I was an adult, just embarking on my teaching career, before I read To Kill a Mockingbird. I was hooked at first read, and must have re-read it fifty times at least for teaching purposes! I’ve often felt a bit lazy about continuing to teach it every year, but any time I’ve considered changing it, its popularity with my classes has discouraged me from doing so. It is the one book I’ve found that almost every teenager loves, even those who profess to hate reading and consider books to be a complex method of torture. And invariably, when we finish the novel, the same question arises year after year – “Did Harper Lee write anything else, Miss?” Cue standard attempt at explaining that no, she didn’t, and no, I can’t really explain why. Discussion prompt: “Can YOU think of any reasons why she might not have?”
Thus it was that I was as intrigued as all lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird to hear that there was, in fact, another novel, albeit one that had been previously rejected in favour of its Pulitzer-prize winning offspring. Based on its history, I really wasn’t expecting another Mockingbird but I was very interested in reading another piece of Lee’s work. It took me a few weeks to get hold of Go Set a Watchman and to find the time to read it, and I tried to avoid reading any reviews until I read it myself. I was intrigued, however, to hear some commentary lamenting the fact that Atticus had ‘become’ a racist, given that if a racist Atticus did exist, he was written before the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird!
Go Set a Watchman is no Mockingbird. The occasionally clumsy third-person narrative of the former is nowhere near as compelling as Scout’s innocent worldview in the latter. Jean Louise’s love interest, Henry Clinton, is no Dill Harris, who is referred to on a number of occasions, mainly as part of the childhood flashbacks that would later become To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill bildungsroman, though made more interesting by the racism issues which are at the heart of Scout’s struggle to come to terms with the realities of her home place.
For me, the real interest of Go Set A Watchman is the insight it offers into the genesis of a novel. Lee’s publishers evidently recognised that the childhood flashbacks were the most vibrant elements of the story. The description of Dill as “the friend of [Scout’s] heart”, the reference to the courtcase (albeit with the less interesting successful outcome!] and of course, the presence of the tragic Jem could not have failed to catch the attention of the astute publisher. At Harper Lee’s first attempt, she produced a pleasant novel with a mildly interesting premise. At her second attempt, she produced a masterpiece. There’s a lesson for us all in that!
I do feel that my judgement of Go Set a Watchman is irrevocably compromised by my familiarity with To Kill a Mockingbird and I would be interested to hear the views of those who had never read the latter – if there are any!