Harper Lee's 'Watchman' Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece Depending on whom you ask, Go Set a Watchman is either a recently discovered first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird — or a failed sequel. Either way, critic Maureen Corrigan calls it "kind of a mess."
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Harper Lee's 'Watchman' Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece

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Harper Lee's 'Watchman' Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece

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Book Reviews

Harper Lee's 'Watchman' Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The literary event of the summer is almost upon us. Harper Lee's novel "Go Set A Watchman" goes on sale tomorrow. But critic Maureen Corrigan has this review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: As another Southern writer once said, you can't go home again. In Harper Lee's "Go Set A Watchman," which takes place in the mid-1950s, a 26-year-old Scout Finch takes the train from New York City home to Maycomb, Ala., and finds the familiar world turned mighty strange. TV and air conditioning have changed the landscape, and beloved childhood friends like Dill and her brother Jem have vanished. Others, like Calpurnia, look at Scout - here, called by her grown-up name of Jean Louise - as though she were, well, a white lady. And then there's Atticus. Now 72 and crippled by arthritis, he's still a wry patriarch. But in one of the novel's key scenes - set, as in "To Kill A Mockingbird," in Maycomb's courthouse - Atticus allies himself with the kind of men who several years later stood shoulder to shoulder with Bull Connor and George Wallace.

"Go Set A Watchman" is a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically, beginning with its fishy origin story. Allegedly, it's a recently discovered first draft of "To Kill A Mockingbird," but I'm suspicious. It reads much more like a failed sequel. There are lots of dead patches in "Go Set A Watchman," pages where we get long explanations of, say, the fine points of the Methodist worship service. The novel turns on the adult Scout's disillusionment with her father, a disillusionment that lovers of "To Kill A Mockingbird" were surely share. Reeling from the Supreme Court's recent ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education, Atticus reveals himself as a segregationist and a reactionary extremist. He's a staunch proponent of states' rights, a critic of federal programs, even popular ones like Social Security and the GI Bill, and a foe of the NAACP.

One could say, as some commentators already have, that Atticus, here, displays layers of contradictory attitudes about race harbored by whites no matter how progressive. But, no, this Atticus is different in kind, not just degree. He's like Ahab turned into a whale lover or Holden Caulfield, a phony. In "To Kill A Mockingbird," Atticus was his own man. Here, he essentially tells Scout, you have to go along to get along. This Atticus, were told, joined the Ku Klux Klan in his youth. Now he's on the local Citizens' Council. This Atticus is a eugenicist. He believes in racial theory and reads pamphlets with titles like The Black Plague. He warns the horrified Scout that, we're outnumbered here in Maycomb and observes that, our Negro population is backward and, Negros down here are still in their childhood as a people.

Scout, who takes up her fallen father's torch of progressivism, likens his views to those of Hitler and Goebbels. Yet the more poignant revelations in "Go Set A Watchman" have to do with Scout. At 26, she's still a sort of tomboy, talking herself into marrying a childhood friend named Hank. At least half of this novel is devoted to Scout, or Jean Louise's, torment over not feeling like she has a place in the world. In a moving set piece about halfway through the novel, Scout dutifully attends a coffee that her prim Aunt Alexandra hosts for her. She wanders from group to group of women, the newlyweds, the diaper set, and feels alienated. We're told that Scout glanced down the long living room at the double row of women, women she had merely known all her life and she could not talk to them five minutes without drying up stone-dead. I ached for this adult Scout.

The civil rights movement may be gathering force, but the second women's movement hasn't happened yet. I wanted to transport Scout to our own time, take her to a performance of "Fun Home" on Broadway to know that if she could only hang on, the possibilities for nonconforming tomboys will open up. Lee, herself, writing in the 1950s, lacks the language and social imagination to fully develop this potentially powerful theme. The novel goes on sale tomorrow. And everybody who loves "To Kill A Mockingbird" is going to read it no matter what I or any other reviewer says about its literary quality, the bizarre transformation of Atticus or its odd provenance. All I know for certain is that "Go Set A Watchman" is kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "Go Set A Watchman" by Harper Lee.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR - medical marijuana, is it effective? If so, for what symptoms, and is it safe? We talk with Dr. David Casarett about his new book "Stoned: A Doctor's Case For Medical Marijuana." He directs the hospice and palliative care program at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

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