Go Set A Watchman: Firecracker that Fizzed?

Just completed listening to Reese Witherspoon read Harper Lee’s book, Go Set A Watchman--a superb rendering of grown-up and 6-yr-old Scout.

Several years ago I read a wonderful biography of Harper Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields. In the biography I learned that the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird was one in which the publisher (Lippincott) recognized a unique literary voice. The subsequent work with editors resulted in rewriting the story to include more about Scout’s 6-year old self and her beloved Atticus.

Yet, Go Set A Watchman is an entirely different story. The setting and the flashbacks of grown-up Scout to her childhood are familiar and the wonderful writing we treasure. But the latter chapters of the book are an ABSOLUTE SHOCKER.

Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird, is our national model of how we want to be, or how we want an educated Southerner to reason and act. In the pages of Go Tell A Watchman we confront the raw truth: the South bred, and in some places, still breeds, its own brand of racial denigration and violence. In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus sounds like a fine member of the Klan: What would happen if all those black folks got into politics? 

Uncle Jack tries to explain it all away through his twisted logic about why southerners still feel slighted by the nation and still distrust Liberals, Yankees, and Blacks. Then he pulls another illogical stunt: Scout should not leave town and shake the dust off her feet, but stay — because when people close to her are wrong, that is reason to stay — purportedly to change their minds. Huh? That just feels like Harper Lee did not quite know how to end the book. Well, it was her first.

But the whole experience left me wondering: just how much was the original edited? Also, think about this: did the editors believe that the nation, especially the South, wasn’t ready to view racism so unabashedly on stage? Did editors radically reshape the novel that we all came to love and cherish? Or, did they simply make it a better book?

Have you read it? What do you think?

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