It’s Amazing Performance Art: A Review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

Art, Book Review, Political Discussion, Reading

I wasn’t super excited when I saw the book on the shelves simply because I don’t like doing things that other people take pleasure in hyping up, especially when it requires the commitment of time and thought that reading requires. I wasn’t one of the recent readers of Go Set a Watchman that was overly anticipating the book, simply because I knew that the book couldn’t be more than it was (a book).

I knew that when I picked it up it would be a quick read like To Kill a Mockingbird. I expected it to be accessible. And simply by association, I expected it to be referential to everything I already knew about the characters of Mockingbird, if not also referential to everything I already knew about Harper Lee, the south, and racism. I’ll take this one step further and say it now so I can get it off my chest; any reviewer who seemed surprised or offended that Watchman functions largely because of what we know about Mockingbird needs to review their own intelligence. How could a book that’s about the same place and same people by the same author not be reliant or referential?

I saw through the fancy marketing touting Watchman as a newly discovered novel/sequel; other book readers should have too (yes, that’s a dig at you Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Michigan). And any reader not brilliant enough to see that marketing always makes a promise that is more hype than substance certainly does not deserve their money back.

If you don’t already hate me for saying that, you will most definitely hate me for being so snobby as to admit that, while flipping from page to page, I didn’t expect much in terms of “poetry” or “art” out of an author who became a household name for the publication of a singular book that has been read by every eighth-grader who has gone through the US education system since the 1960s (I mean poetry as in poetic literariness).

I say this not to bash Harper Lee, or to bash Mockingbird, or to bash 8th graders. In fact, I thoroughly love Mockingbird for what it is. I’ve read it. I’ve taught it to eighth-graders. I’ve written vocabulary lists for it. I’ve created and graded assessments for it. I’ve read good and bad short response essays from students about it. But my appreciation for Mockingbird didn’t come because it is a rousing work of “art” or “poetry;” and I certainly didn’t teach it as such. When I taught eighth grade English, we didn’t do (very many) diction studies on Lee’s sentences, nor did we overly analyze her use of imagery or metaphor (in fact we might have spent more time pointing out clichés). The more literary elements that one finds in good writing have always been sparse in Lee’s work; I didn’t expect Watchman to be any different. Reviewers like Adam Gopnik, who accuses Watchman of being a book that “falls apart as art,” either has a hitch in their memory or isn’t making these statements from a place of honesty.

If you do a Google search for “Go Set a Watchman Review,” you’ll find Gopnik’s New Yorker article in the good company of many other negative reviews. I call them deluded because they refuse to understand art outside the confines of dissecting its elements. They refuse to see things beyond the sum of their parts or outside of itself. They are stuck in the now antiquated view of art as object and refuse to see any possibility that art can be concept.

To be sure, in my opinion Go Set a Watchman is art. The book—the story—does not fall apart simply because the language is cliché, the dialogue is preachy, or because the flashback sequences and adult memories of Scout are clunky. To be sure, I agree with all of these criticisms. But Go Set a Watchman does something that supersedes its technical failures or malnourishments. It may not be an exemplary art object, but as a socio-conceptual artwork, Watchman is brilliant.

It’s brilliant because of all of its criticisms. It’s brilliant because of the timing of its publication. It’s brilliant because it revises history by questioning everything we think we know. It’s brilliant as performance art. Whether we have the author to thank for this performance or the publisher, it doesn’t really matter.

Now your BS meter might be going off. You might want me to explain how a book can be seen as a performance art piece. Fair enough: Performance art relies on four elements; time, space, the presence of the artist, and a strong relationship/reaction between the performance and the audience. Performance art relies heavily on an audience’s reaction to a concept. The release of Watchman has activated all of these things. Most importantly, Watchman has had plenty of reaction; and the reaction has deepened the meaning of the work.

Everyone angered by the fact that their beloved Atticus Finch is a racist misses the point. Everyone that can’t get past the fact that Watchman would not function without the existence of Mockingbird, misses the point. And at the same time, these people are the point. The anger and the disgust toward the publisher for releasing this novel, the anger that people have for this revision to “history” are a physical manifestation of what Lee tried to construct in Go Set a Watchman. These reactions are a physical manifestation of what Scout experiences when she comes into the world as her own person. Like Scout, so many of us fans of To Kill a Mockingbird “…somewhere along the line fastened [our conscience] like a barnacle onto [Atticus],” and in reading Watchman, also like Scout had to experience the pain of separation. Uncle Jack explains this pain best:

When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience—your conscience—you literally could not stand it. It made you physically ill. Life became hell on earth for you. You had to kill yourself, or he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity… He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of human being.

This pain is understandable, but it isn’t the endgame. Jean Louise can’t just stay in this pain, otherwise she won’t ever grow.

Go Set a Watchman requires growth. This type of visceral reaction, this type of parallel between fiction and reality is a performance artist’s dream. Sure enough, Harper Lee couldn’t have conducted this, nor could she have ever dreamt that when this first draft of her beloved novel was first rejected years later it would be a catalyst for growth. Maybe this is giving the shifty tricks of a publisher too much credit, but I halfway don’t care. The revisionist nature of the book is its magic. It does for history what Lee was trying to reveal through her character. It illustrates in a safe environment what is happening in the larger context of our society.

Watchman applies pressure to the pulse of society in the same way Mockingbird has done for all these years. Both of these books are about racism, but they are also, individually and collectively, about differing and changing perspectives. They are powerful allegories that teach us much about our own bigotry and the failures of our society.

To be sure, in the 1960s, during the adolescence of our country’s civil rights, we needed the version of Atticus Finch that we all grew to love. But one does not stay adolescent forever. At some point, as a country, we were going to need the imperfect version of Atticus that was first created, whether Harper Lee knew it or not.

All of this is to say that I completely disagree with Adam Gopnik’s statement about Watchman in his New Yorker review. He states:

When the action moves to these abstract arguments about civil rights, the book falls apart as art—partly because today it is impossible to find the anti-civil-rights arguments anything but creepy, but more because any novel that depends for its action on prosy debates about contemporary politics will fail.

Is Gopnik completely disconnected from the reality of our society? Does he know nothing about Ferguson, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, or the dangerous shift in our country to blind acceptance of what we cutely call “micro-racism”? Perhaps his snobbishness forces him to misspeak.

In our political age, with the division and debate between liberal and conservative so polarized, so flooded with inflammatory language and action, it’s hard not to see relevance in this newly released work of fiction (prosy debates and all).

Not to mention, Go Set a Watchman functions beyond issues of race. The discussions and arguments Jean Louise and Atticus have about Supreme Court decisions and states rights are the same philosophical and ideological discussions and divisions happening today. What can we learn from the allegory of Go Set a Watchman that can’t be applied to the recent Supreme Court Decision about same sex marriage or other recent events of political unrest? And while I’d like to hope that my dear Jean Louise, as real or as fiction as she might be, would not be against something that fifty years from now is the social norm, we only have to look at ourselves closely to see that the continuum between conservative and liberal might not be as linear as we think. We ourselves might just be more akin to Atticus than we think, or at least akin to Scout when Atticus accusingly tells her, “Sweet, you’re such a states’ rightist you make me a Roosevelt Liberal by comparison.”