Top critical review
Go Edit a Watchman
Reviewed in the United States on July 20, 2015
First things first: 'Watchman' is NOT a sequel to 'To Kill a Mockingbird'; it is an early draft of the classic novel. The events in 'Watchman' post-date those in 'Mockingbird' but, as stated, that was simply the period in Lee's original version. It is important to understand that this newly-released book is a preliminary version of the classic, not a subsequent or totally different novel.
Okay, now that we understand each other, how is 'Watchman'? It's...okay. There are critical differences that I won't go into in order not to spoil the plot. Here's what I can tell you (and I am assuming you are familiar with 'Mockingbird'): The time period is mid-50's. Scout is 26, lives in New York City, and returns to Maycomb for a two week visit. The book is told in a series of anecdotes in the present day and in flashbacks to Scout's childhood. Scout is called by her proper name, Jean Louise, for the majority of the book. Dill is overseas and is only seen in a few flashbacks. Jem is also not on the present scene, although he figures more significantly in flashbacks. Miss Maudie is mentioned but doesn't play a major role. There is no mention whatsoever of any of the Radleys. A principal "new" figure is Hank Clinton, an orphan of Jem's age that was taken under Atticus' wing, became a lawyer and Atticus' partner, and is determined to marry Jean Louise and have her return to Maycomb.
What's happening in Maycomb is that the NAACP is becoming prominent, and 'the Negroes' are demanding civil rights following the US Supreme Court's decision to integrate public schools. Jean Louise is disgusted to learn of Maycomb's opposition to these developments and is horrified by a town council meeting attended by Hank and Atticus where blatant racism, intolerance, stereotypes and segregation are advanced. She dismisses Hank as a would-be fiancé. Her image of Atticus, the hero of 'Mockingbird' and a universal symbol of justice, tolerance and equality, is shattered. Having based her own value system on Atticus, Jean Louise is infuriated and feels she is identity-less as a result of this surprising betrayal.
These developments would be startling and extremely disappointing if 'Watchman' was in fact a sequel to 'Mockingbird'. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief because Lee ultimately chose to portray Atticus in the manner that she did. Reading the earlier version is interesting to see how she came around to the end result. In this respect, 'Watchman' is important as a resource to show countervailing concerns at play when Lee was writing, and is good enough cause to read it. (As a side note, there are striking comparisons to some of the more moderate Maycomb council theories and those of modern-day Confederate flag supporters. Take note, English Lit teachers!)
Does the book stand on its own? In a word, no. It's boring. 'Mockingbird' is charming and funny, the characters are endearing, there's a fair amount of action, the dialogue is brilliant. Not the case in the earlier draft. There is relatively little action. For the most part, the "action" takes place in the flashbacks, none of which are even close to the stories in the eventual classic. The book is not funny. Jean Louise is appealing but she's by no means the adorable, irreverent Scout. Hank Clinton is a caricature that was wisely deleted. Atticus is an old, decrepit shadow of himself whose opinions will upset most readers. Dill is AWOL, the Radley angle is sorely missed. Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack are overly present but are supremely tedious. A major difference between this draft and the later one is that pages and pages are given over to speeches. Practically all the dialogue is delivered from a pulpit or a soap box. Lee had a lot to say, and eventually got it right, but in this version the overlong speeches get boring, quickly. There is some great writing, and many passages from the draft made it into the final cut. Lee obviously benefitted from some intelligent and caring editors as she finished the novel.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an all-time classic that everyone should read. Go Set A Watchman is an interesting tool that helps show how Lee developed the characters, setting, storyline and message of the novel. It is valuable in that respect, and is worth reading, but does not hold its own as an independent novel, because that's not what it is.