Harper Lee never intended to have Go Set A Watchman published. She wrote it decades ago and then locked it away in a safe deposit box. Perhaps she intended to eventually take the draft out and re-write it. Perhaps she knew it was not a good piece of literature, but like all writers, she could just not bring herself to throw away something she had toiled on.
Harper Lee then reached an age where she no longer understands completely what is going on around her. That is when her agent suddenly “rediscovered” the manuscript of Go Set A Watchmen and rushed it to publication. Undoubtedly it will bring a financial windfall to the agent and the publisher. Sadly , the poor quality of Go Set A Watchmen leaves the literary reputation of Harper Lee somewhat tarnished. It also is very disappointing sequel for the millions of readers who so loved To Kill A Mockingbird.
The basic set up of Go Set A Watchmen sounds like it could be interesting. It takes place long after the events in To Kill A Mockingbird.Jean Louise (“Scout”) is now 26 years old and living in New York City. She returns home to visit Atticus, and suddenly finds herself very disappointed in him and in the town. Atticus is the chairman of a committee which is actively fighting school desegregation and associating with a crowd of overt racists.
It is a clever concept, but somehow the story just does not come across as real. The main problem is with the characters. Except for Scout and Atticus there are almost no characters carried over from To Kill A Mockingbird.
Most disappointing is that it turns out that Scout’s brother, “Jem” died a long time ago. This piece of information is given to us in a very back-handed way as an awkward plot device to introduce a new character. This charter is a young man named Henry Clinton. He works as a lawyer with Atticus and is supposed to be Scout’s home-town boyfriend.
In order to explain how Henry first came to work for Atticus we are told that Henry graduated from law school and:
“Just about that time, Jean Louise’s brother dropped dead in his tracks one day, and after the nightmare of that was over, Atticus, who had always thought of leaving his practice to his son, looked around for another young man.”
That’s it? That’s all we get to hear about the death of a beloved character from To Kill A Mockingbird, and Atticus’s reaction to the death of his only son? One sentence?
There also seems to me no real chemistry between Jean Louise (Scout) and Henry although they are supposed to be in love. The most award and badly written dialogue in the book are the scenes with these two “lovers”.
All the book’s flaws could be forgiven if there was some sort of final riveting courtroom scene like there was in To Kill A Mockingbird. Instead, the big supposedly dramatic finale is a very long and boring private discussion between Jean Louise and her uncle about States’ Rights and court-imposed desegregation.
I think when Harper Lee finished her draft of the book she realized that it just did not work and she locked it away.
I do wish that Harper Lee had made another attempt at a different kind of sequel. I would have loved to read the story of Scout as an independent young Southern woman now living in New York City. After all, that is exactly what happened to Harper Lee herself.
To Kill A Mocking Bird will always be an American classic and Harper Lee one of our most revered authors. The fact that she chose to lock Go Set A Watchman away instead of releasing it and making millions of dollars only makes me respect her more.