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Who’s reading the Watchman?
Writing Magazine

Who’s reading the Watchman?

Posted Friday, August 14, 2015   |   6968 views   |   General Interest   |   Comments (0) We assess whether Go Set a Watchman, published more than 50 years after its famous predecessor, stands up against Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Go Set a Watchman is more complex, but To Kill a Mockingbird is – by some distance – the more powerful novel. We have an identical theme – racial inequality – but its treatment is very different. It’s a strong, emotionally gripping subject, and at the time of Mockingbird’s publication in 1960 it was hugely topical – constantly in the news. In both books we have two strong, clearly drawn central characters – Atticus and Scout/Jean Louise. Their names are the same but, as we have seen, they are very different people.

In Mockingbird we have a strong supporting cast of memorable characters. There’s Dill, a boy a year older than Scout, who spends his summers in Maycomb and becomes obsessed by the need to make the reclusive Boo Radley come out of his house. Boo is a constant presence, though we meet him in the flesh only at the very end of the story. Jem, Scout’s loving brother, is a principled mini-Atticus. We also have some vivid minor characters, such as Sheriff Tate, Dolphus Raymond (who prefers the company of blacks and likes to make people think that the coca cola he constantly sips is whiskey), Mr Cunningham (‘basically a good man,’ says Atticus, though he’s been part of a lynching mob), nice Miss Maudie, morphine-addicted Mrs Dubose, and villainous, despicable Bob Ewell. Harper Lee pokes gentle fun at Aunt Alexandra’s Missionary Society: ladies of Maycomb who support efforts not only to spread their version of Christianity but also to combat poverty and injustice in Africa – but are blind to the very same problems on their own doorstep.
The supporting cast of Watchman is less impressive, but there are fine portrayals of Jean Louise’s uncle, Dr Finch, and her Aunt Alexandra. The latter was the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was a disapprover; she was an incurable gossip. We have a nicely worked set piece – Aunt Alexandra’s coffee morning, where Jean Louise struggles to make polite conversation with smug newlyweds talking only about their husbands, the Light Brigade (ladies in their early/mid-thirties who devoted most of their time to the Amanuensis Club, bridge and getting one-up on each other in the matter of electrical appliances) and three Perennial Hopefuls (jolly Maycomb girls of excellent character who had never made the grade).

An undercurrent of racial prejudice runs through much of the coffee morning conversation.   

Watchman’s third-person voice is conventional and uninvolving; it occasionally slips, rather confusingly, into the first or second person. The cleverness of Mockingbird lies in Lee’s ability to retain an adult perspective while telling Scout’s story in the voice of the child. Mockingbird is also a much pacier novel. The first mention of the Tom Robinson case which Atticus is to defend comes in chapter 9, and as we follow the court case the pace gradually quickens. Watchman is less well-written, with no clear structure, and at times reads more like a series of autobiographical anecdotes than a purposeful novel. It culminates in the three discursive debates Jean Louise has, in turn, with Hank, Dr Finch and Atticus. This is where the manuscript would have particularly benefitted from some judicious editing. Given that Watchman, Harper Lee’s first attempt at a novel, almost certainly had no input from an editor who advised her to set it aside and to concentrate on what was to become Mockingbird, it is understandable that the quality of the writing is not as good.
The greatest contrast between the two books is the character of Atticus. What should we make of his brutal metamorphosis from saintly lawyer to racist bigot? Should we go painstakingly through the Mockingbird text, searching for signs of his incipient racism? Or should we attribute his changed attitudes to the increase in racial tension in the South during the period between 1935, when Mockingbird is set, and the late fifties of Watchman? Neither suggestion stands up to scrutiny. We must remember that Watchman was written before Mockingbird. The explanation for his changed character is surely very simple: that in the process of working on the manuscript, and turning what was essentially the first draft of a rather rambling first novel into the masterpiece that is Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s conception of Atticus’s character fundamentally changed.

Perhaps her editor had suggested that a decent, morally impeccable Atticus would appeal much more to the American public?  

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