Top critical review
Far more nuanced than critics have said and worth reading
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on August 4, 2015
With all that's been said about Harper Lee's new (second? First? Found? First draft?) book, Go Set a Watchman, it's been hard to form a fully realized opinion. Even before I had opened my copy, social media exploded with denunciations.
Still, with that depressing prelude--who wants to read something that is the subject of a public pillory?--I read it anyway. To be honest, I was disappointed. I passed judgement on the novel as a mishmash of ideas, heavy on dialogue and light on action. Worst, it committed the cardinal sin of messing Atticus Finch, a character I cherished.
In short, my knee jerk response was not very different from anyone else's.
And yet, since finishing a week ago, I haven't been able to let the book go. There was something unsettling to me about how blithely the publication of the novel had been perceived as a greedy money grab by the publisher. The book isn't horrible, though it is a little disappointing, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to understand what I had read. A friend opined that in future years the two books (To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman) would be read together as part of literature classes, and it got me wanting to understand better.
And so, I've begun to evolve my opinions about Go Set a Watchman. It is better--no, it is more nuanced--than I initially judged it. More, Atticus is perhaps more nuanced than To Kill a Mockingbird. It is without a doubt worth a read.
Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
A little about where the book comes from. According to the publisher, the book was found in Lee’s archives, where she had forgotten that it still existed. In a press release from HarperCollins, Lee explained:
"In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn't realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years."
Needless to say, there are plenty who doubt the authenticity of the statement or Lee’s willingness to step into the spotlight. New Republic’s William Giraldi is typical of this group:
"Those crafty touches—“much thought and hesitation,” “my dear friend,” “people I trust”—are trying a tad too hard, wouldn’t you say? The spotlight-shunning Lee is “amazed” that she will once again be subjected to a freshet of attention, the very soaking she’d organized her life to avoid. The only thing amazing here is the expectation that literate people would be hoodwinked by attributed language that bears hallmarks of subterfuge."
To_Kill_a_MockingbirdYeah. No pulling punches there.
Denunciations range from accusations that her agent/attorney bypassed Lee (plenty of snarky comments about the corporate greed of publishing CEOs), that she is too old and senile to know what she's doing, that the book was never really lost in the first place, and, finally, that publication is a coup due to the recent passing of Lee’s longtime caretaker and counsel.
It doesn’t hurt that since Lee had a stroke in 2007 she is said to have trouble seeing and has almost completely lost her hearing. From there it’s not much of a leap for naysayers to dismiss Go Set a Watchman as the greedy exploitation of an aged and famous writer.
The problem? For every denunciation, there is also evidence to the contrary. No less than the New York Times quoted family and friends from Lee’s community that claimed that they had seen her recently and that she was a spry and alert as ever.
"Other people who have seen Ms. Lee more recently say that she is physically frail but completely lucid. Mr. Nurnberg described her as “feisty” when he visited her this month. He said that while she was “indeed hesitant” to publish the book, she had been persuaded by a close circle of people who had read it and assured her that it stood up to her monumental first book.
"Wayne Flynt, an Alabama author and historian who has been close friends with Ms. Lee for more than a decade, said she was as sharp as ever when he visited her on Monday, quoting lines from “Macbeth.”
"“I don’t think that anybody that says she’s demented has been to see her in the last 10 years,” Mr. Flynt said. “The problem may be that almost nobody goes to see her, almost nobody gets in. She’s such a private person.”"
zeplinstumblrcom (1)Nevertheless, as Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind, we are not scientists seeking truth, but lawyers seeking supporting evidence of our theses. Or, as the slightly more well-known Taylor Swift puts it, haters gonna hate.
People find the evidence to fit the thesis they want.
In practice, it didn’t take the internet long to jump to absolute dismissal of the entire book. Reducio ad absurdum: the book is an absolute mess and, according to all too many folk who have yet to read the book themselves, should not be read.
To be fair, the one person I know who did read the book was disappointed. Writers don’t tell him how to do his job, and so he won’t tell writers how to do his, he said.
Fair enough. He read and evaluated it for himself.
Which leads to an important point: the difference between reading and passing judgement versus taking your opinion from what the internet mob tells you. Doing the homework--reading the book--is just too hard.
This isn’t an idle gripe, either, or me playing a book snob card. Taking the judgments of the social media jury cum mob as legit is a real and harmful effect on the intellectual life of the average American. American intellectual life shouldn't be rooted in the ivory towers of higher education. On the contrary, healthy democracy sees the working class self-informing and educating, reading and discussing. Sure, elite academics, intellectuals and writers have a place, and I don’t mean to diminish their role. But regular people need to participate, need to engage, and need to decide for themselves what is worthy. If we only “reshare” across social media ad infinitum the gilded opinions of those smarter than ourselves, we are not only selling ourselves short, but also reducing our ability to pass informed judgement.
Go read the book yourself. This is Harper freaking Lee we’re talking about. Even if the book is a failure, the woman produced what is arguably the most famous, most loved, and most memorable American novel of the last century. Something can be learned from such a mind. There'll never another To Kill a Mockingbird, but something can still be gleaned from Go Set a Watchman.
So...what about the book itself? A failure? A first draft? A worthy successor to Lee’s legacy? Let’s look.
First off, caveat: as a book reviewer: I’m no Allan Bloom, James Wood or Adam Kirsch.
Take this with a grain of salt.
From the minute I started Go Set a Watchman, I quickly fell into the writing. Lee’s style is as drawling and comfortable as the accents of the Deep South cast that fills its pages. And yet, the dialogue is often trite, the story jumbled, and the plot occasionally incongruous. Overall, it still feels like a first draft…which is exactly what the Lee’s editor thought when Lee shopped it around mid-century New York.
And yet, there’s more to it than can be dismissed with vague complaints about the destruction of the Atticus Finch character as a bigot (Michiko Kakutani says that readers will be shocked by Atticus’s “affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares [Scout's] horror and confusion” and indeed, initially at least, this was my reaction). Sure, there is racism, but it's more the McGuffin of the story, as Jason Pettus portrays it in his review, than the theme.
So back to my experience. After flying through the first two-thirds of the novel, I got bogged down and slogged through to the end. Go Set a Watchman takes place decades after To Kill a Mockingbird and indeed, it is the flashbacks in the book that Lee cribbed for the earlier published novel. In this iteration, Atticus has grown old, joined the local citizens committee that is synonymous with the Dixiecrat groups of the era that passed Jim Crow laws, forced legislatures to raise the Confederate battle flag over state capitals, and generally were responsible for much of the racism that seems so out of place today. Still, his racism feels circumstantial, a factor of his era, and if he is a bigot, he is the outlier among his people, making the best of the bad.
And yet, there’s something in how Atticus is portrayed that falls short of the poisonous bigot that arm chair liberals denounce. Atticus is just not that simple, though it took me a bit of time to put my finger on why. Pettus’ review, again:
"[T]here were plenty of reasons for Southerners to get behind racist organizations like these back then besides just pure racism; take Scout's enlightened fiancée, for example, who joins the citizens' council for the same reason he might join the Rotary Club, because he's a rising young lawyer and to not do so would damage his career. Or take Atticus himself, who as we learn by the end of the book hasn't really changed his stance towards black people from how he felt twenty years ago -- his joining the citizens' council has almost nothing to do with hating a man for the color of his skin, and almost everything to do with his obsessive belief in state rights versus a big federal government, and with his personal identity as a Jeffersonian liberal who believes that people need to "earn" the privileges of a free democracy by being informed, conscientious citizens who contribute to the greater good, not to have those privileges ram-rodded down everyone's throats by a meddling organization like the NAACP."
Atticus’ concerns aren’t about racism so much as the interference of outsiders who don’t know or understand the local nuances, let alone have a vested interest in the future of the communities they parachute in to change. Atticus is concerned about the impact on the Constitution, on personal liberties, etc., in the “noble but misguided name of forcing "equality" on a situation that politically and economically can't handle it, complaints that even the urban liberal Scout sometimes agrees with over the course of the book[,]” argues Pettus.
Yes, Atticus still behaves like a racist but, and this has been largely ignored, he would still be the first to defend a black man falsely accused.
Which is entirely consistent with Atticus Finch that we all know and admire. If Lee has a theme here, it may be that life is much more complicated than the more simplistic black hat/white hat world she portrays in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Could Lee have released the Go Set a Watchman right now for reasons other than the money (and let’s just all agree that the publisher doesn’t need other motives)? Could she be looking back at her legacy, recognizing that the simplistic morality of To Kill a Mockingbird is an unsatisfactory depiction of her view of the world?
Judge for yourself. Pick up Go Set a Watchman, read it and consider if it isn’t more about the complexities of human relationships, of memory and of the passage of time than about racism and justice. It may not be the book that I wanted or expected, but I wonder if perhaps the judgments levied are perhaps too simplistic.