Go Set a Watchman is Harper Lee’s prequel novel to the literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Although the first draft manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was written prior to To Kill a Mockingbird, it took 55 years to be published.
I actually put off reading Go Set a Watchman for a week after its release because I dreaded writing this review. Unfortunately, as I feared, the first draft status of the manuscript shows and mars what might have been another classic. I also experienced mixed feelings regarding the propriety of reading the novel because I feel that at the age of 89, it is questionable just how involved Harper Lee was in the decision to publish this novel.
These qualms aside, my experience in reading Go Set a Watchman was heavily mixed. I devoured the book after purchasing it, mostly because I wanted so desperately to find out what had become of my favorite characters from To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman features and at least references many characters from Mockingbird, although some of their fates are highly depressing. The Radley’s are notable expectations and are not mentioned even once. I can’t help but wonder if the Radley’s were created after Go Set a Watchman was written and if Harper Lee created them specifically as a plot device for To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman also includes many flashback scenes to youthful and playful versions of Scout, Jem, and Dill that will delight many fans.
Unfortunately, some problems with Go Set a Watchman are simply too glaring to ignore. Rather than publish this draft as is, it would have been worthwhile to at least fix some of the obvious errors that Harper Lee certainly did not intend for any serious literary purpose. More difficult to mend, however, are the continuity errors with To Kill a Mockingbird. For example, Scout references a rape trial that sounds suspiciously like the Tom Robinson trial but declares that Atticus won an acquittal for his African-American client. Harper Lee, or someone close to her, really needed to deal with these issues before publication.
Finally, the big controversy over Go Set a Watchman revolves around Atticus Finch and his attitude toward race in Go Set a Watchman versus his more altruistic and progressive stance in To Kill a Mockingbird. Oddly enough, for all of the controversy it created, I think that Atticus’ racial attitudes are the least of Go Set a Watchman‘s problems. A careful reading of the climactic argument between Atticus and Scout reveals that Atticus’ views on race are more nuanced than he is given credit for. In other words, many people are jumping to conclusions about Atticus’ “racism” without seriously reading the novel and thinking in terms of the historical situations surrounding the formation of Atticus’ viewpoints. Controversy in literature often will elicit unschooled opinions from those who are not well versed in critical reading, and Go Set a Watchman is better suited to academic analysis than the accusatory cries of “racism” from the media. Go Set a Watchman is simply misunderstood, just as To Kill a Mockingbird receives frivolous challenges because of its supposed “racism.” There really is no difference.
There can be no doubt, from a literary perspective, that To Kill a Mockingbird is the superior novel and the novel that Harper Lee truly intended to publish. Go Set a Watchman represents an earlier, and less perfect, version of Harper Lee’s vision.