So, what to make of Go Set a Watchman.
The way I see it, there are only two ways to view the novel. The first is through the lens of an academic by treating the novel for what it is: a first draft. In that sense, GSaW takes on a greater significance in that one can see the burgeoning elements of a great novel in it and can do a direct comparison to the final result. Indeed, the best portions of GSaW are the flashback sequences from Scout's youth, and it is easy to see why that nostalgic look back became the focus of TKaM.
Personally, I am fascinated that when she sat down to write the novel, this story of disillusionment set in the then present day of the Civil Rights movement was the one Lee originally wanted to tell. The flashbacks were meant to simply supply the background to help explain the turmoil felt by the adult Jean Louise as she gradually becomes disconnected from her father, her family, and the community in which she grew up. The childhood scenes are clear and precise and ring with a sense of universal truth. The present day scenes are muddled and confused. It feels as though Lee was conflicted, like her main character, as she wrote them and yet had an inspired clarity when crafting the flashbacks.
Why that is, who can say? Although Lee has stated that elements of TKaM are taken from her own life, I'm not interested in doing a biographical analysis of it or GSaW. It's enough for me to know that Lee seemed to struggle with writing the adult Jean Louise while the childhood of young Scout seemed to come more easily to her. Hohoff recognized this apparently and wisely pushed Lee in that direction.
The other way one can read this book is to view the events of GSaW as taking place in an alternate reality or parallel universe, a concept that any long-time comic book reader can easily understand. If you read comics for more than a decade or so, you become well acquainted with differing versions of favorite characters, alternate histories, and a variety of interpretations as new writers and artists take over a series. As confusing and convoluted as it can become, you just have to go with it if you are going to get any lasting enjoyment out of your reading.
What it forces both creators and fans to do though is recognize essential traits that long-time characters possess that are immutable and have sustained the appeal of the characters. And, once those traits are recognized, the remaining space is open for development, change, or interpretation. You need only look at a brief history of Superman to know that the Superman from 1938 is not the same Superman from 2015 - he doesn't even look the same - but many traits have persisted through the years.
So I reread portions of GSaW with this mindset, concentrating on the characterization of Atticus, which has been a focal point for much of the controversy surrounding GSaW since its publication for its alleged depiction of Atticus as a racist. So, I have to ask myself, is this first-draft version of Atticus so different from the TKaM version? What essential qualities make Atticus recognizable and endearing to readers? Of course, the cultural view of Atticus is also greatly influenced by the movie adaptation and, more specifically, Gregory Peck's performance, but even the film version carries over certain character traits with some sentimental altruism thrown in for good measure.
Thanks largely to the film, Atticus has become a bastion of racial equality, but the novel doesn't necessarily highlight that notion so much as it does Atticus' ability to understand people, all people, and his willingness to treat everyone with respect and dignity. These qualities are certainly companions to racial equality, but they are most definitely not the same thing. If you reduce Atticus to those two essential traits (his ability to understand people and a desire to treat them with respect), then the Atticus of GSaW is not so far removed from the one in TKaM. It's just that you have two similar men living in very different times, and their reactions to those times are vastly different as a result.
The GSaW Atticus offers a complex view of race relations in the 1950s south. It isn't really fair to call him a racist as the connotation implies that he is running around in a sheet and hood, burning crosses. He does take issue with the actions of the NAACP, and he does patiently sit through a speech given about white supremacy and inherent negro inferiority. But, those aren't really out of step with Atticus' essential traits. His issues with the NAACP's pushing its political agenda stem from his understanding that people need to experience social change in a slow, steady fashion in order for it to be real and lasting, and his patience with a racist speech is in line with his belief about respecting all people.
That isn't to say that the GSaW Atticus is completely correct. His beliefs are at best racially one-sided and even condescending. But, I would argue this depiction to be more realistic of what a southern man of his education and social standing would have believed, and it would stand to reason that the next generation, as represented by Jean Louise, would rail against those ingrained racist beliefs. If TKaM is about how two children get to witness their father's nobility in the face of great evil, GSaW is about how Jean Louise finally sees her father as human and fallible.
However, I don't wish to make this blog entry about my literary analysis of both versions of Atticus Finch. What I do want to get across is that by viewing GSaW as a new interpretation or alternate version of the character, one is forced to find the connective tissue between the two versions and, in doing so, perhaps a deeper understanding of what Lee was trying to do with the character. One doesn't have to devalue the other, and they can in fact enhance each other.
I certainly wouldn't call reading Go Set a Watchman a powerful experience, at least not compared to the experience I had reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, but I am glad I finally got to read it if just for the further light it sheds on the novel that ultimately resulted from it.