American literature, Arts commentary, Book review, Literary criticism

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Harper Lee

Harper Lee

In 1993 Joanne Woodward was the narrator in Sorcese’s film of Edit Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Her voice was measured and melifuous, full of American cadences of the time; a formal English suggesting refinement, wisdom, and good behaviour.

I was just over two pages into Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s new/old novel (and if you’re a reader and haven’t heard of it you’ve probably been living on Mars), when I realised the voice in my head I was reading with was that of Woodward’s with the same measurement and melifuousness perfect for phrases like “a family example not Iikely to be discountenanced” and “Love whom you will but marry your own kind was a dictum amounting to instinct within her.”

The mood of life in Maycomb is set by annacdotes of the people in it. Tales of loyalty, family pride, and self reliance pepper the opening pages so by the time I met the aged Atticus Finch I was already steeped in small-town life and flavour. I expected, hoped for, a slow reveal of Atticus Finch but Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird and how could the author know what an indelable image her creation would leave on the minds of her readers; not to forget the looks and fatherly masculinity of Gregory Peck, from the 1962 film, that couloured it. Over a million copies have been sold in July: the month of it’s release, on the 14th. It’s been ringing tills all over the world and some critics have sharpened their knives and honed their sarcasm to firmly put it back in the bottom drawer.

It certainly isn’t as good as To Kill a Mockingbird but then no-one really thought it would be as part of the marketing campaign was to explain that the original publisher remarked to a young Harper Lee that the most interesting parts of the book were the flashbacks to Scout’s early years and being a novice, Lee took his advice and went back to her desk and, as we know, wrote Mockingbird, which has become a modern classic loved the world over. What is interesting in this book is its role as the precursor to that iconic text. You feel a sense of privilege to discover the germs of scenes that grew into those we know so well: the courtroom scene, for instance, that forms the climax of Mockingbird is a simple reminiscence Jean Louise (Scout) has when she visits the same courthouse.
However what is a surprise is that her father, Atticus Finch, is not the same man as the Mockingbird hero. In Go Set a Watchman ( from Isaiah: 21, 6) Atticus is a respected member of the Maycomb community but his attitude to race relations is totally different to those of the younger Atticus who Lee portrayed as a hero of tolerance and rational thinking; here he tries to justify racist attitudes as necessary to deal with, and live peacefully within, his chosen home. These ideas confound and horrify Scout, and us. However the climax, the confrontation between father and daughter, is very shallow and under-written with an outcome that has more to do with blood than sincere argument; the threat is weak and the ending is therefore disappointing.
It is remarkable to realise that not only was race still a devisive issue 20 years after the story of Mockingbird but today, in 2015, it is still an open wound on the face of American society: still as raw as a fresh cigarette burn.

As the mature woman Scout realises that her upbringing rendered her colour blind; but how can that be now that the model of her raising has turned against her? or was he always like he is now? If she is to stay in this world she needs a guide, a Watchman, to lead her through this place where she doubts she belongs or understands.
The writing is not as sharp and reliable as in Mockingbird but there are flashes of brilliance that set up images that stay with you; and most of them to do with the flashes back to Scout’s teenage years and before. The third person narrative is of the ‘close writing’ kind that sometimes gets so close to Scout that it often slips into the first person, a device that effectively creates the feeling of personal truth.
Go Set a Watchman as a companion piece to To Kill a Mockingbird is its strongest attribute; it may be thin and embryonic but to those who value artistic endeavour and its evolution it’s a valuable text.

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