Go Set a Watchman

Appreciate Watchman, but keep Mockingbird high on its perch

Written by Lucy Adams


Scout glides into the opening chapters of Go Set a Watchman on her annual return to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her father, Atticus Finch, and her love interest, Henry Clinton. She enters as Jean Louise, a modern woman shaking loose of her roots and, by her Aunt Alexandra’s estimation, living in sin in New York City. Ill at ease and resistant to the unspoken social strictures imposed in her hometown, she feels like an outsider. Yet, Jean Louise calls it her world, “the world.” Henry listens as she confesses her angst over how it’s changing.

Thus, famed American author, Harper Lee, sets the table for the conflict between the emerging New South and the entrenched Old South. Jean Louise finds herself stung by the friction and disillusioned by the people who are her own.

But Lee dawdles. For the first 100 pages, Watchman casts light on the tensions prevailing in the post-WWII mid-19th century South: the changing roles of women, the crumbling social stratification, and the ebbing race relations. It explores the ambivalence that surrounds a return home and the difficulties of kinship. All this in the absence of forward momentum.

Watchman lacks the eloquence and the imaginative storytelling of To Kill a Mockingbird. It lacks Scout’s self-assurance. The narration drones and the action drags. And the colon, the royal announcer of lists and ideas set apart, is abused on almost every page to the distraction of the reader.

Go Set a Watchman is purportedly the first draft of Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning Mockingbird, a monumental study of civil rights in the Deep South at the same time that it is an examination of culture and of coming of age. Lee submitted Watchman and received it back with encouragement to explore the perspective of Jean Louise as a child, as Scout, described in Watchman as, “juvenile desperado, hell-raiser extraordinary.”

Read as a first draft, Watchman is a window to the creative process, a study of the maturation of a piece of literary fiction. Lee teases out the nuances of character, of symbolism and of foreshadowing. She clarifies the physical, social, and cultural landscape of Maycomb and develops the relationship between its isolation from the world and its characters’ inclinations. The questions of who these people are and where this place is and how these things are significant to the central conflict are answered.

But as a finished novel, it has difficulties. At the time of its writing, Lee hadn’t mastered dialogue or gained control over Jean Louise’s complexities. The language fails to “show” the story to the reader. The narrator comes across as constrained and self-conscious, guarded even. And a rampant plague of allusions substitutes for fully expressing the thoughts and emotions of the characters. Used so often, they cast suspicion on the intent of the twenty-something author. Did she feel compelled to justify to her reader that she’s qualified to write a novel? It’s forgivable as youthful error in judgment, but nonetheless an unintended irritant.

The problems afflicting Watchman may stem from its partially autobiographical content. Lee herself fled Monroeville, Alabama for New York City in her 20s. Her own brother died suddenly as an adult. Her father was an attorney and served in the state legislature as did the character of Atticus in Watchman. Lee was so personally close to the work that she may have had difficulty gaining perspective in this first rendering. Watchman’s flashback of Scout, Jem, and Dill playing “revival” demonstrates Lee’s keen ability to unravel a tale to its climax, while at the same time developing characters and foreshadowing plot. This scene may have been what prompted editors to counsel Lee to rewrite Watchman. By making Scout a child in Mockingbird, Lee established the distance necessary for uninhibited creativity.

What it lacks in overall quality, however, Watchman makes up for in wit. Lee perfectly places specks of humor. Jean Louise says matter-of-factly to her irksome Aunt Alexandra, “Aunty, it’s easy to tell somebody what to do.” Aunt Alexandra replies, “But very hard to make them do it. That’s the cause of most trouble in this world, people not doing as they’re told.” Later, during another exchange of wills with her aunt, Jean Louise quips, “Aunty, why don’t you go pee in your hat?”

The one enduring truth about Go Set a Watchman is that it strips the reader of his beloved Atticus Finch, an American symbol of justice in an unjust world. Every person who read To Kill a Mockingbird in early adolescence – an age when ideals foment and the rights and wrongs of the world crystallize – has since used the character of Atticus, the person of Atticus, as a standard for heroic virtue. Go Set a Watchman, which depicts him as a feeble 72-year-old racist, obliterates the man and his moral compass that we gleaned as our own from Mockingbird. Readers must resist the temptation to place blame on Harper Lee.

There is nothing so unfair to a writer than to judge his or her art from a rough draft or, worse, a rejected manuscript. A complete, well-developed novel, Go Set a Watchman is not. Neither is it, though, a conviction of Harper Lee. Do not allow it to bring Mockingbird down from its high perch. Read it, but appreciate it for what it is rather than deride it for what it is not. It is the link that ever lies between the writer’s mind and the readers’: the rough draft, the gathering of ideas and characters and scenes into sentences and paragraphs and parts to be massaged and molded and vetted so that the true story the author has to tell unveils itself. It is a rare privilege for a reader to steal a glimpse behind the veil.


Lucy Adams is a freelance writer and columnist from Thomson, Ga. She is the author of two books, If Mama Don’t Laugh, It Ain’t Funny and Tuck Your Skirt in Your Panties and Run.

Go Set a Watchman. Lee, Harper. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015. 278 pgs.
Go Set a Watchman. Lee, Harper. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015. 278 pgs.

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