Harper Lee's Literary Tug-of-War


No one actually expected “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee’s prequel/sequel/rough draft/whatever to “To Kill A Mockingbird,” to be a great book, right? For all the strange and unseemly circumstances around its discovery and release, the general consensus seemed to hold that, though written before “Mockingbird,” it never got published for a reason. Ahead of “Watchman’s” publishing, anticipation was high, but expectations were low.

And that's how I felt about "Watchman" after reading both books back to back this summer. I’m pretty sure I read “Mockingbird” at some point in school, but we all know what it means to “read” a book in middle or high school – it means to skim, read the Cliff’s Notes, consult with friends before a quiz, then guess on said quiz. I have been, and continue to be, a Reader and yet sadly can’t recall a book I encountered educationally pre-college that has stayed with me.

So I “re-read” “Mockingbird” and was immediately won over by the confident and questioning voice of Scout Finch, the young narrator of this story about racial prejudice in 1930s Alabama. When published in 1960, its politics were progressive and palatable for adults and children alike. But the message gets through because of the craft of the writing, the perspective of our protagonist, and the energy of her voice.

“Watchman,” takes place nearly 20 years after the incidents of Scout’s youth. She’s now in her mid-20s, and goes by her full name, Jean Louise. The book is written in the third person, so we lose the wide-eyed innocence and humor of seeing the world through Scout’s eyes. The first person point of view of “Mockingbird” allows for a certain distilling of difficult subjects into simple language: When Atticus, Scout’s lawyer father, explains racial discrimination and why most of their neighbors tolerate it, we accept otherwise stock and idealistic answers because, after all, he’s talking to a 10-year-old.

“Watchman,” on the other hand, takes place largely in Jean Louise’s head and her struggle with the racial politics of her hometown now feel didactic. She becomes a vessel for the author to present a social critique, rather than a fleshed-out character discovering injustice in her world.

But what makes “Watchman” an intriguing, and worthwhile, read is in considering how Lee (or her editor) took the raw material of “Watchman” and had the foresight – and discipline – to extract one small part of it (the trial of Tom Robinson), make that the central conflict, and re-envision the story in another era and from another perspective. As a tool for writers imagining the many possibilities of their narratives, it’s incredibly instructive.

Much has been made of the fact that Atticus in “Watchman” is not the noble defender of the innocent he’s made to be in “Mockingbird.” In some ways, this makes the conflict of “Watchman” more compelling than that of “Mockingbird.” The latter was a morality tale with clear lines between good and evil – as befits the POV of a 10-year-old.

“Watchman” blurs those lines and raises difficult questions: What do you do when you find the political views of your parents fundamentally wrong or abhorrent? Can and should this undermine an otherwise happy, supportive upbringing? To what degree are you willing to let principles get between you and your family? Interesting, complicated stuff – and perhaps harder to shape into a cogent novel.

“Go Set a Watchman” is a less enjoyable read than “To Kill A Mockingbird” – both in its craft and in its content. The right book came out at the right time and is rightly revered. But there’s also something worthwhile in having both these novels out in the world now, side by side, in their tug-of-war.