First Chapter of Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Raises Questions, Provides Shocking Character Updates

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Go Set a Watchman is coming to millions of bookshelves and e-readers next week, and today two news outlets published the first chapter of Harper Lee’s draft-meets-sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Read it at your own risk: once you’ve gotten through either the Guardian ‘s stunning presentation of the first chapter or the Wall Street Journal ‘s more pedestrian one, you’ll have already learned a good deal more about the fate of certain characters from Mockingbird than you knew beforehand, and some of it is quite shattering. Yet as the record-setting preorders of Watchman show, for many readers the intrusion on the formerly complete experience of Mockingbird may be worth it to understand more about Watchman and its author. It doesn’t answer many of our most pressing questions, but the new chapter does suggest much about what to expect in terms of tone, pace, and language — as well as, perhaps, provide some initial insight into why Lee’s editor once told her to go back and focus on the flashbacks, rather than continue working on this novel.

Now, for the spoilers! First of all, the chapter’s big “bombshell,” as everyone calls it, is the death of Jem, who has seemingly been killed off to make room for another young man to enter the family’s life, one who doesn’t think of Scout (now known as Jean Louise) exactly as a a sister: “Just about that time, Jean Louise’s brother dropped dead in his tracks one day, and after the nightmare of that was over, Atticus, who had always thought of leaving his practice to his son, looked around for another young man.” That man is Henry Clinton, or Hank — “her lifelong friend, her brother’s comrade, and if he kept on kissing her like that, her husband” — who very much wants Jean Louise to marry him. Despite Hank’s persuasive kisses that make her ponder matrimony, she remains content to canoodle: “For the present she would pursue the stony path of spinsterhood.”

The bad news continues. Atticus is old and ailing, too, suffering from a rheumatoid arthritis that makes it hard for him to complete many tasks without pain. He can’t even dress himself alone on bad days. Enter Jean Louise, an independent New York career type who now drinks many cups of coffee, sleeps in only her pajama top, expects to scandalize her aunt by wearing slacks when she arrives, and as we have seen, isn’t interested in marriage. She’s coming home by train to Maycomb County, whose flat and sultry beauty provides the impetus for some of this excerpt’s nicest language:

The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful.

This journey will presumably set the book’s wheels in motion, and that’s pretty much as far as this chapter gets, plot-wise. We leave off with Hank and Jean Louise flirting and fighting in the car on the way to see Atticus. As for the writing and the style, it’s hard to pinpoint a book’s total feel and rhythm early on, but I personally found it a mix of charming and blunt, wry and clear and unpolished. In a world of MFA-pedigreed writers trying to show off their inventive sentences, I enjoyed some of the directness, the clarity.

Yet much of it reads to me like the early effort it actually was, something fascinating but not fully realized. For instance, a stray thought about a river leads to a line of a poem about the river, which leads Jean Louise to think rather randomly about a mentally ill poet cousin. It reads like a clunky transition, a digression, particularly without any later references to explain why this passage is there. Of course, I fully admit to being influenced by my preconceived notions about this book; very few readers wouldn’t be. When Lee initially gave the book to her editor, he reportedly told her the childhood flashback passages were far more convincing than the rest, which prompted the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird.

While I was reading this excerpt, I immediately wondered: What if Lee’s writing style, and her sensibility, are simply better suited to capturing the experiences of childhood? What if they don’t function as well with a third-persona narrator and a worldly, sophisticated adult Jean Louise as protagonist, a character who has “turned from an overalled, fractious, gun-slinging creature into a reasonable facsimile of a human being”? Or, to put it more plainly: What if the overalled, fractious creature was simply more interesting than the woman she grew up to be? And finally, if the editors were too scared to give the book more than the mere “copyedit” they admit to, then what will we have lost? Even the best writers need guidance.

I could end up eating these words, of course. In fact, I hope to. I’m still rooting for Watchman to be brilliant and vital, and I don’t think that this chapter eliminates the possibility. But even if the full book ends up reading like an early effort, it may offer valuable insight into the writing and brainstorming process of a brilliant and enigmatic writer. If the latter proves true, I’ll just wish Go Set a Watchman had been packaged that way.