Book Review: 'Go Set a Watchman' offers interesting insight

Since the release of “Go Set a Watchman” on July 14, many have wondered whether the novel will damage the legacy of author Harper Lee. However, it offers interesting insight into the creation of her classic American novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" sparked a media frenzy leading up to its release in July, but left some fans of her first novel – the iconic "To Kill A Mockingbird" – puzzled. (Courtesy/HarperCollins)

The manuscript of “Watchman” was originally completed in 1957, but rejected by Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff. Instead, she encouraged Lee to write about Scout’s childhood, touched upon in various flashbacks throughout “Watchman.” This eventually evolved into “Mockingbird.”

In 2011, the original manuscript of “Watchman” was rediscovered and in February of this year, Lee voiced her intentions to finally publish it.

The excitement surrounding “Watchman” is due largely to the fact that it’s Lee’s first novel since the publication of “Mockingbird” in 1960 and focuses on a now-grown-up Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the six-year-old narrator of “Mockingbird.”

Much of Lee’s legacy is tied to her iconic character, Atticus Finch – a pillar of morality and respectability in “Mockingbird.” Many readers were shocked to discover that their virtuous hero in “Mockingbird” is the bigoted villain in “Watchman.”

Not only is Atticus unmasked as a racist and vehement opponent of desegregation, but it’s revealed that he attended Ku Klux Klan meetings in his youth. In the novel, he asks his daughter, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

Colorado parents David and Christen Epstein were so appalled by this revelation that they changed their 14-month-old son’s name from Atticus to Lucas.

“When the new book came out, we just felt like, this does not at all encompass the values that we want for our son to have and know," Christen told People Magazine.

Critics have also mentioned “Watchman’s” rambling flashbacks, clunky dialogue and half-baked conclusion. But while “Watchman” is undeniably mediocre as a standalone piece of writing, it should not be viewed as a sequel, but, rather, in the context of the creation of “Mockingbird.”

When viewed as a part of the genesis of “Mockingbird,” “Watchman” is a fascinating testament to Lee’s skills as a writer. “The spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, recounted in a corporate history of Lee’s publisher, the J.B. Lippincott Company.

Certain passages in “Mockingbird,” such as Jean Louise’s description of her Aunt Alexandra, are lifted straight from “Watchman” and the evolution of Atticus from a repugnant racist to one of the most lauded and upstanding literary characters of all time is remarkable. 

In an interview with Roy Newquist for his 1964 book, “Counterpoint,” Lee emphasized the importance of this kind of dedication and artistry. “I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing… is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this—the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea,” she said.

Because readers have been clamoring for more of Lee’s work since the publication of “Mockingbird,” many feel the need to view “Watchman” as a sequel. However, it’s impossible for a rejected first draft to ever measure up to one of the great American novels. “Watchman” should be viewed and analyzed as a stepping stone in the creation of “Mockingbird” instead of an individual work. 

When viewed in the context of the creation of a beloved classic novel, Lee’s ability to turn a second-rate rough draft into a masterpiece of American literature is a testament to her immense talent and skill as a writer.


Helen Stec is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at helen.stec@uconn.edu.