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Reviewed by:
  • Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
  • Zachary Raasch (bio)
Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (Harper, 2015), 278 pp.

Shortly after Harper Lee’s sister/executor passed away, Lee’s new executor discovered the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman and sought to publish it with Harper Lee’s blessing. This, at least, is the publisher’s official [End Page 141] stance. Several decades prior, however, Lee had insisted that she did not intend to publish Go Set a Watchman. So the fact that the book’s publication comes when Harper Lee’s physical and mental health is quickly declining—so much so that her sister, before passing away, had stated that Harper would sign any document put in front of her—casts doubt over the legitimacy of the publication. And for many readers this would be enough to justify never picking up the book. Yet for those still interested in reading it, there is a second hurdle to get past: Go Set a Watchman is a bad novel.

The book’s central premise is simple: Jean Louise must come to terms with the realization that her father, Atticus, whom she describes as “the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, ‘he is a gentleman,’” is a segregationist. However, despite its apparent simplicity, the book spends its first third meandering through Maycomb County’s present and past before the plot even surfaces. And when it does at last arrive, both Jean Louise and Harper Lee seem wholly disinterested in acknowledging it outside of a slew of one-sided dialogues—dialogues that are only read as such because they happen to take place between the thin veil of quotation marks. They read more as Lee’s own philosophical diatribes, her role as demagogue broken up only by a secondary character’s occasional “go on” or “how so.” These disparate, poorly constructed scenes are just one of the many reasons that Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor at J. B. Lippincott, initially rejected Go Set a Watchman, suggesting instead that Lee focus on the book’s flashbacks to when Jean Louise was known as Scout (one of the few areas where Lee’s beautiful prose shined through). Over the next few years—with the guiding hand of Hohoff—Harper Lee worked through several drafts until the final version, To Kill a Mockingbird, was released for publication in 1960.

Now in 2015, we are faced with that original draft. Thankfully—despite what the publisher wants you to believe—Go Set a Watchman is neither a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, nor a completed novel. And the book itself makes no attempt to hide this. In fact, many of Watchman’s best-written moments highlight its role as a draft of Mockingbird. Take the following description of Finch’s Landing:

A two-rut road ran from the far end of the clearing and vanished among dark trees. At the end of the road was a two-storied white house with porches extending around its four sides, upstairs and downstairs.

This passage from Chapter 5 of Go Set a Watchman can also be found, word for word, in Chapter 9 of To Kill a Mockingbird—one of many identical passages throughout the two books. And when Go Set a Watchman is not repeating passages from Mockingbird, it is altering central facts of the book. The trial of Tom Robinson in Go Set a Watchman is stripped of its power as well. Instead of the powerful courtroom scenes—in which Atticus solidifies himself as literature’s moral compass, and Jem’s development [End Page 142] truly begins to take place—the trial is only briefly mentioned as a way to highlight the gap between Jean Louise’s memory of a moral father and the fact of his overt racism facing her upon her return to Maycomb County. Watchman’s version of the trial simply states that Atticus “accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl.”

If we slip into...


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pp. 141-143
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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