Go Set a Watchman: sequel that began as prequel short of being an equal
Regardless of whether Harper Lee's 'new' book is regarded as Mockingbird 2 or Mockingbird 1.0, it is a pleasure, revelation and genuine literary event. But it lacks the drama of the earlier novel
The first problem in assessing Harper Lee’s first published novel in the 55 years since To Kill a Mockingbird is whether to describe it as her first or second book. This apparently simple question has been contested in the months before Tuesday’s much publicised and heavily embargoed release of a manuscript that reportedly came to light only recently.
Chronologically, Go Set a Watchman is, in Hollywood arithmetic, a sort of Mockingbird 2, depicting the later lives of the Finch family – lawyer Atticus, his daughter, Scout, his son, Jem and their maid, Calpurnia – who appeared in Lee’s 1960 debut book about a racially inflamed rape trial in the US state of Alabama. However, in computing terms, Watchman is Mockingbird 1.0 to the Mockingbird 2.0 of the novel that was previously the 89-year-old Lee’s single published work. Some sceptical advance publicity had suggested that the new book was merely an earlier draft of the first one, representing the text before editors and publishers demanded a substantial revision.
As it turns out, however, Go Set a Watchman is of a very different order from “revised” or “alternative” editions of, for example, The Great Gatsby or Ulysses, which sought to restore or record the supposedly original intentions of F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce.
Where To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated in the first person by Scout as a young girl looking back a few years to events in the early 1930s, Go Set a Watchman is a third-person narrative, in which twenty-something Scout, now favouring her baptismal name of Jean Louise, returns from New York to visit Atticus, 72 and seriously arthritic, in her hometown of Maycomb. Apart from their four-word poetic titles (the new novel’s is taken from the biblical book of Isaiah), the texts are largely independent of each other. Mockingbird is structured in 30 chapters divided between two sections; Watchman consists of seven parts including 19 chapters.
A few passages exactly overlap between the two books, principally scene-setters describing Maycomb, Alabamian history and local folklore such as the comical legal consequences of the intermarriage of the Cunningham and Coningham clans. A handful of paragraphs alluding to the Robinson rape case in the 1930s (though with one crucial detail changed) were expanded to hundreds of pages in To Kill a Mockingbird. Encountering these seed sentences, it is hard not to feel some awe at the literary midwives who spotted, in the original conception, the greater literary sibling that existed in embryo. If the text now published had been the one released in 1960, it would almost certainly not have achieved the same greatness.
This is not so much due to literary inferiority, but because Go Set a Watchman is a much less likeable and school-teachable book. It belongs to the genre in which prodigals return to find their homeland painfully altered; disillusioned by the “Atomic Age”, Scout has notably lost the sassy swagger that makes her childish voice in Mockingbird so compelling.
Advance publicity has billed the second Lee as a chance to reunite with the “much-loved” characters of Scout and Atticus. This promise proves barely half true. When the homecomer frets that no one in Maycomb remembers the “juvenile desperado, hellraiser extraordinary” that she was, it is tempting to yell back that we have never forgotten her, although wincing when she approvingly notes the smell of “clean Negro”, with all that term implies. (Unlike its predecessor, this text seems to have been printed much as submitted.)
With regard to Scout’s father, however, some lovers of the classic version may feel moved to ask if they can now file an emergency rewrite of their school or university essays. While one of the book’s two great shocks – the failure of a major figure to survive into the 1950s – is emotionally jolting, the other shatters the traditional reading of Atticus as a saintly widowed single father whose views on race were decades ahead of his countrymen.
This liberal hero, who was ostracised as a “nigger lover” in Mockingbird – both books present uncensored the racist hate speech of their eras – is found behaving, in the 1950s, in a way that admirers of print and film (played by Gregory Peck) versions of his earlier life will find painful and shocking. To the horror also of his daughter, the anti-racist lawyer now attends public meetings to oppose the supreme court’s attempts to impose integrated education and equal voting rights in the South. For many readers, large stretches of Watchman will be like discovering an alternative version of The Catcher in the Rye in which J.D. Salinger casts the story of the adolescent Holden Caulfield as the dream of a paedophile Republican senator.
The shift in Atticus’ attitudes proves to be nuanced and rooted in the deep political complexities of the South – which New York editors may reasonably have thought too obscure for a broader audience – but their excision significantly altered the story. While there can be no doubt that the editorial attention given to Mockingbird made the narrative more gripping – the new publication has no equivalent climax to the courtroom drama of the Robinson trial – it can also be accused of having liberally (in two senses) sanitised the contents.
If the racial politics of Watchman may prove unsettling to contemporary book buyers, time has been kinder to another ideological strain. Scout was appealingly established as a proto-feminist by the moment in Mockingbird when she is schooled in the manners of a lady and replies that she is “not particularly” interested in becoming one; the new book movingly expands on her continuing adult refusal to submit to conventional domestic expectations.
The to-and-fro ahead of the original publication also seems to have steered the writer away from stretches of modernist linguistic playfulness, such as a powerful parody of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, and a tremendous scene in which a party thrown to welcome Scout home – known as “a coffee” – is represented by a fugue of fragments of banal local chatter.
Regardless of whether the new book is regarded as Mockingbird 2 or Mockingbird 1.0, it is, in most respects, a new work, and a pleasure, revelation and genuine literary event, akin to the discovery of extra sections from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or a missing act from Hamlet hinting that the prince may have killed his father.
Teachers of American literature have been handed a fascinating potential course comparing and contrasting the pair, while there is clearly opportunity for a new movie of To Kill a Mockingbird combining the two genres most beloved by modern Hollywood – remake and sequel – within a structure of interlocking flashbacks that are the most fashionable form of movie narrative.
Until then, Go Set a Watchman shakes the settled view of both an author and her novel. And, unless another surprise for readers lies somewhere in her files, this publication intensifies the regret that Harper Lee published so little.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (HarperCollins)
For this story and more see The Review, published with the Sunday Morning Post, on July 19