More than half a century separates the publication of Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s intriguingly flawed second novel, from the release of To Kill a Mockingbird, its beloved predecessor, in July, 1960, and it will likely take an additional fifty years, if not a full century, for another novel to weave as strange and sinuous a path to American bookshelves as this one has. The plot of Watchman‘s provenance, in stark contrast to its own internal story, is a knot of confused chronologies, shifty motivations, and uncomplicated greed. Though its original manuscript was written (and deemed unpublishable) sometime before Mockingbird‘s, Watchman is in every effect a sequel, a continuation of Scout Finch’s narrative set squarely in Maycomb County, Alabama, twenty years after Atticus Finch nobly failed to defend Tom Robinson against charges of rape. To what extent (or no extent) Watchman has been edited, either recently or in the past five decades, has never been officially established, but its deviations from Mockingbird suggest not at all; the version that Lee’s editor rejected, in the late ’50s, probably bears a not insignificant resemblance to the hardcover that HarperCollins published in 2015. The facts presented in the two fictions overlap but not entirely–the worst inconsistency, among many lesser ones, being that Atticus gained an acquittal in the Robinson case. The Maycomb County in Watchman seems to exist in a universe parallel to Mockingbird‘s, a bizarro space in which an ugliness belies everything Scout Finch once reckoned lovely, and where a coldness has crept into the summer swelter. It is not an enchanting place to visit, and that may have been Harper Lee’s intent. Go Set A Watchman is set somewhere far less attractive to the lay reader than the Maycomb County of yore. The name of this terrible place is adulthood.
As the handsome gloom of the novel’s cover portends, Go Set A Watchman opens on a train in transit, with Scout Finch being brought by commodious vicus of recirculation back to Maycomb County and environs. Scout, who now answers to her given name, Jean Louise, has spent the past four years among the Yankee liberals in New York City, wherefrom she makes annual, deliberately short trips back to Maycomb. Not unaware of her standing in Southern society as an unmarried lady of twenty-six, Scout uses these homecomings both to monitor the health of 72-year-old Atticus and to stay abreast of Henry Clinton, the lowborn childhood friend who seeks her hand, so far unsuccessfully. (Watchman is, in its scattered, marriage-obsessed way, a kind of Victorian novel.) The first third of Watchman, comprising Jean Louise’s train ride and stuttering reorientation to Southern life, is the book’s most pleasurable, the closest it ever moves in style and in substance to the familiar terrain of Mockingbird. Flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood, mischief-making with her brother Jem (since deceased) and Dill Harris (“I can read!”), read like the Mockingbird outtakes they probably are, to only a slightly diminished effect. In the American literary imagination, Maycomb County has grown into a thriving metropolis since readers last encountered Jean Louise Finch, and as a consequence her return inspires a shared, warmly-felt anticipation. For a few pages, fifty-five years is too long a time to be away from a fake place this real.
Then Jean Louise’s train arrives at Maycomb Junction, and, for the first time in her life, Atticus Finch isn’t on the platform waiting to receive her. From there, the venture proceeds downhill apace. Unsubtle hints of a renewed racial divide spurred (per near-constant reminders) by an emboldened NAACP and the passing of the Civil Rights legislature by the Supreme Court, in the 1960s, lead to a calamity of plotting in which Jean Louise discovers a white supremacist pamphlet mixed in with Atticus’s legal papers. Yessum, the symbolism. The remaining two thirds of Watchman consists mainly of pedantic, overlong conversations between Jean Louise, the voice of flabbergasted progressivism, and the closeted bigots with whom she came of age. Almost none of it is worth the white space it occupies. Fifty years ago, this type of sophomoric moralizing would have been met with an eye roll; today, considering Mockingbird‘s stature and the complexity of the American racial debate, it’s a request for opprobrium. Too little energy went into Watchman to christen it a noble failure–the thoroughness of its badness belongs more to first drafts than finished novels–but while the book fails to impress on the page, it does accomplish a peculiarly singular literary feat off of it: it dismantles the enduring illusions that surround the American classic that came before it. Go Set A Watchman kills the unkillable mockingbird.
Concerns about the mental state of Harper Lee, who is 89 years old and resides in an assisted living facility, have hounded the publication of Watchmen since news of the manuscript surfaced, perhaps unjustly. That Watchman appears sans any explanatory materials, neither preface nor afterword, is an acknowledgement first of its predecessor’s renown, second of its remarkably clear artistic intent. At her age, Harper Lee could have easily rested on the laurels of her one, perfect novel, and been anointed upon death as the patron saint of young American literature. Instead she has chosen to refute every supposed truth presented in her classic, upending the Southern idyll of Mockingbird and replacing it with the brutal adult world of Watchman. It’s like watching Shelley’s Oxymandias take to his own monument with a sledgehammer; the legend is destroyed, but on its basis’s own terms. No matter the book’s quality, this feels necessary and artistically brave. Watchman is an ostensible rehash that aggressively refuses to rehash, a nostalgia trap that shows the past in the ugliest possible light. Though it does so inarticulately, the novel reveals the darkest underbelly of the place and characters so cherished in Mockingbird, the child’s shallow view of racism, the empty allure of country living, the fallibility of even the best fathers. Watchman has been met with a preponderance of negativity, probably in part because it conveys a terrible, essential truth: you’re not in eighth grade anymore, and you never will be again. Everything is irrevocable; nothing is sacred. Having your illusions shattered is a prerequisite for living in reality. Following the Death of Adulthood in American Culture, it’s a refreshingly candid eulogy.
Genuine literary events, however corporately contrived, are as rare as comets in this bibliophobic country, and it’s increasingly possible that most book lovers will be as old as Harper Lee is now–or more plausibly, dead–before another American novel becomes national news. For this reason alone, this awful book should be celebrated. One million Americans bought Go Set A Watchman in the week following its release, and many millions more were reminded that buying books was still a thing adult people do. In no context is that controversial or problematic. The story of Scout and Atticus Finch has belonged to everyone but Harper Lee for fifty-five years; it’s been bizarre and heartwarming to see its author wrest some of it back before she dies. Readers could use more writers who give less of a shit what readers think. Ask the 80% of American families who did not buy a book last year: American literature has become, for the most part, a saggy telephone wire overrun with miserable crows. Shouldn’t the few surviving mockingbirds be encouraged to sing their hearts out?
Final Strawberry Verdict: 3 out of 5 Strawberries