Book Review: “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

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Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee
Go Set a Watchman
By Harper Lee
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Look out! Harper Lee has finally written a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, and Atticus Finch is a dirty racist in it! That’s been the rallying cry of the entire literary community for the last few months, and with good reason: one of the most highly regarded one-shot novelists in history, Lee’s 1960 first novel (set in 1930s Alabama) has become a kind of revered liberal fairytale over the ensuing decades, a simplistic yet courageous story of one decent man’s stand against racism in a racist-dominated Deep South (but for more, see CCLaP’s 2011 review of Mockingbird), and it’s been like a slap in the face to many of this book’s fans for Lee to release a “sequel”* set twenty years later, in which our noble hero has become one of the notorious “Dixiecrat” racist liberals of the Mid-Century Modernist era who were responsible (among other horrible things) for the now ubiquitous flying of the Confederate flag over government buildings in the Deep South, and for the radical swing in that region into Nixonian conservatism in the 1960s, after Lyndon Johnson’s “betrayal” in signing the Civil Rights Act. These fans simply don’t want to accept a world in which their hero eventually becomes the kind of person that tens of millions just like him exactly became in real life in those years — Atticus is the exception, damnit, the man who proves that there are always at least a few good people even in the middle of horrific evil — and so these people have been protesting by giving uniformly bad reviews of this newest novel, dismissing it as “too talky” and “too simple” when what they really mean is, “I refuse to believe that Atticus Finch could become a racist, so I am choosing to reject the book that claims he did, despite it coming directly from the mouth of the person who created Atticus Finch in the first place.”
*(Although of course “sequel” is a problematic term to apply to Go Set a Watchman, and it’s instructive to today’s write-up to talk just a bit about its history, for those who haven’t heard it yet; for this is actually the first novel Harper Lee ever wrote, an autobiographical tale from when she was essentially in the same position as this book’s main character [in her mid-twenties, now living as an urban sophisticate in New York City, with ambivalent feelings over how all her old childhood friends and relatives were reacting to such 1950s figures as Martin Luther King Jr]. That’s the book she always wanted to write, a morality tale about a Kennedy intellectual disappointed with the way her Southern liberal friends reacted to the civil rights movement, especially when compared to the much more noble ways they used to behave during her Rooseveltian ’30s youth, seen here in flashback form; but it was while shopping this manuscript around in the ’50s that an editor in New York suggested that she write an entire novel just out of the flashback scenes, and that’s how To Kill a Mockingbird was born.)
But after reading it myself now, I have to say that those who look at Go Set a Watchman as a story about racism are actually far off the mark; for this is instead a rather nuanced book about the subjects of aging and memory, with the “racism” on display (and more on those quotation marks in a bit) actually a McGuffin used to examine the ways that our main narrator views the world very differently between the ages of 6 and 26, while her father does the same between the ages of 52 and 72. In fact, this is laid out quite plainly in the central discussion of the book, between our feisty hero Jean Louise (aka “Scout”) and her uncle Jack, a comedically eccentric Victoriana obsessive who serves as a neutral voice in the growing debate over the formation of a local citizens’ council in their small town of Maycomb, Alabama. (For those who don’t know, these were notorious groups set up by Southern towns during the civil rights era, technically devoted to “community issues” but in reality a quasi-legal KKK dedicated to the question “How Do We Stop The Coloreds?” It was these “citizens’ councils” that largely pushed the state governments of the South to enact legislation requiring the flying of Confederate flags over government buildings, a hot-button issue to this day and I’m sure one of the big reasons Lee wanted this long-dormant novel to finally come out in these particular years.)
As Jack quite explicitly states — which is all the more reason to suspect the motives of those who dismiss this book for its “Atticus Is A Racist” elements — there were plenty of reasons for Southerners to get behind racist organizations like these back then besides just pure racism; take Scout’s enlightened fiancee, for example, who joins the citizens’ council for the same reason he might join the Rotary Club, because he’s a rising young lawyer and to not do so would damage his career. Or take Atticus himself, who as we learn by the end of the book hasn’t really changed his stance towards black people from how he felt twenty years ago — his joining the citizens’ council has almost nothing to do with hating a man for the color of his skin, and almost everything to do with his obsessive belief in state rights versus a big federal government, and with his personal identity as a Jeffersonian liberal who believes that people need to “earn” the privileges of a free democracy by being informed, conscientious citizens who contribute to the greater good, not to have those privileges ram-rodded down everyone’s throats by a meddling organization like the NAACP. When Atticus complains about something like desegregated schools in Go Set a Watchman, what he’s really complaining about is the intrusion of an outside foreign (i.e. “Yankee”) group that doesn’t understand the local situation, doesn’t care what the long-term effects of their behavior will be on that local community, and who want to override all the parts of the Constitution about personal liberties, in the noble but misguided name of forcing “equality” on a situation that politically and economically can’t handle it, complaints that even the urban liberal Scout sometimes agrees with over the course of the book. It still results in racist behavior, let’s make no mistake; but as Lee goes to great pains to show in this book (and that has been promptly ignored by most people who have read it), even as an elderly Dixiecrat, Atticus would still be the first person to legally defend a black man who has been falsely accused of a crime, no differently than how he was during the events of the first book twenty years previous.
So why does Scout perceive her father in such radically different terms between then and now? Well, that’s the flip side of that issue that Lee is exploring in this book; again, as best put by Jack’s thesis-explaining monologue halfway through the novel (oh, thesis-explaining monologues buried in the middle of Mid-Century Modernist novels, where would we be without you?), Scout’s view of her dad’s surprisingly consistent behavior has changed so much because she has changed so much, first seeing this behavior through the barely comprehending eyes of a hero-worshipping six-year-old, and not understanding yet all the complexities and shades of grey that come with being a man like Atticus Finch in a place like the postbellum South. And this I’m convinced is the main reason that those who have had a bad reaction to this novel have had this bad reaction, and also another reason why Lee decided to release this book at such a point in her life, long after having anything more to prove to literary history or posterity; given how complex a treatment she gives racism in this first novel of hers, I bet it’s been driving her crazy for half a century now that her lasting legacy is going to be for a novel that treats the people involved in race discussions like simplistic cartoon characters, and that boils down the entire messy history of the post-Civil-War South into a black-hat/white-hat morality tale that even a little child can understand. (“LYNCHINGS BAD! ATTICUS GOOD! LYNCHINGS BAD! ATTICUS GOOD!”) As the 89-year-old Lee more and more approaches the end of her life, I bet it’s become of increasing importance to her that the world understand her more complex view on race and Southern history; and I bet it’s that very embrace of this simplistic, childlike view on the subject that most people have had because of Mockingbird, and the admonition by the author herself that they should dig further and understand the complexities better, that has inspired so many people to have a more critical reaction to this second novel than the novel itself deserves.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Watchman is no masterpiece — in fact, even at their most charitable, a fan of this book would be hard-pressed to call it anything more than a promising but flawed manuscript from a twentysomething newbie writer, with way too many talky dialogues and not nearly enough action (the aspect of Mockingbird saved by the actual court trial), and way too heavy a reliance on treacly nostalgic childhood reminiscences to establish its genteel Southern tone (which Lee fixed in Mockingbird by making the childhood experiences contemporary, and thus able to add a deliciously dark and violent element to it all). If she had published this in 1960 instead of Mockingbird, it would’ve had its small circle of Northern academic fans, a slightly larger number would’ve found it admirable but a bit boring, and most everyone else would’ve simply ignored it; and that makes it easy to see why publishing professionals would encourage her to write the much more gripping and simply better-done Mockingbird, and why a recently unearthed letter from one such publishing executive back then called the novel “the most worked-over book I’ve ever seen.” Still, though, Watchman for all its flaws is still a fascinating historical document of a time that has partly passed us but sadly is partly still with us, and it deserves a lot better than a nation of Atticus-worshippers covering their ears and yelling, “I’M NOT LISTENING! I’M NOT LISTENING! I’M NOT LISTENING!” When entered into with the right attitude and a good sense of history, this is a worthy companion to the admittedly better Mockingbird, a book that sheds additional light on those characters and doesn’t necessarily have to be seen as standing in direct conflict with them. I encourage you to approach it yourself with this attitude in mind.
Out of 10: 8.7
Read even more about Go Set a Watchman: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Jason Pettus is the owner of CCLaP, and a former novelist, slam poet and travel writer. During the day he is a front-end software developer within the Chicago tech startup community. Goodreads | LibraryThing | Twitter | Instagram | Letterboxd