Go set a watchman: thoughts

Since I am still teaching in an IGCSE centre, To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of my set texts. Even if it had been dropped by the board, I suspect I would be teaching it anyway, probably in Year 9, as I am with Of Mice and Men. Because of this I want to write a few thoughts about Harper Lee’s “new” novel: Go set a watchman.

First, let’s be clear. This is not a new novel. It is published as “a landmark new novel” on the sleeve notes. It is referred to regularly as a “sequel” to TKAM because in this book Scout is an adult, visiting Maycomb in the 1950s. The excitement generated by the idea that Lee – a notorious recluse- had written further thoughts on the racist bigotry of her home town has built expectation beyond belief. TKAM has such impact and such a following, that many seem to have forgotten that it is a work of fiction. It bears the same relationship to truth as a novel such as Copperfield – largely built on Dickens’ childhood experiences, but viewed through a lens. Because of this lack of perspective, Atticus Finch has emerged as a saintly figure: a bastion of decency and colour blindness standing firm against an army of racism and hatred. To discover that this might not be the “truth” has caused some concern and upset. It should not.

Every now and then a morsel of Bach or Mozart or Beethoven is unearthed in a cupboard. Great excitement fills the musical world since this undiscovered gem might shed light on the creative process of a genius. The work is dissected and recorded before,often, slipping back into obscurity. Likewise, whilst early versions of operas or symphonies exist, they are rarely performed in place of the accepted later, final, versions. The reason is simple – often the later version has benefitted from criticism and revision. Often the music has gained subtlety and lost a degree of rawness and naivety evident in the early version. We can still hear the developing voice of the composer, but it comes in snatches and in pre-echoes and our ears are always carrying our “knowledge” of the later version. Ultimately, with the two CDs side by side on our shelves, the younger voice is rarely listened to out of choice, other than to play the odd extract to illustrate how the composer’s ideas changed over the years as he developed.

So it is with this novel. Please be clear. This is no sequel in any sense. It was written well before TKAM and rejected, apparently with the publisher suggesting that Lee re-work the novel to focus on the young Scout and her memories. This is hardly surprising. The adult Scout is simply not interesting to read. In the 1950s, few would be interested in the meandering memoirs of a twenty-something unknown New York woman writing about a visit to her hometown in Alabama and her subsequent mortification on discovering that the whole town, including her father, were complicit in some way with the racial hatred of the day. The writing is direct, to a fault, rarely engaging the reader with any of the characters and Lee hurries through episodes that might have real resonance if explored in-depth whilst wearing her learning and erudition like a clumsy headlamp as she references authors such as Browning and Wordsworth to help to explore her feelings. They are as out-of-place in the novel as her liberal Northern views are at a meeting of the Klan.

This is a draft that should not have been seen, unless issued with a clear statement to the fact that it is the first attempt at delivering the work of greatness which followed. It has no real central thread beyond her upset that a 70-year-old should hold dearly the attitudes with which he was brought up. Atticus is a racist in this novel, seen through the lens of the late 20th century and especially when set against the fiction of TKAM. Many are saddened by this, but I think the realism is more believable than the character we love from the later work. It is clear that his driving motive for defending Tom Robinson is not a sense of bruised racial equality but a driving respect for the law, regardless of the colour of the defendant. This is not the action of a committed racist. The discussion around the Klan suggests that Atticus joined the group in his youth to see who it contained – to “know your enemy”. This sounds weak, but is plausible. Possibly the klan was as innocent in this area as a Masonic Lodge, as is suggested. Certainly, it is hard to see anyone obviously opposed to the racist views of the South attaining the professional success that Atticus obviously attained. This is human behaviour – we may not like his faults but we can acknowledge the complexity hidden within him. Sadly, the novel reveals little of this complexity. The dialogue between Scout and her father is clumsy and lacks any spark of warmth or humour. Lee writes this relationship so much more effectively when writing of the relationship of an innocent child trying to piece together the world in which she lives.

In this book Lee knows her mind and that is one of the problems. One of the joys of TKAM is the mixture of waspish asides as Lee shows her mind in conjunction with the youthful narrative of her 8-year-old self. Here there is none. All is in the open and the passages where Lee intersperses her thoughts against the real-time dialogues of coffee parties and social events are utterly lacking in subtlety, though we can see the writing of TKAM beginning to emerge.

The loss of an innocent narrator is a real problem in this book because there is no sense of experience emerging from the innocent. Both Jem and Scout allow this to be a consistent thread of TKAM. In this book Jem is already dead – Lee is writing in a clear autobiographical manner – and his replacement as Scout’s friend and guide in Maycomb is Hank. He is really rather dull and rarely does Lee invest their time together with any great charm. No wonder he was dropped for the final version. He would simply be in the way.

The events of the trial – the events which created TKAM as a world-beater and propelled Lee to international fame and fortune – exist in this book but are so prosaic as to be overlooked in the narrative of post-teenage anger and frustration with one’s roots. The trial is referenced in its, presumably, factual version. No time is spent on it and it is used to show Atticus acting from a love of law. No attempt is made to explore the event as a catalyst for Scout’s and the reader’s growth. This is partly because Robinson was acquitted in the trial. With no evident miscarriage of justice, there is little sense of anger, frustration and injustice to propel the reader. In TKAM, Atticus is fictionalised as a champion – half blind and wearing his years heavily – and given a closing speech into which Lee pours all her passion and belief. It works. It worked so well that Gregory Peck ensured that the film version of TKAM focused simply on his role as the champion of racial justice. A great novel was born which chimed precisely with the zeitgeist and which has allowed generations of school children to explore the issues of racism in a context which allows ideas to unfold naturally as we read. Lee holds a mirror to her society by pitting the “lowest” elements – the poor blacks – against the lowest elements – the white trash of Old Sarum – and allowing the referee to be the elderly white man appointed as defence attorney. Throughout the novel the black community is dignified, proud and hard-working; the white trash are slovenly, immoral and a burden on society. Scout has been protected form reality until she starts school and her lessons in life begin as soon as she stands up for the Cunningham boy in the issue over lunches. She learns and we learn along with her. All emerge wiser.

Not so in Watchman. We emerge with an understanding that a young adult has learned the “truth” about her father, her family and her hometown. She is angry and chippy. It is all so mundane in the telling. Give me the fictionalised version any day.

What we have is a draft or a sketch of a great masterpiece. I am happy to have read it, but am unlikely to return to it beyond possibly using sections to teach about drafting and the importance of getting narrative voice “right”. To call it a new novel or sequel is wrong and is misleading. No doubt many of the readers who queued all night for the first publication will have been hoping for a gem. They have received nothing of the sort. It is not even costume jewellery – it was never meant to be. The claims for the novel are unfair to Lee as well as to her readers. Sell this book as what it is, and read it in the same light.