I sat and read Go Set a Watchman and if there's any literary character assassination, it's not really Atticus. Atticus in Watchman is so distantly drawn, so opaque of a figure, that one can easily just forget about him as soon as the book is over. The real disappointment, one that's harder to shake, is that the "Jean Louise Finch" of Watchman is NOTHING like "Scout Finch" of To Kill A Mockingbird. Mockingbird's Scout was a precocious, intelligent child. Watchman's Jean Louise Finch plays like a clichéd heroine from a young adult novel, and an annoying one at that.
When one reads Watchman the first thing that jumps out on the page is how thinly sketched every character is compared to the richly drawn Southern gothic counterparts in Mockingbird. "Jean Louise Finch" is a whiny, over-dramatic twenty-something year old and most of her storyline is dominated by a romance with Henry Clinton, a lawyer in Atticus's firm. She's 26, lives in New York, comes back home to Maycomb, Alabama, and discovers to her shock that Atticus is not perfect, Henry is prejudiced as well, Calpurnia no longer really recognizes her and Aunt Alexandra is still very, very annoying. The end. Oh, Jem is dead.
Remember how Scout was a tomboy, who was also really smart and capable? Well here's Jean-Louise: "Although she was a respectable driver, she hated to operate anything mechanical more complicated than a safety pin: folding lawn chairs were a source of profound irritation to her; she had never learned to ride a bicycle or use a typewriter; she fished with a pole."
To get a flavor of the of the love interest in this novel, here's an excruciating passage with Henry:
"I don't even love you like that anymore. I've hurt you but there it is." Yes, it was she talking, with her customary aplomb, breaking his heart in a drugstore. Well, he'd broken hers.Jean-Louise is outraged that her father and Henry have joined the Maycomb Citizens' Council but in the climax of the book she has an argument with Atticus which reveals that she's as bigoted as Atticus, if not worse. She also says that she was "furious" about the Brown vs. Board of Education decision because "they" were "tellin' us what to do again." She also agrees that the "Negro" population is "backward" and "unable to share the fully in the responsibilities of citizenship." In fact, her only defense of Brown is "Atticus, if you believe all that, then why don't you do right? I mean this, no matter how hateful the Court was, there had to be a beginning."
Henry's face became blank, reddened, and its scar leaped into prominence. "Jean Louise, you can't mean what you're saying."
"I mean every word of it."
Hurts, doesn't it? You're damn right it hurts. You know how it feels, now.
The protracted argument with Atticus stems not from any disagreement with Atticus over the basic philosophy behind segregation but from Jean-Louise's fury that Atticus had brought her up believing all the things about fairness and colorblindness and now he's backtracking. In other words, like many of the millenials of today who post 100 selfies a day with hasthags like #lookingood and #nomakeup, it's all about me. But let's examine some of Lee's "wonderful" prose here:
"Atticus, I'm throwing it at you and I'm gonna grind it in: you better go warn your younger friends that if they want to preserve Our Way of Life, it begins at home. It doesn't begin with the schools or the churches or anyplace at home. Tell 'em that, and use your blind, immoral, misguided, n___r-lovin' daughter as your example. Go in front of me with a bell and say, 'Unclean!' ... Point me out as your mistake. Point me out: Jean Louise Finch, who was exposed to all kinds of guff from the white trash she went to school with, but she might never have gone to school for all the influence it had on her. Everything that was Gospel to her she got at home from her father. You sowed the seeds in me, Atticus, and now it's coming home to you --"This is awful writing. But it only gets worse: after the blow-up with Atticus Jean Louise talks to her uncle "Dr. Finch" who tells her: "You're color blind. You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see are between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like. You've never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you're still unable to think racially. You see only people." Jean-Louise's response to that might the one (unintentionally) hilarious moment in this novel: "But Uncle Jack, I don't especially want to run out and marry a Negro or something." If this is Lee's version of racial enlightenment ...
There's not a single character in Watchman that one wants to "follow" to the next page. Part of a writers' job is writing about characters that the reader cares about. Not good characters, not moral characters, not racially enlightened characters, but characters that attract interest and attention. Watchman is entirely devoid of any such characters, and thus any interest. You read it for the novelty factor and that's it. All the headlines about Atticus not supporting Brown vs. Board of Education when read in the context of the novel seem like a cheap hook by Lee to get the book published because of the timeliness of the current events in 1957.
There are a couple things in Watchman that remind me of Mockingbird, but unfortunately they don't speak very well of Lee as a writer. You remember how in Mockingbird Harper Lee had this habit of introducing every character with a long expository history, instead of simply letting the character come alive by himself on the page? That habit is here in Watchman, except there's no colorful lines to make those expository character introductions more interesting. You remember how sometimes huge confrontations in Mockingbird were tidied up with a neat homily, like "You never really understand a person until you see things from his point of view"? Well, you see traces of that in Watchman. But without confrontations that hold any meaning, those neat homilies become even more irritating.
It's interesting, then, to see that among all this trash, Hohoff rescued parts of Watchman that turned into Mockingbird. The "Tom Robinson" storyline in Mockingbird is drawn from a one paragraph description in Watchman about how Atticus once defended an unnamed black teen in a statutory rape case and won. In Watchman the story is told in such an impersonal, brief way that blink and you might miss it. The character of "Dill" is also taken from a brief passage about Scout's school days. "Aunt Alexandra" in Watchman is an insufferable and bigoted, but somehow Hohoff managed to make Lee rewrite her into a woman with a similar character, but enough pathos that she becomes a recognizable figure in the Southern gothic genre: the proud, lonely belle. Jean Louise's close relationship with Calpurnia as a child is also present in Watchman, except in a far more mundane storyline: Calpurnia talked Jean-Louise out of a phantom pregnancy scare.
Other things one just has to assume were created by Lee mining her imagination. Who knows where the Boo Radley story came from? It's not anywhere in Watchman. It became the heart of Mockingbird. Why is the relationship between Jem and Jean-Louise remembered as so cold and distant in Watchman, when it was warm and close in Mockingbird? How about Tom and Mayella Ewell? Sheriff Tate? These richly drawn characters are again missing in Mockingbird.
I think most people who read To Kill a Mockingbird assumed that Scout was really Harper Lee, and Harper Lee was Scout. The novel is semi-autobiographical, and Lee worked many elements of her childhood and upbringing into the novel. Scout Finch's sharp observations, her love for her family and community, her integrity and moral compass -- I think most readers assumed that these were really the qualities of Harper Lee. The fact that Lee has led a reclusive life since the book's publication in 1960 has only added to the mystique. Harper Lee never crashed and burned the way her childhood friend Truman Capote (Dill in Mockingbird) did. It's like she wrote the book, and closed the curtain on her life permanently.
Watchman is so poorly written, so devoid of anything that might even suggest the embryonic stages of a literary classic, that I started to wonder if that old rumor that Truman Capote had a heavy invisible hand in the writing of Mockingbird was correct. What's more, it made me think, is this "Jean-Louise" Finch really Harper Lee? If these were her first thoughts about herself, then either she didn't give herself enough credit or Lee later created a Scout Finch that was less true to life but more appealing to readers.
But all these debates about the ethics of publishing Watchman, who really were the invisible hands that shaped Mockingbird, how much of Harper Lee was put into both novels, is really a moot point at the end of the day. The fact is To Kill a Mockingbird is not a perfect book, but it's a book worth reading because it's well-written, interesting, and imaginative. In other words, a classic. Go Set a Watchman is none of those things.