Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

GO SET A WATCHMANGo Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee. I read a Kindle copy given to me on the day the book was released, in July 2015.

For further comments and articles on this book, Harper Lee, and the hype surrounding all of it, see these blog entries: Haven Kimmel Month Postponed; What? Harper Lee Is Back on the Horse?; Book Review for To Kill a Mockingbird; The First Line is Wonderful.

Obviously, I did not find this book on the Best Books list, because it had absolutely no time to get there. But Harper Lee’s other and only other book–To Kill a Mockingbird–is an absolute classic. And, as the articles mentioned above state in more detail, there was so much hubub about the release of this new book, Go Set a Watchman, that any self-respecting literary blogger would have to jump on the bandwagon. So jump I did.

Officially, as I understand it (through all the rumors), Watchman was written before Mockingbird, but was set aside and never meant to be published. But after fifty years of gathering dust, Lee’s lawyer/publisher convinced her to release Watchman, which acts as a sort of sequel to Mockingbird. It is this written first/taking place second dichotomy which causes some of the issues with this book.

Let me jump in here with my first recommendation: do not read these books in quick succession. I read Mockingbird (review HERE) because I hardly remembered anything about it from my high school days, and then settled into Watchman the next day. Although you might think this would make sense, it just doesn’t work out. The writing between the two books is quite different (maturity- and skill-wise), as is the tone and even the topics and age-identity. But more than that, there is way too much repeated information. I highly suspect that when Lee decided to set aside her first novel, she yanked entire sections from it when it suited her to place in the second, never thinking the first would see the light of day. Oddly enough, the editors decided to keep the original manuscript as is. There are literally whole sentences and even paragraphs which are carbon copies of sentences and paragraphs (check out the beginning of chapter three and part two) in the companion book. Odd, odd decision. And so disappointing when you have just read the other book.

Now for a general statement before more critiques. I liked this book. It was a pretty good read. It never would have made it like it did without the allure of Harper Lee’s life and the brilliancy of her one other book. I am waffling between a three and a four (stars), and I feel sad that the three stars could have been totally avoided by more editing. Was someone somewhere determined to keep this book like the original manuscript? Was it rushed to press? Did Lee just not have the edits in her? Unknown. Lee is clearly a writing genius, but this particular book reeks of an earlier attempt at saying the same things she crystallized in Mockingbird.

And that leads me here: critique of Watchman is always going to beg comparison with Mockingbird. It’s both inevitable and irritating. It’s irritating because absolutely no one can be expected to write up to a nearly pristine American classic. So when cast in the light of MockingbirdWatchman is almost always going to land itself in the shadows. It’s just not as great of a book, and like I pointed out earlier, it’s a very different book, despite its similarity of author, characters, and place.

Problems:

  • This book is not as fluid, clean, or articulate as the other. This can probably be attributed to her growing as a writer between the writing of each.
  • There is more dry history about Maycomb, which just seems to drag on and on, telling and not showing. This was an issue I had with the other book, as well.
  • Not much happens in this book. Almost all the action (besides walking around town and falling asleep) takes place in the flashbacks, which are few and far between. There’s no problem or mystery to solve, no big event we’re building up to. At most, we’re wondering vaguely if Scout will marry Henry and if she’ll move back to town. Like my notes say, the real tension in this book is in Scout’s decisions. (Yes, I know her name is Jean Louise, but it’s easier to say “Scout.”) That makes it an internal novel, which some readers will really like, but so very different from what people expected.
  • Trying to avoid spoilers here, but one of the main characters from the first book is killed off in an off-handed sentence in this book. It was like, oh yeah by the way, he/she died. Big problem.
  • I might be wrong about this, but I thought there were some discrepancies in the infamous court case, between the books.
  • Watchman gets a lot preachy. It seemed even more preachy to me, since I read Jean Louise as rash, disrespectful, and maybe even going actual crazy. I think it loses its nuance and its sense of humanity, at least for a few chapters.
  • Speaking of which, the climax was not handled deftly. It was clunky and I found all the characters to be out of sync with themselves, like the climax was being forced on us, forced into a preconceived idea. They say that in good writing the characters take over and the ending becomes inevitable based on them. This felt like the opposite of that, to me. Then we had the conclusion, which I thought was too brilliant followed by too tidy.
  • Um, what was Jean Louise’s job? Did I just miss a sentence somewhere, or what? That’s some basic information.

As for the positives, I truly enjoyed Scout’s internal drifts, especially when Lee would mess with time and place, and the reader was sort of caught between her reality and her memory and bearings were lost. It was sort of Alice in Wonderland-ish, but not unless the reader was paying close attention. Also, I don’t dislike a protagonist-centric novel, and this novel is very protagonist-centric. And the elliptical paragraphs are super funny. Love ’em. I could have done with more of both the internal drifts and the elliptical paragraphs.

And we have to deal with the “Atticus is a racist” thing, which is what I keep seeing plastered across reviews. Personally, I think this book is much more about variations and shadings of human character than it is about racism. It’s about maturing in the sense that we all have to swallow reality in the same gulp as our ideals. Jean Louise wasn’t right to overreact, but she was right to keep her own North star even when her shrines were desecrated. Yes, the racist issues are there, but to me the book spoke more to say there is no perfect view of life and that no one person could posses that view if there were. Even our own current ideas–as a culture–may not be–heaven forbid!–perfect. On top of that, both these books are historical, and judging Atticus as a modern reader may be anachronistic. I love the idea of learning from history, but I also love the idea of doing that without too harshly judging it. Lord knows we have our blind spots, now, and what they are we can not, by definition, tell.

In conclusion, Watchman has some truly awkward moments, but Lee’s writing power is evident even if she wouldn’t hit her stride until Mockingbird. Why didn’t they edit more? Unknown. I recommend reading Watchman if you are curious, but not immediately following Mockingbird, for heaven’s sake, and not expecting too much.

_______________

QUOTES

“If you did not want much, there was plenty.”

“She was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way.”

“‘I’m not familiar with the author,’ she said, thus condemning the book forever.”

“When she looked thus, only God and Robert Browning knew what she was likely to say.”

“If the folks in Maycomb don’t get one impression, they’ll get another.”

“‘She got my goat, Atticus.’ / ‘You shouldn’t have let her.'”

“No, they just like to look strange and mysterious. When you get past all the boa feathers, every woman born in this world wants a strong man who knows her like a book, who’s not only her lover but he who keepeth Israel.”

“Don’t push her. Let her go at her own speed. Push her and every mule in the country’d be easier to live with.”

“It might work after all, she thought. But I am not domestic. I don’t even know how to run a cook. What do ladies say to each other when they go visiting? I’d have to wear a hat. I’d drop the babies and kill them.”

“…a choir of repressed soloists…”

“…telephone manners: he viewed such instruments with deep anger and his conversations were monosyllabic at best.”

“It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him, to shift her burden to him, but she was silent.”

“‘Ain’t anything in this world so bad you can’t tell it,’ she said.”

“Don’t you study about other folk’s business till you take care of your own.”

“…you ain’t called upon to contradict ’em, just don’t pay ’em any attention…”

“‘Good morning. You look like pale blue sin,’ he said.”

“What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved? Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually through the years until now?”

“Now we are both lonely, for entirely different reasons, but it feels the same, doesn’t it?”

“She glanced down the long, low-ceilinged livingroom at the double row of women, women she had merely known all her life, and she could not talk to them five minutes without drying up.”

“I hope the world will little note nor long remember what you are saying here.”

“…as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons, I hope to God it’ll be a comparatively bloodless Reconstruction this time.”

“The only thing in America that is still unique in this tired world is that a man can go as far as his brains will take him or he can go to hell if he wants to, but it won’t be that way much longer.”

“Do? I expect you to keep your gold-plated ass out of citizen’s’ councils! I don’t give a damn if Atticus is sitting across from you, if the King of England’s on your right and the Lord Jehovah’s on your left–I expect you to be a man, that’s all!”

“We-ll, some men who cheat their wives out of grocery money wouldn’t think of cheating the grocer. Men tend to carry their honesty in pigeon-holes, Jean Louise.”

“Jean Louise, I’m only trying to tell you some plain truths. You must see things as they are, as well as they should be.”

“Why didn’t you show me, why weren’t you careful when you read me history and the things that I thought meant something to you that there was a fence around everything marked ‘White Only?'”

“When it came we didn’t give an inch, we just ran instead. When we should have tried to help ’em live with the decision, it was like Bonaparte’s retreat we ran so fast.”

“He had declined to be angry. Somewhere within her she felt that she was no lady but no power on earth would prevent him from being a gentleman, yet the piston inside drove her on.”

“You deny that they’re human.'” / ‘How so?’ / ‘You deny them hope. Any man in this world, Atticus, any man who has a head and arms and legs, was born with hope in his heart.'”

“How they’re as good as they are now is a mystery to me, after a hundred years of systematic denial that they’re human, I wonder what kind of miracle we could work with a week’s decency.”

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”

“…just like you, child. You turned and tackled no less than your own tin god…”

“That’s the one thing about here, the South, you’ve missed. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side’s the right word.”

“…the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right.”

“You’re not by yourself, Jean Louise. You’re no special case.”

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