Lead book review

Go Set a Watchman should never have been hyped as a ‘landmark new novel’, says Philip Hensher

Harper Lee’s publishers are much to blame for resurrecting this piece of confused juvenilia. It should have remained where it belongs — in the bottom drawer

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

Go Set a Watchman Harper Lee

Heinemann, pp.288, £18.99, ISBN: 9781785150289

This is an interesting document, and a pretty bad novel. I don’t know why anyone thought it would be otherwise. In 1960, Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird. It was an important statement, as well as a very good novel. Just as it took the southerner Lyndon B. Johnson to make the most significant civil rights concessions, so literary culture needed a novel written by a woman from the south saying all the right things about race in the firmest way possible. The book was compelling, and immediately made its way into classrooms worldwide, where it has stayed.

Subsequently, Harper Lee made it very clear that she would not be publishing another novel — neither writing one, nor producing one written earlier. She has not been a recluse, but she has not wanted to venture into print again. I think the experience of fame must have destroyed the sort of writer Lee really is — the quietly observing novelist of small-town life. You can’t remain an anonymous, alert observer of unselfconscious existences if everyone knows what you’re up to with your little notebook.

Her representatives have told us the way in which this novel — a first attempt at the world of To Kill a Mockingbird — has come to be published. In 2011, experts from Sotheby’s identified a complete novel, written in the 1950s, in Lee’s papers. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, had unfortunately just left the room to run some errands when this announcement was made. No one subsequently thought to tell her of this discovery. Three years later, Carter herself was going through the papers when she found the same typescript. When she announced it, nobody observed that it had already been discovered. Lee herself had apparently not been told in 2011, and expressed herself delighted with the discovery, and happy to go ahead with publication. This delight was voiced in a statement issued by Carter and attributed to Lee, in which she described Carter as her ‘dear friend and lawyer’.

When the outside world seemed somewhat sceptical that Lee had changed her mind about publication of this first draft after decades of resistance, another statement was issued by Carter and, again, attributed to Lee. Although, on the announcement of publication, nobody at Lee’s publisher had met her or discussed the question with her, in subsequent weeks representatives in New York made their way down to Monroeville and an inquiry into the possibility of ‘elder abuse’ — ultimately dismissed — was launched by the local social services.

Lee’s publishers have declared that any questioning of this narrative is ‘unacceptable’, so I merely report it neutrally. After having read the novel, it is absolutely clear to me that no novelist in full possession of his or her faculties would agree to its publication as a sequel, or as a new work comparable in significance and expertise to To Kill a Mockingbird. The only circumstances of publication imaginable are as a curiosity, with a preface by the author describing its place in her development. It might, too, have been publishable in an accurate, scholarly edition, like the publication of The Waste Land drafts in 1971 after T.S. Eliot’s death, with a proper and reliable description of the manuscript and the circumstances of its finding, and an attempt to elucidate its place in Lee’s journey towards To Kill a Mockingbird. The publishers have not done that. They want us to think of this piece of confused juvenilia as a ‘landmark new novel’ — as though it had just arrived from a writer in energetic mid-career.


Lee’s publishers have thrown away a good deal of trust in my view. If they present this novel as a sequel — or half of Lee’s published work — then it won’t be seen for what it is by readers. It is demented to complain that Atticus Finch has now been revealed as a racist, or that one of the major characters in Mockingbird was to die young. One should simply observe that this book hasn’t reached the standard of To Kill a Mockingbird by a very long way. It’s an early attempt, and the concept of each character is completely different. They just happen to share the same names.

In Go Set a Watchman Jean Louise Finch (Mockingbird’s Scout) travels to her home county of Maycomb after a stretch in New York. She is returning to her father, Atticus, her aunt Alexandra and a devoted beau, Henry (or Hank). Her homecoming makes her think about her childhood, and about the connections that her family and friends have to the racial question. Revelations about the past of her closest friends follow, and she has to decide whether or not to go on encouraging Hank in his devotion.

To Kill a Mockingbird has its fair share of first-novel blunders, and Go Set a Watchman would, in most circumstances, be regarded as near unpublishable.
Mockingbird’s flaws are forgivable. Scout relates the story, and has to eavesdrop on detailed adult conversations telling the plot so far. I’m quite partial to the scene in which the lisping small girl averts a lynching with her innocent prattle, but it’s not among the novelist’s most sophisticated inventions. Any novelist would have been delighted to have written the line, ‘Your father’s passing’, at the end of the trial scene; but a more experienced one would have known not to write it as the last line of a chapter. (The writers of the screenplay for the classic movie knew what they were about, on the other hand.)

Harper Lee on a visit to Monroeville,  her home town in Alabama
Harper Lee on a visit to Monroeville, her home town in Alabama

Mockingbird is not just a literary invention, however, but a political intervention, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the civil rights struggle. It, and its characters, should have no truck with ambiguity to make its forceful point, even if we feel afterwards that the odds are being stacked too much one way, with the business of the withered arm and the powerful left hand of the real culprit in court. Atticus has to be unswervingly saintly, like Little Eva, as flat as a face on a playing card. It doesn’t matter for this particular purpose.

Go Set a Watchman improves a little as it goes along. But the writing is disastrously leaden, and the tone shifts about, from painfully self-conscious fine writing (‘She was completely unaware that with one twist of the tongue she could plunge Jean Louise into a moral turmoil by making her niece doubt her own motives and best intentions…’) to the elaborately facetious mock-heroic:

With the same suddenness that [sic] a barbarous boy yanks the larva of an ant lion from its hole to leave it struggling in the sun, Jean Louise was snatched from her quiet realm and left alone to protect her sensitive epidermis as best she could, on a humid Sunday afternoon at precisely 2.28 p.m.

The awestruck publishers have restrained themselves from making corrections to the occasionally faulty grammar — another reason to think that the author was not very closely involved in the process: ‘Had she insight… she may [sic] have discovered that all her life she had been [sic] with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed.’

Painful clichés are everywhere. ‘The truth,’ of course, ‘was ugly’. A child has ‘the face of an angel’. ‘As the years passed, she recognised the full value of Atticus’s wisdom.’ I suggest that you carry out an internet search for the phrase on p. 91, where Jean Louise marches into the church ‘with as much dignity as she could muster’. Google opens a door into a tawdry landscape of Mills & Boon and unambitious romances. Clichés of language cede to clichés of observation. Jean Louise, being wooed, stands with ‘her hands on her hips’ like Calamity Jane. A page later, being driven home, ‘with her head on his shoulder, Jean Louise was content’, and we are in the territory of someone who once saw a Doris Day movie. Clichés of observation give way to clichés of thought, and dark secrets in Atticus’s past are dutifully unveiled.

None of this ought to matter in the slightest. Go Set a Watchman is rather a bad novel that its author wrote on the way to writing a very good novel. The editor who originally saw some potential in this manuscript was sensitive but not extraordinary. The novel’s texture is routinely inept in the adult scenes, where Jean Louise sees something, reflects on it, thinks her way to a conclusion, raises her head and looks at something else to reflect on. It is, painfully, like someone trying to write like John Cheever.

Strikingly, however, the book leaps into something like life when it gets to the childhood scenes with Jem and Dill. Here the writing is swift and funny. It cuts to the chase. It is warm and sympathetic, and neither sentimental nor full of internal ramblings. Lee was pushed in exactly the right direction. And with excellent judgment she set this first attempt to one side for nearly 60 years; having written To Kill a Mockingbird, she must have seen that the novel in the bottom drawer was just no good. It is hard to understand how Lee could have changed her mind in this regard. I expect the full story will come out in time.

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Show comments
  • Any novelist would have been delighted to have written the line, ‘Your father’s passing’, at the end of the trial scene; but a more experienced one would have known not to write it as the last line of a chapter.
    Why, and why not? I’m not familiar with the book — I read it in high school like everyone else — but the reasoning behind these claims is not self-evident.

    Atticus has to be unswervingly saintly
    According to Anthony Daniels in The New Criterion, he isn’t: witness his bizarre championing of the wicked old woman — after all she’s done.

  • Mary Norton Bentley

    I have read “Mockingbird” at least 25 times, and I just finished “Watchman.” I think Watchman is a fantastic book — Harper Lee’s wit, intelligence (who knew she was such a history scholar?), her wisdom and her incredible talent to convey the folksy humor of the Southern United States are unsurpassed! I finished it last night at midnight, and I was so full of joy — the author’s voice rang out and sang to my soul — I could not sleep.

    • Dan O’Connor

      USA, FBI criminal statistics

      Homocides 2014 ;

      Black on White homocides 400
      White on Black homocides 4

      Blacks commit 95 % of the homocides against Blacks .
      In Chicago alone , Blacks murder more Blacks in one year than all the Blacks lynched during the Jim Crow era .

      US Department of Criminal Statistics ;

      Per Year ; Average rape rates ;

      Black on White rapes ; 20, 000
      White on Black rapes 0 to 10

      ” I was so full of joy ”

      Utterly uninformed White guilt ego glow moral narcissist ethno masochist

      Impression given by the US media , is that the USA is place where mobs of angry White red necks hunt down and kill Blacks with total impunity .

      • grimm

        Very interesting if true. Can you tell us where the FBI publish these statistics. Are they available to the general public or do you require special authorisation to view them?

        • Dan O’Connor

          ” ..if true .. ”

          Why the fekk shouldn’t it be true ? I don’t have my own army of criminal statisticians

          The collective disbelief at these statistics by White liberals / leftists exposes the dereliction of duty and knee jerk anti-White racial bias that the Gate Keepers of the Truth , otherwise known as the ” Western media ” have been guilty of for the last 50 years

          • grimm

            You are assuming that I am rubbishing your statistics. This is not true.

            You must understand that anyone could come to a comments page like this with a set of statistics invented or exaggerated to support their point of view. I think it is perfectly reasonable of me to ask where we can verify these statistics.

            Incidentally, I would not describe myself as a white liberal / leftist with knee jerk anti-white racial bias. I find the statistics interesting and would like to verify if they are true. No more, no less.

      • post_x_it

        What’s a homocide? Is that when a homosexual commits homicide?

        • Dan O’Connor

          No, it’s when a homo-sapien commits a spelling mistake

      • Mary Norton Bentley

        WOW!

        • Dan O’Connor

          Yup WOW ! .

          Oh that’s nothing.
          Try the web-sites
          Council of Conservative Citizens
          American Renaissance

          They get all their news from the mainstream local liberal US media and pass it on. In case you are wondering, no, there is no other kind of local media.

          • Mary Norton Bentley

            I am not surprised that you interpreted my “WOW” like that! ha

          • Dan O’Connor

            Oh my God , not another smug, drive-by, hit and run one liner intellectual giant. I’ll send that over to Bletchley Park right away for decoding
            The white middle / upper class, cosmopolitan, quarter educated, historically ignorant, pseudo intellectual , hysterical xenophile White guilt peddling snake oil con men and their useful idiots.
            The purpose of a university education in the West is for White liberals to obtain all the politically correct attitudes towards minorities and the financial means to live as far away from them as possible. The love that a White liberal has for diversity is in direct correlation to their lack of proximity to it.
            That’s why it is impossible to distinguish between the White flight migratory patterns of a White liberal or a member of the KKK .
            The reason that being an ” anti-racist ” ” Liberal ” has become so popular in the West is because its the cheapest and most personal risk free form of virtue one can buy in the West today. You don’t have to actually do anything to be one
            You just have to be ” a liberal ” .

          • Callipygian

            Sure: don’t let reality get in your way, hon. I can’t vouch for the statistics one by one but if you think blacks do no wrong (against each other especially, though my husband has been their innocent victim more than once, the last in an attempted homicide), then I think you need to get rid of those rose-coloured glasses.

    • post_x_it

      “at least 25 times”
      Blimey, that’s one book, yes?
      Is it because you think the plot will eventually take a different turn from the previous times?

      • Mary Norton Bentley

        No, it’s because I think that it is one of the best books ever written.

        • Callipygian

          That’s an honourable judgement, but there are much better books. Most anything by Anthony Trollope, for a start. But he didn’t have Lee’s advantage of being a social crusader writing about the right things at the right time with precisely the right attitude.

          • blandings

            A toast to Trollope!
            I like saying that.
            No, seriously, I have those nice Folio Society editions – Trollopes everywhere.

          • blandings

            I’ll look later – promise.
            Early to work – exam boards – I like failing students (no I don’t really, that was me in a previous existence. Can you imagine me flunking? – Of course you can’t!)

          • blandings

            I can never understand how I get overlooked for that gig – I can do the smirk and the thing with the eyebrows.

            Just remembered, tonight is the start of the Potton Musical Festival, opening at the Church at Cockayne Hatley. It’s a lovely spot.There are no sights or sounds of the modern world around and the whole place has a very Victorian feel to it. The light will be fading during the interval, but if you know where to look you can find the graves of Wendy and Long John Silver, well those who inspired their creation anyway.
            Did I tell you this last year? Might have done! If so, you can be polite and pretend I didn’t.

          • No, you did not tell me. Cockayne Hatley sounds the perfect perfectly English village. I’ll have to look it up. I would love to be in England when my summer stint is over (June and July, then hubby is back at school in August — the South doesn’t wait for September). But my family needs me. Shame because I do love the old sod and there’s so much to explore there. Haven’t been back in 11 years!

          • blandings
  • celtthedog

    To Kill a Mockingbird is the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of our time. A sensational, sententious and sanctimonious piece of drivel that appeals to the feeble-minded and barely literate.
    That such a piece of tripe is worshiped by so many explains at least in part why the West is in absolute decline.

    • Callipygian

      Well it’s going to be Harriet Tubman (likely) on our 10-dollar bill, instead of Alexander Hamilton (whose church, touchingly — I used to live in the neighbourhood — is opposite the World Trade Center the bastards destroyed); he is an American founding father and founder too of the American treasury. But: can’t have an actual KNOWER on our currency, can we? The Left is engaged in assassination, again — if not of living persons, then of dead ones (the living will come later). I hate the Left. And this is just one more stinking reason why.

    • Germainecousin

      Could not agree more. Also it pitted two marginalized groups against each other (women and blacks) and even though it was meant to champion the integrity of black people it still had a white male as the hero. My son is studying this at school and I cringe, it just is not suitable material for young people.

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