West and Grand

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

In February, 2015, HarperCollins announced the discovery and upcoming publication of a “new” work by Harper Lee.  The announcement was quickly surrounded by controversy:  When was the manuscript actually discovered?  Was it a mere coincidence that the announcement was made several months after the death of Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s sister, protector and attorney?  Why would Harper Lee, who retired from the spotlight over fifty years ago, now give consent to publish a work she had previously refused to publish? 

Then, in the week before the release of Go Set A Watchman, small details began to emerge.  Jem is dead.  Atticus is a racist.  Suddenly, the controversy took a turn as many mourned the desecration of a beloved character and father figure, Atticus Finch.

Before actually examining the book, consider some important points.  First, this book, while containing the same characters, is not directly related to To Kill A Mockingbird. Go Set A Watchman is an early, largely unedited draft of Harper Lee’s intended first novel.  Her editor, Tay Hohoff, worked closely with her on revisions and To Kill A Mockingbird was born.  The events in Watchman do not always parallel those of Mockingbird and the tone is vastly different. 

Second, in all of the controversy and angst regarding Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, it is important to remember that this is not Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch.  Does this make Watchman a less worthy work?  In many respects, it is; however, had Lee polished it into a finished work in its own right, we would possibly have had a much more interesting, thought-provoking and complex work.

In Go Set A Watchman, Jean Louise, now 26, is home from New York for her annual vacation.  Jem only exists in memories. Jean Louise is seeing Henry Clinton, one of Jem’s best friends.  Atticus is 72 years old and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.  Jean Louise’s love for home and family is immediately evident and is reminiscent of the tone of To Kill A Mockingbird.  In fact, some of the description of home and family makes it directly into Mockingbird. 

However, Jean Louise returns to an Alabama reeling from Brown vs. the Board of Education.  On her second day home, she comes across a pamphlet her father is reading, The Black Plague.  Jean Louise then attends a Citizen’s Council meeting and, with her, we are further appalled to see Atticus and Henry take part in racist nonsense.  It is at this point that Go Set A Watchman has a chance at greatness, and it is here that it falls apart.

Reportedly, when Tay Hohoff read Harper Lee’s manuscript, she read a “series of anecdotes” and encouraged Lee to focus on Jean Louise’s reminiscences of her childhood exploits with Jem and Dill.  The criticism is true and the decision to change focus is pivotal.  The scenes from childhood are told in the same amusing and gentle vein as much of To Kill A Mockingbird.  They are likely intended to provide context for Jean Louise’s shock at the changed perspective of her father. 

As enjoyable as they are, they are disjointed both in tone and subject from the rest of the book.  Through her revisions, Lee created a new story that is about racism, but it is even more about home and family.  Although, when re-reading Mockingbird, it is possible to better understand disturbing undertones and also to realize that Atticus, while a good man, is not altogether consistent in his views on race.

In Go Set A Watchman, Atticus is seemingly no longer a good man.  Henry, whom Jean Louise loves, is possibly not a good man.  And yet, Lee attempts to explore history and motivation and provide a more nuanced view of the questions of race.  Viewed purely as a place and time in history, it is intriguing.  Atticus is motivated by the Tenth Amendment, states’ rights and the authority of the Supreme Court.  Jean Louise, who is described several times as color blind, is bemused by New York’s view of racism in the South—“to hear the Post tell it, we lynch ‘em for breakfast.”  Henry is conscious of being an outsider, “trash,” and feels he has to follow the views of the majority if he is to succeed in Maycomb, Alabama.  However, all of the arguments are convoluted and the conclusions contradictory. 

The major failure of this book is that, for all of the questions and arguments it illuminates, Jean Louise is very quickly reconciled with Atticus.  While she says to herself, “I can’t beat him, I can’t join him,” the reader is left feeling that she has joined him.  At the very least, she has met him more than halfway.  The fact that we still confront questions of race and equality almost sixty years after Go Set A Watchman was written only illustrates the fact that we have no easy answers and loose ends cannot be easily tied in one chapter.

As an attempt at a coming of age story, Go Set A Watchman is fascinating but ultimately unsuccessful.  Jean Louise is the intended watchman and she sees the idols broken down.  Unfortunately, the reader isn’t able to follow along as she attempts to build them up again. 

“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth….Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.”  (Isaiah 21:6, 9) 

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