As others have noted, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is very much a first draft of a first novel. When PBS aired an episode tag on the book’s publication one of the people interviewed said the manuscript was published “without changing a word.” This is wholly believable. The dialogue is choppy. The internal monologues (and most of the external ones) are didactic. Literary devices—like the tactic Lee uses of alternating between Jean Louise’s internal thoughts and her external conversations—feel forced, awkward, and indulgent.
Where Lee is at her best is exactly where you’d expect her to be: in the scenery, the atmosphere, the descriptions of the daily life of the quiet and not so quiet denizens of a small southern town. To the town of Maycomb itself she brings all her considerable powers to bear. Even if you are one of the eight people on this planet who have not read To Kill a Mockingbird (or one of the two who haven’t seen the movie), you know exactly what the courthouse looks like, and what parts of it smell like. You know what the ice cream shop looks like. What the clearing above the bluff and the steps down to the river look like. Lee has a talent for landscape and it is lovely to lose oneself in its shimmering clarity.
But was Lee really writing a eulogy for the small Southern town? If Go Set a Watchman was her first attempt to wrestle with the implications of the South’s cultural racism and the country’s movement towards modernism and desegregation, then readers owe that first editor a debt for derailing Lee from her intended path, challenging her instead to rewrite the story from Scout’s perspective. As an exploration of racism and modernism, the book is unbearably preachy—it is preachy about being preachy. There is a long digression into the misguided attempts of snobby Yankee church music directors to change or get rid of the old tried and true southern hymns. That’s how preachy it gets. Basically, whenever Lee has a point she wants to make, one of her characters launched into a speech.
But the flashback scenes are pure imagination, by far the best part of the book, so we can be thankful they are also a significant part of the book. “Jean Louise” is an emotionally cramped and uncertain young woman, top-heavy with ideas of how the world should be. “Scout” is everything we’ve always known her to be: relatively unencumbered by expectations—other people’s or her own—and thus free to see how the world is. It’s always dangerous to speculate how much of the writer is in the character, but one wonders. It is illustrative, for example, to compare side-by-side Jean Louise’s visit to Calpurnia in Go Set a Watchman, and Scout’s intrusion into the scene in front of the jail in To Kill a Mockingbird. Both are beautifully described. Both scenes simmer with grief, violence and rage. But Scout walks into a crowd of angry men, protected only by her innocence, and sets the world to rights (at least for one night). Jean Louise walks into a crowd of grief-stricken, angry men and women wearing her obliviousness, and even though no one so much as raises their voice to her, she comes away with her world in ruins, questioning everything she has ever known.
For the people who have picked up Go Set a Watchman wanting to know “what happened” to some of their favorite characters in a favorite book, it is probably facile to suggest they stick to the flashback scenes, but it would be good advice. The water-tower episode, especially, is a marvel. A marvel. And the scene where the children play at “Revival” is impossible not to love, even for an unchurched Yankee. But the reader who picks this book up hoping to find a more coherent and mature exploration of cultural racism and the effects of desegregation in the South will be disappointed. A reader who hopes to find a good story will be disappointed. Lee was neither coherent nor mature as she struggled to write around these issues, and it shows. And the book is not a novel so much as a series of scenes and ideas for scenes strung together along the fragile question of whether or not one can go home again (you can and you can’t). In the end the story fizzles in the face of Lee’s own indecision. Jean Louise has lost a few idols, gained, perhaps, an understanding that even Atticus Finch must have feet of clay. But this is a pallid comfort that does nothing to assuage anyone’s feelings about the racist pamphlet Jean Louise discovered among her father’s books, or the way he tolerates the ugly diatribe given by a frothing-at-the-mouth speaker in his “Citizen’s Council.” Jean Louise learns she can still love the people she has always loved, even when they hold opinions she despises. But it’s noticeable that this revelation—which teaches her how to be reconciled, after a fashion, with her father and friends—does not reconcile her to Calpurnia.
All in all, I’m glad I read it, but even more glad that I read it unencumbered by any real nostalgia for To Kill a Mockingbird, book or movie. It is interesting from a literary standpoint to think about how this book evolved into the one almost everyone agrees you should read at some point in your life. And I think the questions the story asks are worth asking—such as how much of our identity is built upon, and therefore dependent on, racist principles, and what is the cost of keeping that identity? Or questions about the differences between ideas and action, between what we say and what we do. And even questions of what happens when we discover the people we love stand for everything we hate. All these, even if they are posed in language left a little raw, are well worth asking, and certainly worth discussing. If the book leaves us feeling uneasy and dissatisfied, that in itself is an improvement over the sense of benevolent tolerance and nostalgic complacency that we all seem prone to after reading To Kill a Mockingbird.