Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Publication Date: July 14, 2015


Go Set a Watchman by Harper LeeIn Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, Jean Louise Finch is living in New York City when she returns to Maycomb, Alabama on an annual trip to visit her father, Atticus.





For those who wondered, Scout (Jean Louise) grows up to be a jerk. She is pretentious and approaches her environment with an emotion akin to contempt with perhaps a soft spot for her father and to a lesser degree, Henry. She despises her aunt, Alexandra, for wanting everything her own way and bending things to work to her advantage, but Scout is exactly like her. I’m sure that I could not have put it better than David, who read the book at the same time I did. “She was so annoying that I kept waiting for her to die.” She seems to hate everything from the area from which she sprang but is not so different from it herself.

Go Set a Watchman is a new release somewhat plucked out of time. Lee says that publishers rejected Go Set a Watchman and she set it aside to write the blockbuster that would be To Kill a Mockingbird. In actual reading, she changed the characters quite a lot when writing the later work. Atticus is a champion for the downtrodden in To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s hard to see an event such as occurred in that book in the past of the man we meet in Go Set a Watchman. What was shockingly tolerant in the mid-1950s would be classed as hateful and racist by anyone today. The Civil Rights movement, while revving up at the time, didn’t hit its full and forward moving stride until the 1960s. Lee’s comment on race relations would have been shocking for her time.

David said to me when I spoke with him, “Is the book about racism in Alabama? I’m not sure what the book is about.” While there certainly is heavy racial commentary, in Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise is looking to discover herself, revolutionize her family and perhaps change her world. She’s not ready to fall into the expectations of the day. She has a marital prospect in Henry Clinton who Alexandra feels nowhere near appropriate to join the family. He is the protégé of Atticus but only in the wake of the death of Jem, a key character in To Kill a Mockingbird. When Calpurnia’s grandson is charged with the manslaughter of a white man, Jean Louise learns that her relationship with the family maid was based on Calpurnia’s obligation to the family and its a shock to the self-absorbed 20-something.

Go Set a Watchman is riddled with errors. It has been suggested that perhaps the publisher did not edit the novel due to the scandal surrounding the book. While a possibility, I think the spirit could be maintained while cleaning up the POV problems from which the book suffers. There are some quite jarring shifts that given the beauty of Lee’s prose could have been evened out. Entertainment Weekly reviewer, Tina Jordan, gave the book a D+ citing that the book is clearly “all about the money.” She seems to run Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird side by side, as most fans of the author might, and expect a cohesiveness of character. Those expectations are a recipe for disappointment. Read without the more popular work in mind, Go Set a Watchman is a lyrically written work about a woman living in a time where race is always a concern and when bad things happen skin, color determines the outcome of consequence.

The burning question at the forefront of readers’ minds would be to wonder if this reads like a book an author might want to be released and be proud to see on bookstore shelves. Harper Lee must, at some point, have been confident in “Go Set a Watchman” as she submitted it to publishers but it is a book that needs some work. Given the number of years she refused its release, Lee saw the errors and that it was released now after the death of her primary protector is no coincidence. I am glad to have read it, because if nothing else, it tells this reader that Lee had the potential to do future great things and, for whatever reason, chose not to pursue her talent. With work Go Set a Watchman could match its epic sister novel.

Should you read, Go Set a Watchman? I know that some people are averse to buying the work because they don’t want to line the pockets of the people fleecing Lee. The work is already a best seller. If you’re a Lee fan, pick up Go Set a Watchman and examine for yourself the changes to the characters to perhaps make them more revolutionary at the time. For all it’s faults and the uproar surrounding the release, Go Set a Watchman is a worthwhile read if only as a footnote in literary history.

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About Harper Lee
For more information about Harper Lee and her work, visit Wikipedia.

Gary Henry

Thorough, fair-minded and insightful review as always. I haven’t read the novel yet, but if I do, I’ll make sure to try to read it as a work independent of Mockingbird. Thank you for that and the other insights in your terrific review.

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