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The Politics of Reading “Go Set a Watchman”

Last night, my fiancé asked me how I’m going to read Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman.

“Will you read it as a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, or will you read it as the rough draft of a novel that an editor saw and said, ‘Eh, try again?'”

It’s a question that those of us who actually looked forward to high school English class are mulling over: How do we approach this book? And how do we approach it with controversy around whether the elderly author of the work, who spent her entire post-Mockingbird life vehemently stating that she was unwilling to publish another novel, has suddenly decided it’s time to publish the forebear of To Kill A Mockingbird? Are we supporting the hangers-on of a famous woman who may not have her wits about her by buying the book and talking about it?

Quite possibly.

But I just can’t resist. Another Harper Lee novel was American literature’s white whale (to mix my literary metaphors). Watchman is likely going to be a disappointment when compared to Mockingbird—it was rejected by Lee’s editor in the 1950s and didn’t get much of an edit for its 2015 release. While it’s sold as a stand-alone novel, critics are already highlighting segments that echo across both books and viewing the work as a draft, not its own entity.

Another aspect of the hullabaloo around the release of Watchman is the character of Atticus Finch, who is apparently not the saintly, color-blind presence he is to young Jean Louise in Mockingbird. Friends in my Facebook feed have openly stated they won’t read the book due to the character assassination of a fictional character. Even parents who named their sons Atticus are outraged, which is a whole different blog post for another time.

I’m willing to take the ride on Go Set a Watchman. Remember: To Kill a Mockingbird is told by adult Jean Louise reflecting on a series of remarkable events from her childhood as Scout. The narration stays closer to Scout, with some wry winks from Jean Louise’s more mature narration. Go Set a Watchman takes place two decades later, when Miss Finch is in her late 20s. Are the memories you have of your parents the same at 26 as they were when you were six? Doubtful.

My plan is to avoid as many reviews and hot takes of Go Set a Watchman as possible, and to read it both as a sequel to Mockingbird while remembering that it served as a draft for one of American literature’s strongest works. No spoilers, please!

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