Warning: this article contains spoilers.
It has been a long time since a new novel has attracted as much clamorous attention as Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The back story is familiar enough by now: it is 55 years since Lee published To Kill A Mockingbird – a book that has managed to sustain that rare alchemy of huge popularity and genuine critical respect. A follow-up was always rumoured, but apparently abandoned by Lee. The years passed.
Then, mysteriously, suspiciously, the dreamt-of sequel came to light: a manuscript “discovered” in a vault by a lawyer and – we are insistently told – published with the knowing consent of its ailing 89-year-old author. The murky circumstances of Go Set a Watchman’s publication have been the subject of much speculation. But here we have it nonetheless – a late and unlikely sibling for one of American literature’s most beloved of only children.
Yearning for youth
The plot itself is a variation on a classic. The prodigal daughter, having fled for a life in the progressive big city, returns to the nostalgia-tinted backwater of her youth. Where once she was a native, her urban worldliness now jars against hometown conventions.
The tom-boy Scout Finch we know from To Kill a Mockingbird is now a conscientious and independent woman: Jean Louise. Her brother Jem is dead, while her father, the hero-lawyer Atticus, is suddenly an arthritic bigot. Contemporary Maycomb – parochial and boiling in the summer sun – is intercut with flashbacks to Scout’s childhood. You can feel Lee’s yearning to get back to that time – which she would, of course, when she came to rewrite it all.
Composed before To Kill a Mockingbird, but set many years afterwards, some of Go Set a Watchman’s character trajectories and plot points don’t quite match up. After all, this isn’t a sequel as such, but another novel altogether. Knowing this makes the recent howls of betrayal over Atticus’s racism in social and print media seem rather simple-minded: it isn’t really the same character, but a character with the same name.
Here in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch bristles with all the threatened white masculinity that would hardly have been unusual for a 72-year-old man in 1950s Alabama. In that sense, he feels less like the paragon of virtue we encountered in Mockingbird, and more like an ordinary man of his times.
The novel offers a critical observation of the sectional tensions of the 1950s, and Lee uses it to rehearse arguments about segregation and states’ rights. While it isn’t one of the most sophisticated novels on race in America, it is an intriguing document of its volatile age.
A different voice
Lee made some critical changes when, on the orders of her editor, she went back to the drawing board with Go Set a Watchman. A key part of To Kill a Mockingbird’s perennial appeal is surely Scout’s endearing first-person narration. Go Set a Watchman’s third-person viewpoint is less engaging, but also more disenchanted: perhaps this is why, stripped of his daughter’s admiring gaze, Atticus emerges as a flawed spokesman for smalltown small-mindedness.
But it also means the narrative voice has to take us on the journey back to Maycomb at arm’s length. We lose the intimate, confessional immersion of Mockingbird’s world – and with it, the idealist sentiment that seemed to draw many of its loyal readers in.
The fuss over the publication will fade, and in time we’ll just be left with the novel itself, forever a necessary appendix to its more famous, final version. Go Set a Watchman is a first run at another, better novel; an unpolished but occasionally still a lyrical and evocative piece of writing. But it’s also an angrier, more disillusioned, and more obviously political work. And in that sense, it feels like the book we deserve.
Because reading it now, in 2015, its depiction of a divided American South inevitably casts us back to the troubled era when a young Harper Lee conceived of it. That was a time before the march on Washington, before Selma and before the Civil Rights Act. Half a century on, the sequel is being published when a man with African heritage is president of the United States. Much has changed.
Yet we are also aware of our own difficult moment: of Trayvon Martin, of Michael Brown, of Ferguson, Missouri. A few weeks ago, a young white man attended a Bible study group at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and, after an hour, took a gun from his bag and shot dead nine people because they were black.
Reading Go Set a Watchman’s depiction of a segregated post-war America, we are aware that much has changed in the years since it was written. Much, but not enough.