The Case Against Reading "Go Set a Watchman"

Last week Harper Lee’s “new” book, Go Set a Watchman, broke records for first-day sales. And why wouldn’t it? To Kill a Mockingbird is universally beloved and universally read—thanks, 9th grade English—so it makes sense that the general populace is so enthused at the prospects of another book by Lee.

That would all be fine and dandy if it was actually a new book or if it wasn’t released under extremely dubious circumstances at best or if it was a book up to the standards of Mockingbird. But by all accounts, none of that is true.

People much, much better than me at reviewing books have essentially confirmed that Watchman is a worse first draft of Mockingbird. Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post calls it “an inchoate jumble”; The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik dubs it “a string of clichés”; and Chris Taylor at Mashable makes the case that Harper Lee actually released this book to troll us all. Could Watchman be an elaborate troll job? Maybe! But the fact that the scenario is even slightly plausible doesn’t exactly make me excited about the quality of the book.

Besides, in Watchman apparently Atticus is a racist. You know, the same Atticus that bravely and heroically defended a black man against rape charges when no one else would? Apparently he’s a huge bigot who thinks that only whites should be able to vote and that Brown v. Board was a travesty! Sure, Atticus could have been a bigot while he defended a black man in Mockingbird; they aren’t mutually exclusive. But the introduction of his bigotry throws Mockingbird into an unnecessary state of ambiguity.

And that’s the crux of what makes Watchman so upsetting; it can’t stand on its own as an independent novel, but at the same time, it doesn’t enhance Mockingbird. It’s not even a real sequel! Since it was a failed first manuscript of what eventually became Mockingbird, how do you even process the events of Watchman in relation to Mockingbird? Why does it exist?

Maybe, just maybe, Harper Lee didn’t want this to exist at all. She’s an 89 year old that is nearly both blind and deaf and currently resides in an assisted living facility. For decades and decades, she maintained that she would never release another book after the success of Mockingbird. The decision to publish the book was made 2 months after the death of her sister and caretaker and overall protector. What a startling coincidence that the notorious recluse who flat-out stated she would never publish a book publishes a book when she is the most susceptible to being taken advantage of! It almost insults my intelligence to think that there was nothing shady in the publication of this book.

Even if the circumstances of the book weren’t so shadowy and uncomfortable, the book is an unfinished, unrevised first draft of Mockingbird. Throw in the potentially horrifying circumstances around its release, and there seems to be no upside to reading it. If you don’t read Watchman, you can leave Mockingbird untouched and unsullied in the literary canon where it belongs.

 

Sarcasm and California enthusiast. Snowpocalypse survivor/trademarker. One time cartwheel-doer.

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