Drawn in by the initial hype surrounding the release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”, I signed up for an electronic download of the book as soon as it was available. I recently finished reading "Watchman", described as a “lost treasure”, a book that in many ways should not have been published.
There's an old saying that every writer has at least one bad first novel they have to get on paper before they can write anything good. With all the charity I can muster I’ve concluded “Watchman” was Harper Lee's bad first novel.
First what’s good about the book: the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood. And that’s all I can say that is good. The "moral" of “Watchman” is intended to be: you need to develop your own conscience. I use the word moral because the book is that simplistic. “Watchman” is a mess. And it's not just the racism of the Atticus character. There are unfinished threads, long, rambling, awkward dialogue, and naive plot devices.
But back to the “shocking racism” of this Atticus Finch, about which much has been made. Some are trying to reconcile him with the Atticus of “Mockingbird”. I say: don’t waste your time. This is a different character who just happens to have the same name.
Some argue the Atticus of “Watchman” is a complex true-to life character. I don’t doubt the racism of Watchman’s Atticus was true to life for many folks of his era. And perhaps even today. But he is not all that complex. He doesn’t want African Americans to be able to vote and thus control government. He is still true to life for many who are trying to take back their
from a country that elected its first President with African heritage. How many
in the Republican Party are still trying to suppress voter’s rights? Watchman’s
Atticus, who advocates states’ rights and believes the Supreme Court should not
protect the rights of minorities, would be completely at home in many areas of this
country today. America
Some reviewers of “Watchman” have urged readers to not focus on Atticus’s racism but instead to look at Jean Louise (Scout’s grown-up name) and how she matures as the hero of the book. Wow! The problem with Jean Louise is that her beliefs and her arguments throughout the novel are so naïve it’s hard to accept she is an adult. Many reviewers also fail to note that Jean Louise agrees with many of her father’s underlying racist assumptions.
Negros as “backward people”. Jean Louise agrees. Atticus then asks his daughter
if she realizes you “can't have (Negros)…living among people advanced in one
kind of civilization and have a social ?”
Jean Louise responds, “Of course I know that.” Arcadia
When Atticus says “You realize that the vast majority of them (
Negros) here in the
South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship…” Jean Louise replies, “Yes sir.”
Among the naïve plot devices is the laughable, if weren’t so offensive, manner in which Jean Louise achieves her stellar insight telegraphed at the end of the novel: she needs to find her own conscience. This insight comes as a result of two literal slaps in the face from her aging uncle: a “savage backhand swipe full on the mouth” and a second “coming viciously back.”
Uncle Finch hits Jean Louise hard enough in the face to knock her off balance, see “tiny dancing lights”, and cause “blood spring (to) from her teeth”. Luckily, after her ears stop ringing, her beloved uncle, Dr. Finch, knows how to stop the bleeding.
This slap and the resulting head spin is the turning point of the novel as Jean Louise “comes to her senses” in more ways than one. Later, Jean Louise thanks her uncle, essentially for knocking sense into her when she asks her uncle, “Why did you take so much trouble with me today?” The “big reveal” in Dr. Finch’s answer I will leave to anyone foolish enough to waste his or her time on this book.
All the criticism aside, I do take hope from my time spent reading this drivel. If the person who wrote “Watchman” could produce “Mockingbird” there may be a great novel in all of us. I’m off to work on my novel. It’s probably a “Watchman” and not a “Mockingbird”. But once I get it on paper maybe my next one will win Pulitzer.