Friday, August 7, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve probably heard the news about the publication of a “new” novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, and while it has gone on to become one of the most beloved books in American literature, Lee never had another book published—until now, that is. Go Set a Watchman hit the bookshelves and the bestsellers lists last month, generating lots of controversy in the process (did Lee truly give her consent to have it published, for example). Go Set a Watchman is not Harper Lee’s second novel, it’s actually her first. After submitting it to her agent, Maurice Crain, who in turn submitted a revised version to publishing company J. B. Lippincott, it was rewritten numerous times until three years later, To Kill a Mockingbird was the result. One might say that Go Set a Watchman gave birth to To Kill a Mockingbird, as pieces of it (the anecdotes involving the narrator’s childhood in the fictional town of Maycomb) were extracted and expanded into the novel we know and love today.

That said, you may have heard that Go Set a Watchman is a sequel of sorts. Indeed, the narrative takes place twenty years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, but it’s certainly not a “Further Adventures of Scout and the Gang” follow-up. If that’s what you’re expecting or what you’ve been led to believe, forget it. Scout’s all grown up now (call her Jean Louise, thank you) and living in New York, but her homecoming to Maycomb quickly falls apart when she begins to see her hometown—and her beloved father, Atticus—not through the idyllic lens of childhood but with the critical eyes of an adult. Needless to say, she doesn’t like what she sees. Some of the citizens of Maycomb (Atticus included, it seems) appear to be mobilizing for war against an invasion of “outside agitators” (namely the government and the NAACP) and their progressive agenda (desegregation, equal voting rights, etc.), and in Jean’s eyes, they are standing on the wrong side of history. This, of course, puts her directly at odds with Atticus, the one person she felt she could always count on to do and say the right things, culminating in a fierce confrontation between the two.

But I’m sure what you’re really wondering is this: is Go Set a Watchman worth reading? I believe it is. In fact, I really enjoyed it. Reading it just underscored to me what an incredibly gifted writer Harper Lee is (or was, given her lack of output over the years). Some will say that because it’s a first draft, it’s more of an academic curiosity and not worth the general reading public’s time. I disagree. Could it use a bit more polish in places? Sure, but I would argue that a first draft from Harper Lee is in many ways far better than the final drafts I’ve read from some of today’s writers. Others might say that if you loved To Kill a Mockingbird, you’ll hate Go Set a Watchman. Maybe, but I suppose that’s more a matter of personal taste. It’s not a breezy summer read. Given the milieu of the book and the issues it debates, some of the passages may make you cringe a bit, so you should certainly keep this in mind. I will also say that, having read it, I understand why Lee’s original editors really zeroed in on those passages dealing with Jean Louise's childhood, for it’s in those recollections that the story truly shines. 

Ultimately, the choice to read Go Set a Watchman—or not—is up to you, but I think you’d be missing out on something truly special if you decide to pass it by. 

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