The Disappointment of Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Melinda Parks

 

When in the fall of 2014, Harper Collins announced it would publish a long-forgotten manuscript purportedly written by Harper Lee, author of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, America’s response was mixed. Fans of Lee’s original masterpiece eagerly looked forward to reading this unearthed treasure. But because the famously reclusive Lee, now 89-years-old and in poor health (a stroke in 2007 left her largely deaf, blind, and with a failing memory), so firmly refused to communicate with the media or to publish another word after her wildly successful first novel, critics suspected foul play. Why, after so many years, and towards the end of her life, would Harper Lee suddenly agree to release a manuscript she had declined to publish for decades?

 

The reception of this controversial second book, Go Set a Watchman, released in July of 2015, has met with equally mixed reviews. However varied their opinions of the story, critics seem to agree on one aspect of the work: one can’t read Watchman without comparing it to, or at least mentioning, To Kill a Mockingbird. For one, Mockingbird so strongly impacted society at the time of its release, winning Lee a Pulitzer Prize and the movie adaptation of her novel three Oscars, and it has remained a staple of high school curricula and American culture ever since.

 

Moreover, although written first, Go Set a Watchman is the literary continuation of its predecessor; it takes place in the fictional Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama and contains essentially the same cast of characters. It also refers in passing to crucial events from To Kill a Mockingbird, including the pivotal Tom Robinson trial. Without understanding the emotional importance of these references, a reader cannot fully comprehend a grown-up Scout’s evolving relationship with her father or her inner turmoil over the changing culture of the South, both of which form the basis of the story in Watchman.

 

Unfortunately, to compare Go Set a Watchman with To Kill a Mockingbird is to acknowledge an inferior piece of literature. Although signs of Lee’s skill shine through in her characteristic sense of humor, conveyed through sharp observations about her world and colloquial turns of phrase, her writing here is thinner and her characters seem flatter and less developed. The overall storyline, too, is less compelling and lacks the cohesiveness and sense of suspense that defined To Kill a Mockingbird. Ultimately, Watchman does not pack the emotional punch that made that first novel so powerful.  

Given the history behind these two works, it should come as no surprise that To Kill a Mockingbird outstrips its companion in quality. A new documentary from First Run Features, entitled Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman, details the life and work of Harper Lee through photographs and video, clips from archived interviews, and the commentary of notable writers, historians, celebrities, and friends, including Oprah Winfrey, Walley Lamb, Mary Badham, and Lee’s elderly sister, Alice. According to this documentary, Mockingbird wouldn’t exist if not for a Christmas gift from Lee’s fellow Southerners and good friends in New York, Joy and Michael Brown. Knowing that she hoped to become an author, the Browns financed a one-year vacation from her job as an airline reservationist to write whatever she wanted; the result was Watchman and a collection of stories, called Atticus, which would eventually develop into To Kill a Mockingbird.

 

Still, when Lee brought her writing to a literary agent in 1957 – who, according to Joy Brown, understood the “feel” of Lee’s work and helped her shape her style – they sent it to 10 different publishers before a Philadelphia publishing house finally agreed to work with her. Tay Hohoff, a critical force in editing the novel, is quoted as saying, “There were many things wrong about it. It was more a collection of short stories than a true novel… It’s an indication of how seriously we were impressed by the author that we signed a contract at that point.” It would take two more years of what Lee called in a 1961 New York Times interview, “a long and hopeless period of writing the book over and over again,” before To Kill a Mockingbird was finally published.

 

Lee’s obvious talent, combined with years of re-writing and meticulous editing, resulted in the undeniable masterpiece that is To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Lee’s writing is beautiful and rich. Through loving descriptions of small-town Alabama, intelligent and often hilarious character sketches, and her singular manner of stringing charming anecdotes together to form one cohesive work, she captures the essence of the South during the Depression. The ongoing mystery of Boo Radley, whose eerie presence recurs throughout the story as the Finch children grow up, builds a sense of increasing suspense that drives the plot along. Moreover, by narrating Mockingbird through the eyes of an innocent girl learning about the world around her, yet with the wisdom of a woman looking back at her childhood, Lee touches on important themes of race, justice, and accepting others – all with the wide-eyed honesty of a child. She doesn’t preach about racial prejudice in the South; she simply presents it in all its ugly truth.

 

 

While To Kill a Mockingbird exists as a sort of love letter to Lee’s youth and hometown, Go Set a Watchman sets out to deconstruct the world she so tenderly built in her first book. As Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman tells it, both of these novels are largely autobiographical. Harper Lee, known as Nelle by her friends and family, grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, which serves as the inspiration for the Maycomb of Mockingbird and Watchman. Her father, A.C. Lee, was a state legislator and a respected judge, and by all accounts as dignified and respectable as his fictional counterpart, Atticus. Lee’s mother, Francis Finch Lee (her maiden name provided the surname for the novel’s family), passed away when Harper was 25, and her brother died suddenly six months later. Scout’s deceased mother, and Jem’s tragic death in Watchman, mirror these traumatic moments in Lee’s own life. Finally, and most famously, Scout’s eccentric next-door-neighbor and playmate, Dill Harris, is based on American writer Truman Capote, who spent summers next-door to Lee in Monroeville.

 

Go Set a Watchman opens as Scout, now called by her given name, Jean Louise, returns home to Maycomb at the age of 26 for a visit from New York City. The year is 1952, and racial tensions have come to a head in the South. When Jean Louise stumbles upon her father and boyfriend attending a County Citizen’s Council meeting alongside Maycomb’s most vocal white supremacists, she struggles to reconcile this discovery of her father’s racial prejudices with her lifelong perception that he is a paragon of justice and morality. Her resistance to the many ways her hometown has changed – she first mocks her own “conservative resistance to change” in Chapter Four, and repeatedly notes the many ways Maycomb is different now than it used to be – and her struggle to knock her father off the pedestal she put him on as a child, represent the internal, cultural battle waged in the South during the Civil Rights Era. 

 

In the Harper Lee documentary, writers and historians discuss the cultural relevance of To Kill a Mockingbird at the time of its release in 1960. Just as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, Lee’s story of racial injustice in the South reminded people just how little society had progressed since the 1930s, how cruel and illogical racism was and how much American society still had to change. Go Set a Watchman arrives, similarly, at a time of widely publicized police brutality and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, offering an uncomfortable parallel to the racial unrest of the 1960s. Although written more than 50 years ago, this novel is pertinent today.

 

Unfortunately, Go Set a Watchman will never impact society the way To Kill a Mockingbird did, simply because it falls short of its prequel’s literary genius. It reads like a draft because it is a draft, untouched since Lee finished it and set it aside in 1956, and it suffers from the lack of painstaking editing that transformed Mockingbird. In Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman, publisher Michael Morrison claims that an aging Lee declined to edit the manuscript. Her old friend Joy Brown argues that altering the text at this point would destroy the integrity of her writing. But the language of this novel is awkward and unpolished in places, the dialogue doesn’t always read authentically, and several passages are copied directly, word-for-word, from Mockingbird. Moreover, the plotline is overall disjointed, peppered with frequent flashbacks that add little value to the ultimate purpose of the storyline other than to offer a sense of nostalgia for the universe of Mockingbird (this is unfortunate, as Lee’s writing is its funniest and most intelligent when she narrates her childhood adventures).

 

 

In the last interview Harper Lee ever granted before ultimately receding from the public eye in 1964, she claimed to be writing regularly and working on a new project. Sister Alice, however, reveals how heavily the success of To Kill a Mockingbird weighed on her: “She says you couldn’t top what she had done. As she told one of our cousins who asked her, she said, I haven’t anywhere to go but down.”

Lee never published another novel, and she once confessed to Oprah Winfrey over lunch that she wouldn’t grant anymore interviews because she empathized so much with her character Boo Radley, wary of the public. Although Joy Brown assures us that Lee has “all her marbles” and is “delighted” by the publication of Go Set a Watchman, there is something deeply disappointing about following Mockingbird with such an average book. Had Lee decided to finish and publish it decades ago, Watchman had the potential to be a truly remarkable piece of literature, on par with the classic we all love.

 

Author Bio:

Melinda Parks is the pen name of a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

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