Although there persists in Watchman an idea of the primacy of the individual conscience, the novel serves to remind us that we are at a moment in our ongoing pursuit of justice that puts our national conscience at stake, and it is all the more pressing that the watchman be attuned to the collective soul of our nation.
...a deeply uncomfortable but brilliant book that ruthlessly examines race relations, and the speculation surrounding this long-unpublished novel....Maybe the reason that Watchman wasn’t published in the 1950s was because it would have been burned or, worse, ignored. Maybe, 60 years later, we’re ready to look, listen and think.
Indeed, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the most controversial 20th-century novel of the 21st century, has problems beyond its now-notorious depiction of Atticus Finch as a fallen hero. Talky and preachy, this sort-of-sequel lacks the cinematic power of its legendary predecessor. What’s more, the novel’s origin story is peculiar, and the worrisome dispute over the frail Lee’s role in its surprise release is enough to make anyone want to skip a second visit to the Maycomb of To Kill a Mockingbird.
But Go Set a Watchman is hardly the horror show suggested by early reviews. As understandably rough as it is, readers will thrill to Lee’s sly humor and vivid storytelling. And those who can bear the stunning transformation of an American icon will gain insight into the minds of the polite racial separatists, those who thought men in black robes – not white ones – could preserve Southern life’s strict divides.
Although Go Set a Watchman sporadically generates the literary force that has buoyed To Kill a Mockingbird for over half a century, the new novel is not nearly as gripping as the courtroom drama and coming-of-age story it eventually became.... In America in 1960, the story of a decent white Southerner who defends an innocent black man charged with raping a white woman had the appeal of a fairy tale and the makings of a popular movie. Perhaps even more promising, though, was the novel Lee first envisioned, the story of Jean Louise’s adult conflicts between love and fairness, decency and loyalty. Fully realized, that novel might have become a modern masterpiece.
Despite its potential for drama, Lee develops her story through long dialogue sequences that read less like conversation than competing arguments. There is little sense of urgency and key aspects of the narrative — Jean Louise’s naïvete, for one thing, her inability to see Maycomb for what it is — are left largely unresolved.
If I’m hesitant to level such a criticism, it’s because, although Go Set a Watchman comes marketed as an autonomous novel, it is most interesting as a literary artifact.
When Lee submitted the manuscript of Watchman to publisher J.B. Lippincott in 1957, her editor, Tay Hohoff, astutely saw the germ of a better book in the childhood passages and suggested Lee rewrite the novel from young Scout’s point of view, set 20 years earlier, during the Depression. Comparing “Mockingbird” — the result of two years of arduous revisions — with “Watchman” demonstrates clearly just how important a good editor can be. Put simply, where “Mockingbird” beguiles, dazzles and moves to tears as it conveys core values of empathy and human decency, “Watchman” horrifies with its ugly racism, even as it emotes and moralizes didactically, clunkily and shrilly.
Students of writing will find Watchman fascinating for these reasons: How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father? How did a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech (from the casually patronizing to the disgustingly grotesque — and presumably meant to capture the extreme prejudice that could exist in small towns in the Deep South in the 1950s) mutate into a redemptive novel associated with the civil rights movement, hailed, in the words of the former civil rights activist and congressman Andrew Young, for giving us 'a sense of emerging humanism and decency'?
It's not a sequel to but readers will struggle not to read it like one.
It also is not a very good novel. Written by an unknown rather than Harper Lee, it would never have been published. For its publisher to claim that Watchman 'stands as a magnificent novel in its own right' is cynical and gets me wondering, cynically, who will spend the profits generated by it.
Nonetheless, Watchman is worth reading as a historical and literary artifact. It's the kind of manuscript, like James Joyce's Stephen Hero, that often emerges after a writer's death — a first grappling with subjects and themes that a powerful writer later sculpts into a masterpiece.