Will ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Spoil ‘Mockingbird’?
Reviewing the Reviews of Harper Lee's Newsmaking Book
The July 14 publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is, indisputably, news. The reclusive author, now 89, was never expected to follow up on her Pulitzer Prize-winning classic To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in July 1960.
But is Go Set a Watchman a good book? How will its publication affect Harper Lee’s literary legacy? And how are book critics shaping the early discussion?
Given the publisher’s tightly controlled rollout—the first-chapter excerpt tease (with Reese Witherspoon audio) published on Friday in the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, and Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, the updated PBS American Masters documentary, the archival feature stories and interviews—it’s easy to track the evolution of critical consensus in slow motion. Here’s a snapshot of the news-making reviews in advance of the official publication date.
Atticus Finch is a Racist
Three early reviews published Friday revealed the biggest shocker: Atticus Finch is a “racist,” a “bigot,” “a segregationist.”
First out of the gate at Friday afternoon (with a “Breaking News Alert” followed quickly by a #1 trending spot on Twitter) was the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, whose spoiler-filled review broke the embargo and shaped the early perception of the novel. Her plot summary, with an idealistic Scout now 26, trying to come to terms with her Alabama hometown and the discovery of her father’s darker side, became the template for much online commentary over the weekend.
In her opening paragraph, Kakutani gives us a thumbnail of Atticus Finch, the “moral conscience” of To Kill a Mockingbird, “who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hatred in the 1930s.”
“Shockingly,” she writes, in Go Set a Watchman, “Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.’ Or asks his daughter: ‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?’”
Her conclusion nails Atticus without reservation: “One of the emotional through lines in both books is a plea for empathy… The difference is Mockingbird suggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo and Tom Robinson, while Watchman asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus.”
Sam Sacks’s review in the Wall Street Journal calls Watchman “a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of To Kill a Mockingbird. This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion.”
Watchman is a “practice run” for Mockingbird, Sacks writes. “Atticus Finch, standard-bearer of justice and integrity and one of the few unambiguously heroic figures in American literature, was originally conceived as a segregationist.”
“Is Atticus Finch, the noble hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, a racist?” asks USA Today reviewer Jocelyn McClurg (she gives it two out of four stars). Watchman… is the story of a young adult wrestling with hard truths about her family and her hometown, but it’s distressing to see the great, saintly Atticus diminished.”
Read Go Set a Watchman as a Time Capsule
McClurg calls Watchman “a time capsule of a troubled time in the South, as desegregation looms in the wake of Supreme Court rulings. Unlike Mockingbird, Watchman contains passages of deeply disturbing, overt racial slurs. These are not gratuitous, but they are still hard to read.”
In her Washington Post review, Natasha Tretheway underscores the historic context—“the characters in Watchman carry out an ideological debate that began in the South but would come to occupy the national consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s and in many ways continues today”—and its “compelling” timeliness:
During the historical moment in which the novel takes place, in states such as Georgia and South Carolina, legislators had begun to authorize the raising of the Confederate flag over the statehouses or the incorporation of it into the design of state flags as a reaction and opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision—thus inscribing the kind of white Southern anxiety dramatized in Lee’s novel.
Perhaps the best thing about this book, Tretheway concludes, “is that it gives us a way to look at history from a great distance. It has been 61 years since the Brown decision, and now we have the hindsight to see the larger impact that Lee’s characters could not quite see: an outcome, as Warren suggested — that ‘desegregation is just one small episode in the long effort for justice.’”
Living with Ambiguity: A more complex, human Atticus Finch
Time magazine’s Daniel D’Addario, who appeared on MSNBC, Good Morning, America and the Today Show to discuss the book, sees Watchman as a lesson in living with ambiguity.
Jean Louise learns that she cannot write off her father—his good and his bad—just because of the views he’s always held, or because he’s a figure from a past that’s receding too slowly. It’s only by striving to see him with the eyes of an adult that she can come to understand what she stands for. Painful though it may be, that’s the reader’s task too.
Watchman “asks us to see Atticus now not merely as a hero, a god, but as a flesh-and-blood man with shortcomings and moral failing, enabling us to see ourselves for all our complexities and contradictions,” writes Tretheway in her Washington Post review.
The Journal’s Sacks predicts the outrage and disappointment to come among readers: “Yet for the millions who hold that novel dear, Go Set a Watchman will be a test of their tolerance and capacity for forgiveness. At the peak of her outrage, Jean Louise tells her father, ‘You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible.’ I don’t doubt that many who read this novel are going to feel the same way.”
Watchman should have stayed in the drawer
Watchman “is an apprentice effort, and falls apart in the second half,” and “is most interesting as a literary artifact,” writes David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times.
Watchman is likely to end up “a footnote to literary history,” McClurg writes in USA Today. “There will be great debate, now and for years to come, if the book should have been published. And many will say ‘No.’ “
Madison Smartt Bell, the Boston Globe reviewer, nails the novel for “want of a plot” and “dramatic failure.”
Watchman will reframe Harper Lee’s work forever
In his New York Times piece describing how Harper Lee’s late editor, Tay Hohoff, shaped Mockingbird from the first draft, Watchman, Jonathan Mahler asks, “Would she have considered it a valuable literary artifact with the potential to deepen our understanding of Ms. Lee? Or would she have tried to talk her author out of it, arguing that Watchman could forever change how people read Mockingbird?”
The consensus among these early reviews is that Watchman will reshape Harper Lee’s literary legacy, and is likely to spoil Mockingbird for future audiences, as well.
“If the publishers were hoping to cash in on this publication of what normally might be a candidate for a posthumous work,” writes Bell in the Boston Globe, “they may instead have burnt their own meal ticket—nobody who has read Watchman can ever read—or even think about—Mockingbird in the same way again.”
NPR’s Maureen Corrigan calls the novel “a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically,” a “kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece.”
Watchman “will complicate Lee’s legacy in ways we never expected,” writes Dallas Morning News reviewer Joyce Saenz Harris. “Some readers will actively resent Lee’s revelations, while others will rejoice in her unsentimental realism.”
Nothing in this early scan of reviews is as positive as Time magazine’s flashback to the original Aug. 1, 1960 Mockingbird review, which concluded: “All in all, Scout Finch is fiction’s most appealing child since Carson McCullers’ Frankie got left behind at the wedding.”