. Some, like Adam Gopnik, have already suggested that the version of Watchman we’re reading is actually a sequel to Mockingbird, reworked after the latter’s publication, but the jarring clashes of continuity between the texts as well as Watchman’s generally cruder level of literary sophistication suggest we should take Lee at her word about the publication history. The inevitable conclusion is that she diluted the political complexity of her novel for us. Mockingbird, perhaps the most beloved book ever written by an American (in 2006, British librarians rated it more essential than the Bible), the one embraced by generation after generation as a national moral fable, was, in fact, a narrative act of condescension. We weren’t ready for an honest picture of a character based on her father, the pattern of revisions say, only for a childishly rendered racial hero (and don’t forget, a hero who doesn’t actually change anything, just demonstrates his own dignity). To judge by the first outraged response to the news that Atticus was all along, in Lee's mind, a white supremacist, we still aren't ready. 

I can’t help but think of the whole affair as a distraction from superior novels that partake of the Southern Gothic published this year, like Nell Zink’s Mislaid and Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country, and more bracing works about race, like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. The oddest coincidence is that Ta-Nehisi Coates’s already much-lauded Between the World and Me, an epistolary meditation on what he sees as the fundamentally static nature of race relations in this country, was published the same day as Watchman. Coates’s most powerful idea is that Americans who think of themselves as white and progressive have achieved their progress “through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs.” He calls the denial of this reality "the Dream": “The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake ... the Dream rests on our backs.” The Dream is also To Kill a Mockingbird. That readers of Mockingbird are even more attached to a Dream version of Atticus than the person who is not just his author but — to commit an act of narrator-author confusion — his daughter, well … as Stephen King put it on Twitter, “Watch the critics clobber GO SET A WATCHMAN. ‘Thou shalt not monkey with our scared literary cows.’ For the rest of us: you go, girl!”  

To Kill a Mockingbird was never much of a sacred cow for me. I was never made to read it in school and had never picked it up until last week, when I promptly fell in love with Scout. I wonder whether the appearance of Go Set a Watchman, an inferior novel with a more mature morality, will have an effect on Mockingbird’s pedagogical utility. Perhaps our teenagers deserve a better introduction to racial politics than the figure of the white savior, and perhaps the librarians of Britain will go back to the Bible.

*A version of this article appears in the July 27, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.