It’s not often you get to peek inside the publishing industry and read a manuscript before major overhauling. The original scroll for On The Road, for example, is more rambling, explicit and lacking in punctuation than it’s fully published counterpart – but follows much of the same beats (no pun intended.) Go Set A Watchman is a whole other beast. The story is now a familiar one to anyone who has glimpsed at a newspaper in the last few months; a manuscript delivered in the mid-fifties had a spark of genius in it, an editor suggested to reframe and rewrite the whole thing, said re-written novel wins the Pulitzer prize, has a huge film made out of it and becomes beloved by millions. Years later, the original draft is found and published.
Although often billed as a sequel or a first draft, a more accurate description would be as a parent or companion piece, as it manages to be both. Not much of Watchman made it into Mockingbird other than the finely realised characters, some excellent prose and a subplot about a trial that would become a dramatic focal point. Indeed, even the outcome of the trial varies between the two books, as well as the children’s experiences of that day. This makes it a fresh read for even the biggest Mockingbird fan.
Scout, now going by Jean Louise, is returning to Maycomb after a prolonged absence. Delighted to be back, she throws herself headfirst into the town with her old friend and potential fiancé Henry. Torn between her independence and Henry’s insistent proposals, she remembers formative experiences she has had in the town, before uncovering some distasteful secrets about her own family.
These memoir-esque flashback scenes are a great way to spend more time with Calpurnia and Jem, but Dill is not so present, as much of the flashbacks take place during term-time. Although providing back-story for Jean Louise and Henry, they can at times feel like a diversion, and a chance to tell what is probably a humorous and oft-recounted family tale. In some ways, the book feels like a series of great anecdotes that are held together by a politically charged narrative that allows Lee to make her feelings known, and speak out against the worrying aspects she was seeing in her old town as she visited her ailing father. Just like with Mockingbird, much of the book is based directly on her own life and experiences, and we see reality creeping in to Maycomb.
It’s often said that people get more right wing as they get older, and that certainly seems to be the case with Atticus Finch – at least on the surface. Atticus has often been seen as a perfect man, kind, fair and a poster boy for race relations. What Watchman does is strip away that childhood innocence and reveal a more 3D and flawed version of the man. As of Watchman, he is starting to socialise with unsavoury people, even going as far as to attend a racially-charged rally and holds awful pamphlets in with his stack of papers. This sends both the reader and Jean Louise reeling, and it’s only her intellectual uncle who can try to help us understand how a kind man could get involved in such an awful thing.
While To Kill A Mockingbird was a naive look at “the old south” and racial tensions from the viewpoint of a child, Go Set A Watchman tackles those problems straight on, during a massive period of change at the beginning of the social rights movement. It’s much more nuanced and complex than Mockingbird‘s simple and universal approach – and as much about the state vs. government and the shadow of history as it is about racism and segregation. Although written over fifty years ago, those same worries that tormented Lee are rearing their head again today, as we see people once again picking up the Confederate Flag as a symbol of the past and then holding it aloft amidst the fallout of atrocities like the Charleston shooting.
If To Kill A Mockingbird is mostly a book about idealism and a loss of innocence, Go Set A Watchman is about disillusionment. Has the town and Atticus changed so much, or has she grown up and away? Will she walk away from them all, or help them find the right way into the new world?
There are some brilliant lines and vivid descriptions to latch on to – even in the third person Jean Louise’s wit and humour follows those familiar Scout-ish patterns and Lee’s prose is as lush and imaginative as ever. What also sets Watchman apart from Mockingbird is its continual evolution of Louise’s individuality and desire to be more than just a “southern lady.” While Scout was always a tomboy in Mockingbird, in Watchman we this manifesting in Jean Louise as a more constant struggle between her desires in life and society’s expectations to marry and make a home. Her attempts to sit through the banal baby and husband chatter at a “coffee” thrown in her honour are a highlight, as well as her spirited discussions with Henry about the future.
As a historical document, it’s a priceless behind the scenes look at the seed that will turn into a Pulitzer winning novel, and a young author flexing her literary muscles in an extended form for the first time. It’s sure to provide a lot for book groups to chew over, and fans of Mockingbird should not be put off by the tarnishing of their sacred idols. More Harper Lee can only be a good thing.