Go Set a Watchman - Easter Review
Last year, I remember saying that I considered To Kill a Mockingbird as potentially being my second favorite book after The Catcher in the Rye, and how I thought it was deserving of its place in what I described as the high school literature pantheon. Some of its greatest strengths were that it had strong characters, a relatable coming-of-age angle, and a very interesting look into racism as seen through the eyes of Scout Finch.
Well, just a couple weeks ago, I finally got a chance to read what is technically the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird — one that was written back in the mid-50s — that we now know as Go Set a Watchman.
Besides it showing a few aspects with To Kill a Mockingbird — several of the same characters, the same location, and even the same unexpected taste of injustice — Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch was now 26 years old, she had a love interest, it took place in the mid-to-late 50's, and one particular difference that I’m going to save until later in this review. Let’s just say for the time being that shortly after its long-awaited publication in 2015, this particular difference put this book in the same level of controversy as Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.
Scout was going by train from New York City to spend two weeks in her childhood town of good old Maycomb, Alabama. Once there, she reacquainted herself with all her family and friends, including Atticus Finch, who was in his early 70s and showing signs of arthritis, her aunt Alexandra, who moved in with Atticus so she can take care of him, and her boyfriend Henry, or, as she called him, Hank, who happened to be one of her childhood friends along with Dill and her brother Jem.
And speaking of whom, not all of the characters made it here from To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout's brother Jem reportedly and suddenly died some years back from a heart condition, and Dill was only said to have been drafted as a military soldier to Italy.
Also, as Scout reacquainted herself with her familiar surroundings, we are treated to a few flashbacks that took her and us back to her childhood in Maycomb, invoking the same nostalgic essence we remember from To Kill a Mockingbird. Some of them dealt with her adventures as a kid, whereas the last one took us to her years in high school.
One of the most memorable of these flashbacks, to me, was when Scout heard rumors about a girl being french-kissed, as one of her classmates described it, by one of her teachers. Scout started getting paranoid when she was told that being french-kissed meant that she could very likely be pregnant...because she was quote-on-quote 'french-kissed' earlier herself, also by one of her teachers. Because this kind of news, she thought, would have brought dishonor to her family, she contemplated the idea of suicide before she was caught attempting to do so from the top of a water tower.
On a side note, this was all exactly how To Kill a Mockingbird came to be. When Lee wrote the first draft, her editor stated that a story about a mid-20s woman uncovering secrets about her hometown didn’t sound publishable enough to work. Instead, she felt that the flashbacks to when Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch was a kid were so good and so endearing that she suggested to Lee that she rewrite the manuscript so that it would be about Scout at the age shown of her in the flashbacks. Thus, To Kill a Mockingbird was born.
Meanwhile, back in mid-50s Maycomb, Scout continued exploring the ins and outs of life in Maycomb until she decided to follow Atticus and Henry, both of whom were going out to the local courthouse. And when I say the courthouse, I do mean the same one in which Tom Robinson was accused of rape back in To Kill a Mockingbird. As Scout found them both in the courthouse while also sitting in the same balcony where she and Jem sat to watch the Tom Robinson trial, she was shocked to see them both engaging in a group conversation about the Supreme Court and the NAACP's allegedly preoccupied pursuits on desegregation in the South with Mr. O'Hanlon, who had a fair share of local infamy within Maycomb. For what, I forget.
And this leads us to the biggest, the most jarring, and — inevitably so — the most controversial aspect of Go Set a Watchman that separates it from To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch, alongside Henry, revealed themselves to be supportive of segregation. I’m gonna say it again: supportive. of. segregation.
Multiple fans and critics alike, just like Scout herself, were just taken aback by the sudden shift in Atticus' personality, and understandably so. For many, many years, we have all remembered and even idolized Atticus Finch as an embodiment of good will, anti-racism, and undispisputed pursuits of justice in the face of hostility. So, to see him portrayed in such an opposite demeanor of who he stood out as in To Kill a Mockingbird was ripe for torrents of debate.
My take on this? Well, let’s see. I remember having a lot of respect for Atticus Finch for continuing to defend Tom Robinson even though he knew that his commitment to someone of a different race was frowned upon by his hometown of Maycomb. While I can understand why people would be so upset about seeing Atticus as a segregationalist in Go Set a Watchman, I like how it at least explored some unseen angles of his personality. It just goes to show that even the noblest people like Atticus have secrets that they don’t want to show. We all have secrets, secrets that we don’t want to share, but when and if they get exposed, we would have to come to grips with the exposition and try to not let it destroy some of the more genuine things we share or hold dear with others.
This leads to another reason why I frankly admire the exposed personality traits of Atticus. I feel that just like how JD Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye off of some of his own life experiences, I can easily tell that Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and of course, Go Set a Watchman, also off of her own life experiences. She based Scout off of herself, Dill off of one of her childhood friends, Truman Capote (as I found out after reading To Kill a Mockingbird), and she based Atticus Finch off of her own father. His name was A.C. Lee, and he used to be a newspaper editor in his and Harper's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. According to Harper Lee, he supported segregation, just like the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, but he also was sympathetic enough to the plights of some of the local African-Americans to provide them help when he felt like they deserved it, much like the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. Fortunately, in my copy of Go Set a Watchman, I kept with me a newspaper clipping that goes into more detail on A.C. Lee's newspaper history. I posted it here with the review for you to read alongside it.
As for the rest of the story after Scout found out about Atticus and Henry’s secrets, it’s all about her trying to make sense out of what she just learned about them as her perceptions of her hometown and friends (including of her old friend Calpurnia) started crumbling around her until she was left unsure of whether or not she could even trust her own family anymore.
And that’s another thing. In an odd way, I feel like Scout’s perception of what she found out sort of reflects our own perceptions of Maycomb, and especially of Atticus, when reading Go Set a Watchman. Just like Scout, we have been trying forever to make sense out of what we saw from the story and to put the pieces of the puzzle together so that we would have a more complete understanding of Maycomb, its inhabitants, and even the stories themselves.
As you can tell by now, I’m trying to piece some of those puzzle pieces together myself.
Now, getting back again to the topic on the story, there were some problems that I had with Go Set a Watchman. First off, while Atticus’ different personality here was unexpected, I felt like that was all who Atticus was portrayed to be here, as if to say, he showed no hints — or rather, not enough of them — of the benevolent lawyer Atticus we or Scout knew from To Kill a Mockingbird to make him interesting or sympathetic enough.
Also, the narrative structure was not as cohesive as that of To Kill a Mockingbird. In TKAM, the stories were episodic, but they did at least segue with each other very nicely, helping to move the storyline along at a smooth, straightforward pace. Here, the episodic stories ranged from being too noticable to being not as noticeable as the others, and it also doesn't help that this is technicallly the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, anyway. This was Harper Lee's editor's problems with the story, too, so that helps even less.
In a perfect world — and trust me, this is only what I think would have happened — if Lee found the manuscript of the first draft sooner and still had enough momentum to carry on some editing, I could easily see her polishing up Go Set a Watchman until it had more direct connections to To Kill a Mockingbird and portrayed the segregationalist Atticus Finch in a far more sympathetic light. If it was ever done that way, only then would it have felt appropriate to classify this as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.
For what we have, however, this is still an absolute eye-opener of a companion piece to To Kill a Mockingbird. If To Kill a Mockingbird is all about seeing and eventually understanding the world through the eyes of innocence, then Go Set a Watchman is all about how to survive in that world if said innocence is on its deathbed. It allowed us to relive some of the nostalgia of To Kill a Mockingbird while also taking us through unexplored depths that make us rethink how we perceive one of the greatest books, one of the greatest movies, and especially some of the greatest characters of our time...for better or for worse. Check this out and see which side of Atticus' scales you end up on.
“Writings of Lee's Dad Reveal Conflict of Atticus Finch.” Montrose Daily Press, 20 Sept. 2015, pp. A11
Originally published on Facebook, March 31, 2018