In which I tell you what you should think about “Go Set a Watchman”

In case you haven’t already made up your mind.

I agree with the editor who rejected Go Set a Watchman.  But I can also understand why he didn’t want to give up on Harper Lee.  She obviously knew how to write.  She could create vivid characters and evoke a sense of time and place.  What she didn’t demonstrate in this book is that she knew how to write a novel.  Just at the point when you expect the tension to ratchet up–when she discovers that her beloved father and the man she thinks she’s going to marry have joined a citizens’ council to fight integration–the plot stops dead in its tracks, and we have to endure a series of long conversations between the narrator and her uncle, lover, and father.  Show, don’t tell, Harper!

I actually found those conversations reasonably interesting.  Here are smart, presumably reasonable men at the dawn of the Civil Rights era making the best case they can that Civil Rights is a bad idea, both for them and for Negroes.  I don’t find it a convincing case, and neither does the narrator, but it’s well presented.  What Lee should have done is dramatize the case they are making, but she doesn’t (and maybe couldn’t).  She walks right up to the drama–she has Atticus agree to defend a black man for running down a no-‘count white drunk; but he does this only to keep the NAACP lawyers from taking the case and potentially riling up the town by getting the black man off on a technicality. That has a lot of potential, it seems to me.  But ultimately this goes nowhere.

Her editor could have told her to focus on that plot element, but instead he evidently told her to focus on her childhood; the reminiscences that are interspersed in Go Set a Watchman are charming (and also completely extraneous).  It made perfect sense to weave a novel out of them.

And it also made sense to avoid focusing on the grown-up Scout.  Lee gives her a good narrative voice, but her life never really comes into focus–what is she doing in New York?  Is she happy there?  I got the sense that Lee really wasn’t particularly interested in her; Atticus was all that mattered.  I wonder why.

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