I’ve used this blog exclusively as a requirement to fulfill a weekly writing assignment for my last year’s AP English Language course. So once the school year ended, I felt extremely relieved to end blogging, though I enjoyed it more than many of my peers. So why is it now, that I find myself jotting on a summer night? It just so happens that I stumbled upon something I needed- no wait, NEEDED- to get off my chest.
Okay, stumbled is not the right word. I did not simply “stumble” upon Harper Lee’s unexpected-then-anticipated follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird. Like many, I hotly anticipated the July 14th release of Go Set a Watchman. Yesterday, I bought the book, and read half of it. Before I even bought the book, I pledged to myself that I would finish the book that night. But I didn’t. By 8:00 PM, on the 14th, I had made it to page 150 or so. And that’s when I knew that Go Set a Watchman was bad.
No, I did not expect the book to be great, like Mockingbird. The most I could ask for was for Harper Lee’s batting average to remain at 1.000. Maybe, I thought, Watchman could enhance Mockingbird. How silly of me to think that.
Now that I have finished Watchman, I could argue that the book could detract from what made Mockingbird so magical. After all, Watchman turns lawyer/father Atticus from a moral compass to a racist. But it’s easy to separate Mockingbird from Watchman, fortunately. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same the other way. Watchman, for the parts when it does work, works because of our (the readers) emotional attachment to the folk of Maycomb County.
I remember Mockingbird fondly. It’s an addictive read, even with its languid first half, which spans many summers. (I don’t actually have a copy of Mockingbird with me at the moment, but if I recall correctly, the Tom Robinson drama is hardly in focus until after the death of Mrs. Dubose, which marks the end of the book’s first half.) The second half, the much more iconic half, is concentrated almost entirely in days, focusing on Tom Robinson’s trial. Regardless, I find little wrong with Mockingbird‘s pace, because even with distinctly different halves, the book remains addictive.
Watchman is dreadful. Its first sin is that it is boring. Scout is no longer a spunky child. She is instead Jean Louise, a New Yorker a little too headstrong for her own good. Her plights feel painfully ordinary. She rides a train, meets her hometown sweetheart, stays with her father and aunt… if her father wasn’t THE Atticus Finch, and if she was not THE Scout from Mockingbird, the book would have no audience what so ever. The book, again, cannot stand alone. Any interest and investment in the characters only comes from a love of Mockingbird.
I’m not mad that Harper Lee left Jem for dead. It’s just disappointing that in his place as Scout’s male companion is Henry Clinton, a replacement son of sorts to Atticus (post-Jem) that seems to be transported from the pages of penny dreadfuls to Maycomb County. It rings false that slick Clinton frequently addresses
Scout Jean Louise with “Honey” and/or “Baby”. In fact, much of the book’s dialogue feels unreal, in the worst sense.
I identified most with Jean Louise as the book plodded on, as it searched for a central conflict to latch on to. The book’s best scene in the present is a party that Aunt Alexandra (another character I could have done without) hosts, in which the various women groups of Maycomb come over to the Finch house. In that scene. Jean Louise finds she cannot relate to the women she left behind, and their words to her are only in blocks and chunks. What they are saying is almost non-sensical to the reader, a confusion well captured by Lee. It’s a sense of disillusionment that I agreed with as I read. Since Mockingbird, Maycomb changed a lot, into a place much less welcoming of blacks (often referred to with n-words), having almost none of it’s welcoming pull that made Mockingbird feel lived in.
After an argument with Atticus, in which he explains his negative opinions toward blacks, Jean Louise hastily packs to escape Maycomb County for good. I too, wished for escape from Watchman‘s world. But I had to read on. I couldn’t look away. Reading Watchman was like bearing witness to Harper Lee orchestrating a car crash. And as all fell down, I could not help but watch. The Maycomb County of Watchman was a world I cared very little to spend time in. As I finished the book, I felt like I had gained nothing from it, except maybe anger. That’s not how I felt about Mockingbird, which left me feeling satisfied and wiser than before.
I never wished for Watchman to deliver exactly what Mockingbird did though. I just wanted to be surprised. And I was, in the worst way. Watchman bores, robs Maycomb County of its magic, and turns the daddy of all literary daddies into someone – dare I say it – unlikable. Atticus may be more complex now, but he is also less likable. Let’s face it, the moral compass has lost its magnetic magic. Don’t be surprised if this book touches the untouchable esteem of Atticus Finch.
As talk brews of the suspicious circumstances of the release of Go Set a Watchman, I tune it all out. I assume Lee released the book she intended to release. And now that it’s out, I can only express my disappointment. The book’s not exactly bad – the book’s simple prose more often than not feels rich – but it pales in comparison to an extreme degree besides Mockingbird. Thanks heavens the book feels so ordinary. The sooner I forget it, the sooner I can indulge in the youthful joys that To Kill a Mockingbird will forever offer.