Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
Then, there was much speculation as to the mental stability and health of Harper Lee herself. Did she have the capacity to ask that it be published? Was elder abuse at play here? After all, she was reported to be nearly deaf and blind and shielded in a nursing home. What of Tonja Carter, Harper Lee’s attorney? Her role in the discovery and publication of this much-anticipated novel was the subject of much conjecture, not all of which was positive.
All of this was preamble to the actual novel. Ultimately, Go Set A Watchman must be judged on its merits, on actually having been read. Despite its relationship to To Kill a Mockingbird, it must rise or fall on its own. And, the verdict is that Go Set A Watchman often reads like a sophomoric attempt at a first novel, but it has many redeeming features. The stories that it came first and the editors at HarperCollins told Lee to rewrite and focus on the younger Scout seem very plausible. No one will find it to be of the same quality as To Kill a Mockingbird?, which was probably refined by a host of editors. Go Set A Watchman is said to have been published “as is.”
Go Set A Watchman is reasonably well paced and interesting on a number of fronts. Atticus and Scout are still here, twenty years later in the 1950s. Scout, who now insists on being called Jean Louise because she is no longer the unsophisticated tomboy, is in her mid-twenties and has come home from New York on her fifth annual visit. Thomas Wolfe was right, she cannot go home again because the home in her mind no longer exists. She has changed but Maycomb remains largely in a time capsule. She has now learned to eat lunch mid-day and dinner at night; the people in Maycomb would be eating dinner and supper in that order. Atticus is a prime example of how her understanding has altered.
Much will be made of his “conversion” from the saintly lawyer who supported a wrongly accused black man to one who will be deemed racist because he meets with the Maycomb Citizens’ Council and believes that integration must go slow. Negroes, he believes, are simply behind in their intellectual and social development and are not ready for the wide world. He is no more, no less than a man of his time regardless of the perspective in either book. “Go slow” was a common feature of the 1950s. An adolescent at that time I well remember intelligent, thinking adults espouse that view. People who would do great kindnesses (such as defend a man, even a black man, to ensure that due process within the thinking of that time was followed) for any individual still felt the pace of change was too fast. That transformation is difficult and best instituted through incremental steps was a prevailing belief. We must remember that Atticus was assigned by the court to defend Tom. He “hoped to get through life without a case of this kind.” But it comes to him and he does what is required to ensure some form of due process is honored. He seems to have a bit of the “white savior complex” in his actions.
For readers of To Kill a Mockingbird, the primary difficulty with this novel is that it is an honest, unflinching portrait of the thinking of small town America, North or South. Fans of the first book are not ready to acknowledge the dark underbelly that existed in that world. Go Set A Watchman does not reflect our idealized view of Mockingbird and its inhabitants. It is an uncomfortable book to read for its depiction of racism. Lee writes that “Integrity, humor, and patience were the three words for Atticus Finch.” The vitriol spewed at the meeting of the White Citizens’ Council is blood chilling. She makes it clear that Atticus appears to be a man of his time when Scout finds that he has been reading a pamphlet entitled “The Black Plague” prior to a meeting of the Council.
In quieter and more subtle ways, Lee informs the reader of just how things were in Maycomb. In a nice allusion to Faulkner, Calpurnia begins to speak to “Miss Scout” when she, in that quaint phrase, “becomes a woman.” We learn that Calpurnia, whose language skills are second-to-none, drops her vowels, word endings, and subject-verb agreement when she functions in a subservient position among white people, when she puts on her “company manners.” Maycomb is still Maycomb as it grapples with the arrival of the NAACP and the potential changes on the horizon.
In a most telling passage, the new minister at the Methodist Church preaches on a text from Isaiah 21:6. “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, / Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” This new man in town refers to Isaiah who was prophesying the fall of Babylon. There was a need for a watchman to identify the vices of immorality and hypocrisy and identify solutions. Someone must be the moral compass of Maycomb to keep the citizens on a righteous path. It is this very thing that Jean Louise struggles with for Atticus has always filled that role in her eyes.
Despite any shortcomings, one cannot be a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird and fail to read Go Set a Watchman. The latter brings a sense of completion to the former, placing its events — long after the time — into perspective. The style is often polemical and the writing overwrought, but the story rings true for the most part. Lee has created a conflict that carries dramatic tension throughout the novel. Do not dismiss it out of hand. Sometimes people and books are not what they are said to be.