Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee

Rating: 3 out of 5.

There are big questions about Go Set a Watchman and every reader will have a different opinion. Here’s mine:

  • Is Go Set a Watchman a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird?
    Most certainly not. Go Set a Watchman is an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird in which Lee began to develop characters, plot lines and the small town of Macomb, Alabama. It’s described more accurately as a companion piece, but that implies it is polished, which it is not.
  • Did Atticus Finch become a racist in Go Set a Watchman? No, he did not become anything in this second book because it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird. I think Lee and her editor developed his character using pieces of the Atticus in Go Set a Watchman.
  • Did Harper Lee really approve of Go Set a Watchman’s publication? I doubt it. She has always said she did not want to publish another book. I don’t think this was a long-lost manuscript. If Harper Lee had wanted to publish Go Set a Watchman, she would have done so.
  • Should Harper Collins have published Go Set a Watchman? I don’t think so. The book reads as a draft. It includes jumps, inconsistencies, long, boring arguments between Jean Louise and her Uncle Jack, and an abrupt, unlikely finish. I’m not criticizing Harper Lee here, I’m pointing out that Go Set a Watchman went unpublished all these years for a reason, it wasn’t a final manuscript.
  • Is Go Set a Watchman worth reading? Yes, with the right expectations. If you’re curious about how Lee developed her characters and ideas, the book is interesting. If you’re expecting a book like To Kill a Mockingbird, you’re setting yourself for disappointment, and I think some readers will still feel betrayed by the new Atticus, even though it was an early characterization. In addition, it’s hard to miss that this book was fattened up by wider margins, more space between lines and blank pages between sections, all for $27.99.

I did enjoy parts of Go Set a Watchman, however. Lee uses humor to describe her characters, particularly Aunt Alexandra and her “formidable” Sunday corset. The church scene is also amusing, when Herbert Jemson, music director of Macomb Methodist Church, changes the rhythm of the Doxology, a shock to the congregation, but unnoticed by the hard-of-hearing Minister Stone.

Lee also describes Jean Louise’s understanding of her place in Macomb with this simple explanation:

It was not because this was where your life began. It was because this was where people were born and born and born until finally the result was you, drinking a Coke in the Jitney Jungle.

I also thought Henry Clinton’s answer to Jean Louise, when she accuses him of being racist, shows insight into a person’s character and motives:

A man can appear to be a part of something not-so-good on its face, but don’t take it upon yourself to judge him unless you know his motives as well. A man can be boiling inside, but he knows a mild answer works better than showing his rage. A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them.

That kind of a “know your enemy” approach is also Atticus Finch’s strategy, however, Atticus still believes in whites’ superiority, wrong even if it’s written in a draft.

Click here to read my review of To Kill a Mockingbird.

You may be interested in these reviews of Go Set a Watchman:

“Sweet Home Alabama” review by Adam Gopnik from The New Yorker magazine

“The Harper Lee ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Fraud” review by Joe Nocera – from The New York Times

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

  1. Thanks for this review! I’ve been meaning to read GSAW all summer, but haven’t yet because I’ve been worried about being disappointed. However, after reading your assessment, I plan to read it as a writing exercise–it’ll be interesting to see how such an amazing book (TKAM) developed from this early draft.

    1. Of course it’s just my opinion. Atticus is not the same guy through and through and many readers have been shocked by this. I still enjoyed reading it however. Thanks for commenting!

  2. I agree with your assessment on just about every point. It took me a month to force myself to read GSAW, then another month to actually read it. It took so much thinking that I kept setting it down for days. I read it as I would read and critiique a manuscript in a writing group, which was an interesting exercise. I also had to take it slowly to continually remind myself that it was a rough draft and NOT the follow-up to my beloved TKAM. One thing I found interesting: in GSAW, it was the passages in which she wrote in flashback about herself, Jem, and Dill that she found her voice and the writing really came alive. Very astute of her editor to have her do a whole novel in flashback.

    I was lucky to have a friend (our daughter’s boyfriend, who is a writing major and an excellent critique-er) to talk the book over with as I read. It required a lot of processing. Thanks for this review!

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