So when Harper Lee's publisher announced the publication of a new novel, I was mostly excited. And as the time approached for its official release I steered clear of reviews and opinions, because I wanted to read it cold. I know the issues surrounding the novel, and I didn't want my experience to be informed by disillusioned readers or pedantic newspaper reviews.
Today I offer you a few guidelines for your own reading of Go Set a Watchman, followed by some thoughts that will contain spoilers. (But I'll let you know when that's coming, so you can quit reading if you want!)
First, Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.
And you can't read it like one. Think of Watchman as a companion to Mockingbird. Some articles I've read say to consider it as an alternate reality of sorts, but for me I don't think even that was necessary. Watchman is different, and if you know going in that it won't be necessarily a sequel, then I think your experience will benefit. The best way to not pigeonhole Watchman as a sequel is to--
Know the manuscript history.
Few books really require you to know its origin and its authorial context. But you really do need to know the context of Watchman's genesis and publication. Harper Lee wrote Watchman before she wrote Mockingbird--before. She submitted Watchman to a publisher, and her editor asked for more content about Jean Louise's childhood. That led to To Kill a Mockingbird.
The manuscript for Go Set a Watchman's 21st-century publication was lightly edited. It did not undergo rigorous substantive or developmental edits, and in many ways could be considered a first draft of Maycomb and its inhabitants. Knowing how Watchman came about greatly informed how I read the book. I found myself asking questions about Lee's experience with Maycomb and Atticus and Jean Louise and how she might have written things differently had Mockingbird actually come first.
But Mockingbird didn't come first, and that's really important to understanding Watchman.
Don't read Watchman if you're looking for straight-up entertainment, because this book begs to be read critically. Your experience with it will be greatly enhanced if you ask questions along the way and think seriously about the story. Strive for empathy with the characters, and remember that we are reading this on the other side of civil rights, most of us having grown up post-1950s and '60s. Perhaps history books make it easier for us to understand the right/wrong of civil rights better than the good-at-heart white Southerners who lived it and had their entire worldviews challenged. That would be hard, and I think we really aren't in a position to judge Atticus, Uncle Jack, or Hank. They underwent a massive cultural shift, and I don't think many of us know what that feels like.
When I closed this book, I was filled with the truth that good people--even great people--aren't perfect. That perhaps even Atticus--arguably the greatest American literary hero--is human and fallible. Good people are imperfect, and imperfect people can still be good people. Maybe American literature has propped up Atticus as a too-perfect beacon, and I may love him even more than I did before after reading Watchman.
Don't read Watchman with emotions only--use your brain.
Spoiler time--I'm eager to share some of the specific experiences I had while reading Watchman, and those include some spoilers. So if you want to stop here, please do, and come back after you've read it!
:: I really wonder what Harper Lee would have done with Jem if she'd written Mockingbird first. You find out early on that Jem died young (in his twenties) of sudden heart failure. And I was devastated. I had to remember that for Lee, Jem was already dead when she wrote Mockingbird, and I'd love to know about her experience developing Jem's character in Mockingbird knowing the fate she gave him. Jem's death blindsided me.
:: If Mockingbird is Scout's coming-of-age story, Watchman is Jean Louise's quarter-life crisis. I love the Jean Louise of Watchman and admire her passion and empathize with her idealism. Later in the book she recognizes her figurative color-blindness, and while that's a wonderful quality, it also prevents her from being able to easily see the civil rights issue from another's perspective (like Atticus's and Uncle Jack's).
:: I love Dr. Finch (Atticus's brother). His character was my favorite next to Jean Louise. He's obscure, but insightful and helped me understand the issues in this book better than I would have on my own.
:: I don't hate Atticus, nor am I disillusioned by Watchman's rendering of him. I found his fallibility refreshing more than anything and also wondered who he might have been had Watchman undergone more serious edits, or if Mockingbird really had come second. I would love to hear what Harper Lee has to say about these two books, their relationship to each other, and her relationship to each of them.
:: In many ways--and despite Atticus's beautiful championing of justice in Mockingbird--Atticus is still a man of his time. In his 70s, he was witnessing a turbulent rebirth of his homeland and social systems. I truly don't believe his involvement in the segregationist movement was born of hate, but rather his attempt to reconcile his values and worldview with an imperfect and evolving social system. I wish readers today would give him more grace.
:: I loved this quote from the book (spoken by Uncle Jack--Atticus's brother--to Jean Louise):
Now you, Miss, born with your own conscious, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle to your father's. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man's heart, and a man's feelings--I'll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes 'em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.
How many of us fastened on to Atticus when we read To Kill a Mockingbird?
I would love to talk more about this book one-on-one, over Starbucks cocoa, Facebook messenger, in a book group, or in one of my old literature classes. Yes, it's different, but it makes you think if you let it. No, it's not in the same revolutionary, canonical league as Mockingbird, and that's okay. I read a library copy, because I didn't know if I'd like it enough to own it, and now that I've finished I want to buy a copy for my library. Go Set a Watchman does have something to offer if you can set aside your Atticus-worship for 278 pages.
Have you read it? Will you read it? What did you think of the book?