review round-up

What Critics Are Saying About Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the first draft of what turned into her much-beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, was released today. Ever since Michiko Kakutani used her review to tell the world that Harper Lee’s beloved Atticus was perhaps more complicated than we always believed, most people’s attention has focused on the jarring idea that this paragon of racial tolerance was actually a bigot. But what else are critics saying about this highly anticipated novel? Though the reviews have been mixed, one overarching theme that many critics have zeroed in on is that there is a lot to learn from the novel, as both a writer and a reader.

“Students of writing will find ‘Watchman’ fascinating for these reasons: How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father? How did a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech (from the casually patronizing to the disgustingly grotesque — and presumably meant to capture the extreme prejudice that could exist in small towns in the Deep South in the 1950s) mutate into a redemptive novel associated with the civil rights movement, hailed, in the words of the former civil rights activist and congressman Andrew Young, for giving us ‘a sense of emerging humanism and decency’?” —Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times

“It is, in most respects, a new work, and a pleasure, revelation and genuine literary event, akin to the discovery of extra sections from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land or a missing act from Hamlet hinting that the prince may have killed his father. Teachers of American literature have been handed a fascinating potential course comparing and contrasting the pair. Until then, Go Set a Watchman shakes the settled view of both an author and her novel. And, unless another surprise for readers lies somewhere in her files, this publication intensifies the regret that Harper Lee published so little.” —Mark Lawson, The Guardian

“All I know for certain is that Go Set a Watchman is kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece.” —Maureen Corrigan,  NPR

“In the reading of Go Set A Watchman is the sensation of a writer engaging in the process, it is self conscious but it is interesting in the light of what would happen when Harper Lee went back to re-work it, which she did, three times, under the astute guidance of her editor Tay Hohoff, of Lippincott. A more fluid style emerged as did a convincing – and consistent narrative voice – that of the six-year-old Scout Finch.” —Eileen Battersby,  Irish Times

“Whether feelings of disillusionment with Atticus or Watchman’s technical flaws will tarnish the prowess of Mockingbird, only time will tell. Separating the two novels intellectually is easily done; but to invest in this emotionally is a harder task. While Mockingbird undoubtedly remains the literary superstar, as Atticus remains its hero, Watchman presents a more nuanced study of racial prejudice. In light of recent tensions in America - despite the passing of what we often assume is 60-odd years of progress - this is perhaps a more timely and important portrait than we would like to admit.” —Lucy Scholes, BBC

“I just want people to understand two things: First, this is all about the money. And second, reading Watchman will forever tarnish your memories of one of the most beloved books in American literature.” —Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly

“Go Set a Watchman is a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of To Kill a Mockingbird. This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion.” —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

“Reading ‘Watchman,’ which publishes Tuesday, one sees the imprint of the earlier draft — whole passages repeated nearly word for word: descriptions of the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala.; character studies of its residents seemingly in preparation for the work it would become — all of this good fodder for scholars, writers and students of literature and writing who can measure in it the evolution of a writer and her story through the process of revision.” —Natasha Trethewy, the Washington Post

“If I’m hesitant to level such a criticism, it’s because although ‘Go Set a Watchman’ comes marketed as an autonomous novel, it is most interesting as a literary artifact. How did Lee take the frame of this fiction and collapse it to create ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ finding a narrative fluency only hinted at within this draft? How did she refine her language, her scene construction, discover a way to enlarge what are here little more than political and social commonplaces, to expose a universal human core? Regardless of the answers, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ shows where she began.” —David L. Ulin, L.A. Times

“While To Kill a Mockingbird ends with a sense of hope that people truly are good, Go Set a Watchman wraps up with resignation that people often cannot change. Books can be self-contained; lives have the sad tendency to grow only more messy as time goes by. Jean Louise learns that she cannot write off her father—his good and his bad—just because of the views he’s always held, or because he’s a figure from a past that’s receding too slowly. It’s only by striving to see him with the eyes of an adult that she can come to understand what she stands for. Painful though it may be, that’s the reader’s task too.” —Daniel D’Addario, Time

“The fact that Go Set a Watchman is not quite a draft makes it more confusing. If we were reading notes or marginalia, it would advertise itself more clearly as what it is: a novelist’s path to a better book.” —Gaby Wood, The Telegraph

What Critics Are Saying About Go Set a Watchman