Go Set a Watchman

By Miriam R. KramerLast Word - Go Set a Watchman

When To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee emerged onto the literary

scene in 1960, it caused a furor, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It

was also quickly turned into a classic movie starring Gregory Peck as

the idealized hero lawyer, Atticus Finch, who battles to set free a black

man unfairly accused of rape. Educators placed it in high school English

curricula for its magical depiction of the comforts and rude awakenings

of childhood as seen through the eyes of Atticus’s young daughter,

Scout. She and her brother watch her father battle brutal racism in a

1930s Southern courtroom in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.

Harper Lee, now deaf and almost blind at 89, eschewed publicity and

may not have originally intended to publish Go Set a Watchman,

unearthed from a bank vault by her agent, lawyer, and publishers and

written earlier than To Kill a Mockingbird. Signs point to it being

originally a rough draft with a different plot, taking place when Scout is

a young woman returning to Maycomb to visit her father, Atticus, and

family.

Yet Go Set a Watchman as a progenitor has its own moral labyrinths to

ponder. Beloved literary heroine, Scout, has become a thoughtful yet

still impulsive woman in her twenties: Jean Louise Finch. As Harper

Lee’s first book in fifty-five years, Watchman has a heavy burden of

expectations to bear from the public and the literary world, and it does

not quite meet them. Its concerns are more initially abstract and

complex than those that resulted in Mockingbird’s pitch-perfect and

deeply affecting account of a Southern childhood with its happinesses,

purity, Gothic scares, and angers at the unfairness of life. Yet it is worth

reading just the same, to see Scout’s concerns in a 1950s world. She is

divided between her life in New York City and her visits to Maycomb,

which has always been home. The Supreme Court’s decision to

desegregate schools has helped disillusion her by removing her faith

that Atticus Finch, moral guide par excellence, will automatically

support equality for Negroes.

The novel begins with Jean Louise taking a train trip from New York to

Maycomb for her annual two week holiday, looking forward to the

comforts of home and the golden world in which she grew up, a world

that feels real. She has a hometown beau named Hank Clinton, whom

her father is grooming as a junior partner in lieu of her brother, who

died of a heart attack. He is a new character but one whom she grew up

trusting and loving as a friend of her brother’s. Hank represents her

ambivalence at both the idea of marrying someone and losing herself in

his life, and fitting into Maycomb’s social conformity, which she has

always viewed with a quizzical, sarcastic eye.

While thinking about her options, she stumbles upon Hank and her

father attending a meeting of the Maycomb Citizens Council. The adult

Scout goes up to the balcony once more, and looks down, literally and

figuratively, on the leading citizens of Maycomb at this meeting,

listening to an ardent racist speaker expound on the dangers of

desegregation and the NAACP, who are trying to open up various

institutions all over the South and in Alabama.

The naïve Jean Louise feels struck to the core when she finds out that

Atticus is on the board of directors of this blandly named “Citizens

Council.” She has held Atticus up as a golden idol of truth and

righteousness who always lives publicly as he thinks privately, and is

horrified to believe that he holds views she finds morally repugnant. She

feels as if she has been struck out of her family and that she no longer

even has a foothold in Maycomb, which bred and bore her. Lee makes

the point that Scout, the former child now known as Jean Louise, had

never really seen the realities surrounding her in her world of

intellectual eccentricity and encompassing love. As Lee writes “Had she

insight, could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective,

insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been

with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself

and by those closest to her: she was born color blind.”

Go Set a Watchman is an intricate work that pits the adult and yet still

fiery and impetuous Jean Louise against the realities of her past and her

father’s current beliefs, which are more nuanced than they may seem.

Those who love To Kill a Mockingbird will find it worth reading because

it fills out the portrait sketched so affectionately and acutely in 1960,

and shows how Scout becomes Jean Louise, engaging with political

arguments and her own disillusionments to make independent

decisions and become an adult.

Luckily, Lee’s sarcastic humor occasionally leavens the novel. The book

is sometimes ponderous, including too much repetitive soul-searching,

dusty academic references, and stories that feel like outtakes from

Mockingbird. In short, it should have been edited before it was released.

Yet while a few plot points strike false notes, the dialogue and story still

take you to Jean Louise’s authentic world, a place where so many

readers have found deep satisfaction and felt her love for humanity in

all colors and variations.

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