Thoughts: Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee

I’m not going to touch the controversy surrounding the publication of Go Set A Watchman, because all I know is what I’ve read in the papers and I don’t think my opinion is particularly informed.

For the unfamiliar, Go Set A Watchman is a sort of early draft version of To Kill A Mockingbird, set many years after the events detailed in To Kill A Mockingbird. In my opinion, it was revised into To Kill A Mockingbird for good reason. Spoilers below.

Don’t get me wrong, I did generally enjoy Go Set A Watchman. Lee’s descriptions of Maycomb are once again wonderful, her characters are vividly drawn and Jean-Louise’s (only Scout to family now) voice is snarky and dry. The story surrounds Jean-Louise’s homecoming from New York back to her sleepy little hometown, and the way that home both stays the same and changes in painful ways when you’re away (and so do you). So yes, I found that pretty relatable as a theme. It’s also a sort of coming-of-age story, in which Jean-Louise confronts the father she’s idolised all her life. And I get that too, that being away or maybe being who you are and growing up results in ideological rifts between you and family, and those conversations are hard and awful and upsetting, but… It’s complicated, OK?

Firstly, we’re all used to Atticus being the character he evolved into, so seeing this early version of him in which he sort of… infiltrated the KKK? but was also actually racist? is jarring. I mean, is this still canon? Did To Kill A Mockingbird overwrite this timeline or merely omit it? It’s impossible to say, as Harper Lee herself didn’t publish it herself. I found myself veering wildly between thinking I understood Atticus and being totally alienated by him.

Secondly, this draft was written in 1957, and it stands to reason that some things – some mindsets – are going to feel alien, and furthermore, as someone who was born in the 80s, I can’t say with any certainty what would or would not have been edited out*. Which parts are representative of the time and which are individual opinions?

Thirdly, Atticus’s social experiments and abstract arguments all concern the lives of actual, systematically powerless people and this was probably normal for some people at the time but it’s really, really… “dated” now. Dated, anathema, you know. Sidenote: Atticus and Jean-Louise’s unquestioned assumptions that black people are less intelligent than white people has come up in my reading before, and this, this is why we must always be aware of how intelligence testing and research can be used politically. Science reporting does not exist in a vacuum.

The events of To Kill A Mockingbird are described in quite brief flashback. A lot of the book is flashback, actually. The juxtaposition between what used to be and what is now is important to the theme, and we get some really great anecdotes from young Scout’s life that didn’t have a place in To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s a nice sort of bonus reel in that sense.

I did have a problem with the climax, which is possibly unfair of me as this seems to be an unedited first draft according to Wikipedia, in that nothing was ever explained. Everything comes to a head – Jean-Louise confronts Atticus about his racism and they have a big argument touching on unexplained Supreme Court judgements and unexplained amendments to the US constitution and as I didn’t know from context what either of these were, huge swathes of that argument – the climax of the book! – made zero sense to me. We don’t get a year, we don’t get a single hint of the contents of either of these things in the text. I know a decent amount of US history (as any anglophone person living in the world does) but I had no idea what these were without looking them up. (This was distracting and annoying in Basti, and just because the US is English speaking doesn’t make it less distracting and annoying, just easier to look up.) This is something that I assume would be fixed/explained more after the editing process. It’s also something that, if the book had been set anywhere other than the US, would have been explained at LEAST in a footnote in an unedited-first-draft-published-after-famous-author’s-death.

The topic of racism was dealt with in an overall weaker way than in To Kill A Mockingbird. With Jean-Louise’s coming of age front and centre, there isn’t much of a space to really deal with it at all except as a plot device. And though Jean-Louise’s coming of age and coming into her own, becoming her own person or however you want to describe it, is well done (if you can ignore “racism as plot device”), it’s not particularly new. The story of To Kill A Mockingbird is frankly more interesting, and has a lot more to say.

*OK, so we do know – the answer is “almost all of it” because this draft became To Kill A Mockingbird. But assuming that the story was kept largely in its current form, we don’t know what a “perfected” version would look like.

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