If Harper Lee’s intent in “Go Set a Watchman” is to have people see others as they really are, she has certainly done that–starting with herself as the book’s author. As a former English teacher who has taught “Mockingbird” too many times to count, I had set Miss Lee on a literary pedestal so high she had become an immortal, of sorts, hovering over the rest of us, unattainable and powerful. “Watchman” has pulled back the curtain to reveal an ordinary writer with extraordinary talent, set on writing works that are meaningful, believable, and enjoyable. Nothing superhuman about that.
Some readers may be disillusioned with Lee and especially with the character Atticus Finch. But that disillusionment is at the heart of the book’s theme. As we grow older, we see the world through different eyes. People and places larger than life back in the day, seem smaller and less significant viewed from the distance of time. Jean Louise knows this to be true, but can’t accept this new reality. Like Jack Finch, Jean Louise views the world through her own half glasses, leaving her with a blind spot when it comes to the hearts and motives of those around her.
As the reader struggles to make peace with seeing the two stories and their author in a new light, he would do well to remember that the two books have different purposes. Without the naive narrative viewpoint of young Scout in “Mockingbird,” there could be no evolution in the second story. As a novelist and commentator on life, Miss Lee shows people as they are, for better or for worse. Watching characters change, react, and adapt is what makes reading so seductive. If you just want a “Book 2” in the “Mockingbird Series” that picks up on Scout’s newest misadventure and snarky wit, “Watchman” is not for you.
It seems apparent that this book was never revised or edited after the release of “Mockingbird.” If Harper Lee had been able to weather the psychological storm that came along with the overwhelming attention and adulation she received from her first work, she likely would have made numerous revisions to “Watchman” so that it would flow more logically from the first story. She would have removed duplicated anecdotes, handled the fate of Jem with greater depth, and added the same care, nuance, and sensitivity that made “Mockingbird” so powerful and palatable. Alas, Harper Lee mislaid her inner Jean Louise even before she did the same with this draft of “Watchman.” Still, it is what it is.
Put in perspective, the themes are powerful and relevant. There are places where the story could have been tightened up, and the ending seems a little rushed. But for a story that in some ways is so unsettling, it has a fairly satisfying ending.
We, the readers, put “Mockingbird,” the characters, and the author on that pedestal, just like Scout did with her father. “Watchman” is just as much a reality check for us as it is for our beloved Jean Louise. Miss Lee gave us a book that makes us think and debate and rethink. That is an enviable legacy.