Harper Lee's 'Go Set a Watchman': What the Critics are Saying

One reviewer says the novel has "real freshness," another calls it a lumpy tale. The verdict on Harper Lee's new book from five top critics.
Courtesy of HarperCollins

The announcement that HarperCollins would publish Go Set a Watchman, a follow-up to the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, proved controversial from the beginning.

Criticism mainly stemmed from cries of “elder abuse,” alleging that Lee’s age and health prohibited consent to publish. Originally assumed to be a sequel, Watchman was revealed to be an early draft of what would become To Kill a Mockingbird; the original story was reworked to become the American classic only after an agent suggested a shift in focus to the adolescent Scout instead of the young woman portrayed in Watchman.

The first chapter of Go Set a Watchman was made available online both from The Wall Street Journal and London’s The Guardian. An audio version is also available, featuring narration by Reese Witherspoon

With the novel's arrival in bookstores on July 14, controversy once again reared up as Mockingbird hero Atticus Finch is described as a racist in the new book. Go Set a Watchman exposes the dark side of one of literature’s greatest heroes, flips the idealized nature of Mockingbird on its head and offers new insight into its world and characters that readers are unlikely to embrace. In fact, most of the critical reception seems to be: “If you love To Kill a Mockingbird, don’t read Go Set a Watchman.

Here's what top critics are saying about Go Set a Watchman:

The Boston Globe  tasked author Madison Smartt Bell, who wrote the award-winning novel about Haiti, All Souls Rising, with tackling the book. He opens with praise of the iconic Lee, stating, "this novel has real freshness in its picture of what a transplanted Southern woman’s striving for autonomy felt like in the 1950s — the satire of Maycomb’s better-adjusted young women is priceless." However, the accolades end there, lamenting that "it would be charitable to call [the novel’s arguments] dated ... The idea that slavery was "incidental" to the Civil War does not play well in 2015. The idea that Southern black people were "incidental" to the civil rights movement just doesn’t play at all ... If the publishers were hoping to cash in on this publication of what normally might be a candidate for a posthumous work, they may instead have burnt their own meal ticket — nobody who has read Watchman can ever read — or even think about — Mockingbird in the same way again ... Jean Louise’s crisis in Watchman effectively tears down the icon Mockingbird erected — and this ordeal is also inflicted on the book’s vast readership."

The New York TimesMichiko Kakutani asks, "How did a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech (from the casually patronizing to the disgustingly grotesque — and presumably meant to capture the extreme prejudice that could exist in small towns in the Deep South in the 1950s) mutate into a redemptive novel associated with the civil rights movement? ... The depiction of Atticus in Watchman makes for disturbing reading, and for Mockingbird fans, it’s especially disorienting ... How could the saintly Atticus — described early in the book in much the same terms as he is in Mockingbird — suddenly emerge as a bigot?" Kakutani continues, "One of the emotional through-lines in both Mockingbird and Watchman is a plea for empathy ... The difference is that Mockingbird suggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo and Tom Robinson, while Watchman asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus."

USA Today’s Jocelyn McClurg asks, "Is it a great or even very good novel? No. Does it have its charms? Definitely. It's also a time capsule of a troubled time in the South, as desegregation looms in the wake of Supreme Court rulings. Unlike MockingbirdWatchman contains passages of deeply disturbing, overt racial slurs. These are not gratuitous, but they are still hard to read. As a novel, Watchman lacks Mockingbird's riveting courtroom drama, its page-turning pacing, its genius structure. Still, there are pleasures to be had, as we live through Scout's humorous adolescent misadventures (one involves falsies) in flashbacks ... There will be great debate, now and for years to come, if the book should have been published. And many will say 'No.' "

The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Sacks writes, "Go Set a Watchman is a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of To Kill a Mockingbird. This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion ... Yes, that is correct: Atticus Finch, standard-bearer of justice and integrity and one of the few unambiguously heroic figures in American literature, was originally conceived as a segregationist ... On one hand, this abrupt redefinition of a famed fictional character is fascinating ... Yet for the millions who hold that novel dear, Go Set a Watchman will be a test of their tolerance and capacity for forgiveness. At the peak of her outrage, Jean Louise tells her father, 'You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible.' I don’t doubt that many who read this novel are going to feel the same way."

Time’s Daniel D’Addario calls Watchman  "alienating from the very start." He continues, "Atticus, more than any other character, has stood for justice and righteousness in the American imagination. And now he’s revealed as a bigot? Perhaps especially as anxieties rise over the apparent absence of justice in racially charged cases, it seems somehow too much. We need heroes in our fiction, at least." He considers, "While To Kill a Mockingbird ends with a sense of hope that people truly are good, Go Set a Watchman wraps up with resignation that people often cannot change ... Jean Louise learns that she cannot write off her father — his good and his bad — just because of the views he’s always held, or because he’s a figure from a past that’s receding too slowly. It’s only by striving to see him with the eyes of an adult that she can come to understand what she stands for. Painful though it may be, that’s the reader’s task too."

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