To say I hated it would be far too easy.

And from the point of view of a literature analyst, I don’t. There’s fodder for days not only in the text of Go Set a Watchman itself but also within the dialogue it creates with To Kill a Mockingbird. My mind is certainly entertained.

As a reader and teacher who formerly loved the TKAM unit possibly the best of all with my 9th graders, however, I absolutely loathed this text. Plainly, much of it is absolutely not well written. Dialogue driven, rushed at the end, and filled with characters who are absolutely repulsive, Go Set a Watchman is one to skip skip SKIP if you have but a passing interest in Mockingbird. It’s possibly even one to skip if you LOVE Mockingbird and don’t like to live with regret.

I’d never give it as a present, let’s put it that way.

But there is also this: texts do not need to be loved, or even tolerable and tolerated, in order to be effective art. While I cannot for the life of me figure out how and why Harper Collins published this book—other than cha ching!—they did and now my eyes cannot unsee it. We are left with the train that has overshot the station (a semi-developed metaphor in the early chapters), and I am not sure we can ever walk back into the dreamlike idyll of Maycomb again.

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman dropped onto my Kindle last night. It took every ounce of discipline to get this morning’s training done (4.3 morning base miles, 3500 yard/2 mile swim) before jumping in. As soon as I left the pool, I drove a few meters away to the sports park and started reading. Between the time I had before my children woke up, their swim lessons, and then fifteen additional minutes, I made it through 53% of the book in about 1.5 hours. Then I mothered for awhile, finally heading off for “errands” which included a forty-five minute stop at Starbucks in Old Town to make further progress. Another forty-minutes later, and here I sit. 10:41 PM on July 14th.



You’ve been given the caveat.

Now, were I working up a proper essay here, I would be much more cautious and thorough. I’d take out my TKAM (which I know so much by heart anyway), and I would properly quote sources. There would be, in short, much more to this. As it is, since we’re neigh on 11:00 PM, I am going to hurriedly type out RANDOM THOUGHTS.

In this effort, I am more alike to the end of the novel than not. Har har.

1. Atticus repulses me. There, I said it. Midway through my reading, I had to confront the possibility that he’s really always been this way. Was this a man who had a great white hope savior complex all along? We’re told in this novel that he lives according to the law, and this, in effect palliates his clinging to the old southern ways. BY THE WAY: Anyone else get a strong Gone with the Wind read here? Early on, we’re told also about Atticus’ arthritis and his general declination of health. At first, Lee almost seemed thisclose to the laying the ground for Atticus to have entered a period of dementia. Would that it were true.

2. The anger in this book is immense. Lee appears angry at several of her own characters. Characters are angry constantly with each other. Racial tensions are palpable. There’s very little softness here. Maybe that’s the point. If the TKAM Atticus embodied the aspirations of racial harmony and justice, perhaps the point of the new Atticus (“new” is fallacious, because this was written before TKAM) is to provide biting commentary on just how immature those aspirations are when so racism still so plainly and blatantly exists. In this anger, and in this shaming of hope, Go Set a Watchman reads quite currently.

3. But the dose of realism ultimately fails because it rests on the grown up Jean Louise coming back to town and—-suddenly!! oh my stars how suddenly!—realizing that everyone around her is a bunch of racist, misogynistic jerks, even the women. Jean Louise has been living in cosmopolitan New York for years. She’s an adult. She’s well read and studied. Her naivete is utterly implausible. Uncle Jack has to give her a long-winded history lesson—how could she not have known any of that? Lee tries to draw a THIN foundation for Jean Louise’s apparent consistent out-of-touch innocence of the ways of the world with a recollected scene in which Scout gets her first period, is kissed by a boy, listens to the Cunninghams give an inaccurate description of birds and bees, and believes for OVER nine months that she is pregnant—a belief that propels her to the top of a structure where she contemplates suicide. This is further explained away as having had no mother… Jean Louise’s character is just not fully developed here, which is why this was a rough draft. Her character cannot yet sustain the demands being put on it to carry a book of this weight.

4. This was a rough draft for a reason. The strongest portions, the above example notwithstanding, are the flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood as Scout. The editors made a solid call, at the time. As an adult, Jean Louise’s naivete does NOT work. But putting that innocence into the character of a child does. For the LIFE of me, though, the adult speaker (Jean Louise grown up) in TKAM possesses in no way a tone of voice or mood of the Jean Louise in Go Set. The timber of tenderness is missing. From all over this novel, really. It’s hostile.

5. The BEST scene in this novel by far is that with Calpurnia. I choked back tears. “‘Tell me one thing, Cal…just one thing before I go—please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?’ The old woman sat silent, bearing the burden of her years. Jean Louise waited. Finally, Calpurnia shook her head.”

6. “Well, I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her group for what she thinks is right—stand up to me first of all.” Should Jean Louise cut ties with her father and Hank because they are morally compromised? The novel asks this. Is part of Atticus’ motivation to test his daughter? (Really?) Another quote: “We wondered, sometimes, when your conscience and his would part company, and over what.” Parts of the ending read like a laboratory experiment on Jean-Louise, and yet her father’s hypocrisy still is genuine. After their argument, Atticus says, “I’ve killed you, Scout. I had to.” Ostensibly, this follows the theme of Jean Louise’s loss of innocence, though note that it is her younger even more innocent self Atticus feels he must kill. Did Jean Louise never really grow up or awaken up until now? That question begs to be answered quite a bit. Is she the hopeful who never can quite see the depraved humanity around her?

For me, though, this line seems to me to be one of the authorial slips I noticed in this text. You get the feeling that Lee notices she has written herself (perhaps semi-literally, if she is the basis for Jean Louise) into a corner during this awful fight between Jean Louise and Atticus. Perhaps it is the first moment of recognition that girlhood Scout cannot exist in this particular draft. (There is also at one point, the random use of an “I” narration when no one is talking. It is the author herself, inserting a comment about something being hot).

7. Wordsworth comes to mind: “The child is father of the man.” Certainly true on many levels with this book and pair of books. This is the parent draft; in TKAM itself, child Scout becomes the woman Jean Louise who narrates. In Go Set, Jean Louise’s changing perceptions of her father in effect give birth to our understanding about who he really is.

8. A take away: there are no perfect heroes, and each of us must be the watchman of our own conscience.

9. “Hell is eternal apartness.”

10. Characters hide behind the generic rallying cry of “states’ rights!” in order to excuse universal moral travesties (slavery, segregation, racism). Exceedingly similar to some of the political and rhetorical arguments being used presently in our country with respect to controversy (vaccinations, gay marriage).

11. “Dear goodness, the things I learned. I did not want my world disturbed…” Several times, I noticed how the very act of reading this text was something akin to Jean Louise’s process of disillusionment. There are at least a dozen quotes to pull to support this. That’s where this text gets interesting for me… Whenever we can conduct a analysis of characters, syntax, structure at the text level and then draw a parallel between that analysis and the meta level of the acts of reading or narrative construction, that’s when I get jazzed. I like the analysis OF the book to start to inform an analysis of how the reader engages WITH the book, or various other deconstructionist concerns. In this, Go Set does not disappoint. Plenty of fun to be had with those literary analysis games.

I am sure I will have more thoughts as I continue to think about this reading. Or, I may just try to put it out of my mind. However, that dreamlike wish for everything to be just fine may be exactly the state of mind Lee condemns here. Publishing this book, if in fact Lee gave her blessing in sound mind (definite controversy there), may have been the artistic decision to impel her readers to wake up and look at the mess we still have around us.

Do I recommend this book? No. Yes. At this point, not to read it would be to remove oneself from the literary and cultural discussions that have commenced around it. And we have to wonder: can a canonical work like TKAM remain unaffected by something like this? Do we believe that an author’s intentions extend forevermore? Does the book take on a life of its own irrespective of what the author later contributes? To what extent is TKAM so mythologized and ensconced at this point that it is untouchable? Or can works of art be altered from a long reach into the past? Should a rough draft be considered a legitimate part of the narrative? Or are rough drafts always lower class citizens of the book world? Does simply publishing something give it weight?

These are the questions we’re asking. And that conversation—if you care about art and its power—is reason enough to read this book. Engagement in the conversation. You will probably loathe it.

But who said our love was ever required?