Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I listened to To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman back to back this week.

 
Mockingbird was a delight to experience again after all these years. Having discovered, and accepted, that Watchman is neither a prequel nor a sequel (It’s the first draft of the same novel – a draft that was rejected) I relaxed into Reese Witherspoon’s southern accent and tried to enjoy it for what it was.
 
Watchman is a bit weak on story. I found it preachy and annoying towards the end where the perspicacious author’s voice comes through in a sequence of final speeches. The editor, I imagine, might have said: ‘You have an interesting subject (black man on trial for rape of white girl in 1930s south) but didn’t make enough of it, and an interesting voice (Scout in the flashbacks) and should use those to frame your rewrite.’
 
In order to mould it into her bestselling classic, Harper Lee cut many irrelevant episodes (including Jean Louise’s boring love interest and uninspired coming-of-age anecdotes). She changed the point of view – it was no longer an adult looking back at her childhood, but a story written from the child’s point of view. The new version centred around the court case where Atticus is not an anomaly among white men – he does have a black maid and only takes the case because he is asked to. He fights for Tom Robinson even though he knows he will lose. He may not speak down to black people but he does consider himself as a step above.
 
As a reader it’s a mediocre book.
 
As a writer, it’s fascinating how Harper Lee rewrote and turned it around. It’s interesting that she kept whole chunks of text (that appear almost word for word in both versions), like the history of the feud between two families, or the history of how the town was founded. She had obviously done the research and wanted to keep the words.
 
I found an interesting piece by Brilliant Books here:

“We suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel. This situation is comparable to James Joyce’s stunning work ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man‘, and his original draft ‘Stephen Hero‘. ‘Hero’ was initially rejected, and Joyce reworked it into the classic ‘Portrait’. ‘Hero’ was eventually released as an academic piece for scholars and fans—not as a new ‘Joyce novel’. We would have been delighted to see “Go Set A Watchman” receive a similar fate.”


In conclusion, I’m not sorry I spent a week in Alabama with Scout/Jean Louise but I do feel that publishing this book was a huge swindle on the part of the publisher. Large profits were made by misleading the public that this was a prequel/sequel. How many of us purchased Mockingbird for the second time too? I couldn’t possibly know what state of mind Harper Lee is currently in, but I know I wouldn’t want any of my early drafts to be released like this.

I’m inclined to agree with Salman Rushdie on this:

Salman Rushdie

@SalmanRushdie

Don’t think I’ll be reading Go Set Your Watch or whatever it’s called. I have unpublished juvenilia too; would cringe if it got published.

 
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