What Critics Are Saying about Go Set a Watchman

After a pre-publication press embargo, the reviews of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman are finally rolling in.

Although it may seem like everyone you know has an opinion about the eagerly anticipated novel — your mother, your boss, your barista, your bartender — reviewers at The New Yorker, The New York Times, NPR, and The Guardian have provided plenty of material for further discussion.

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker describes the novel as a “failure” — especially compared to the widely-read To Kill a Mockingbird. And yet, he acknowledges that Lee’s magical evocation of the South, though veiled by clichés, is still undeniably appealing. He suggests that Lee’s descriptions allow readers to both re-experience and perhaps redefine the “Pastoral South” as it is represented in literary history.

The critical tone of Gopnik’s review appears to stem primarily from disappointment. Gopnik refers to Scout’s (or Jean Louise’s, as she is now called) and Atticus’s “static and prosy debates” about “integration” and “other fifties-era subjects” as mechanical “set pieces” which barely resemble dialogue. Due to these weaknesses, Gopnik argues that “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.”

In The New York Times review, Randall Kennedy also expresses his disappointment about Harper Lee’s missed opportunity to successfully “explore a dense, rich, complicated subject: How should you deal with someone who has loved you unstintingly when you find out that this same person harbors ugly, dangerous social prejudices?” Kennedy describes Lee’s response, and therefore the impact of the novel itself, as “uninspired,” as a mere rough “sketch.”

Maureen Corrigan, in her review for NPR, unapologetically describes the novel as a “mess.” Corrigan is similarly troubled by the novel’s “fishy origin story” (is it a sequel or a first draft?) as well as Atticus’s “bizarre transformation.” However, unlike the previews reviews, Corrigan praises the “poignant” and “moving” scenes involving Jean Louise’s “torment over not feeling like she has a place in the world.”

In The Guardian’s panel review, Syreeta McFadden writes that while the novel aspires to complicate the concept of disillusionment with one’s parents, it ultimately fails to deliver on its “ambition to interrogate the character of so-called good, moral people.” Kiese Laymon, too, is frustrated by the idea that “white characters in this novel have simply gone about the business of becoming white women and white men, and unbecoming white girls and white boys, at the expense of terrorized black women and black men. All has been accepted, if not forgiven. White supremacy, though provoked by a curious white woman, has preserved itself.”

Beyond the literary merit of the novel, its provenance, and its politics, another hotly contested aspect is the characterization of Atticus Finch. Has our hero truly fallen from grace? Did Atticus become a racist, or has he always been racist? In To Kill a Mockingbird, is it possible that his abhorrent views were obscured by the nostalgic narrative of his devoted daughter?

In The New York Times review, Randall Kennedy introduces an anecdote about a law professor named Monroe Freedman, who once published an article asserting that Atticus Finch “ought not be lauded as a role model for attorneys.”

Kennedy notes that, in Freedman’s opinion, Finch’s “acts and omissions” throughout the trial and throughout To Kill a Mockingbird “defined a lawyer who lived his life as a “passive participant” in “pervasive injustice.”’

Gopnik of The New Yorker agrees with this assertion, stating in his review “that this is exactly the kind of bigot that Atticus has been all along.”

Kiese Laymon in The Guardian effectively challenges our more simplistic readings of race in Harper Lee’s novels:The real revelation–if we can call it that–in this novel (and possibly in To Kill a Mockingbird) is that given the limited point of view, there is nothing to “declare”, nothing at all to “seeth” here other than hollow conceptions of blackness facilitating the moral and narrative development of white characters, over and over again.”

If you’re interested in reading additional opinions, check out the reviews in Time, BBC, LA Times, and The Washington Post.

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