Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees.” 
- Isaiah 21:6

To follow up a novel as widely loved as To Kill a Mockingbird (though there are few novels that fall into that bracket) is a remarkably difficult thing to attempt. Allowing for a good half century to pass before the emergence of a second book makes the task even harder. However, Harper Lee has never shied away from doing things her own way and, whether she gave her blessing for the publication of Go Set a Watchman or not, I will argue that the second book from Lee’s pen is interesting largely as it supplements and strengthens To Kill a Mockingbird’s case to be one of the most notable books of the twentieth century.

For those of you who read my review of Mockingbird earlier in the year, you will recall that I find much to admire about the book but equally as much to ponder in its morals. Atticus Finch – unavoidably beautiful Gregory Peck in my mind – has been a character that evokes a strong sense of warmth in me but also dissonance. For I could not quite find in him the assuredly moral man that he has, for decades, been declared to be. Undoubtedly he defends Tom Robinson but only at the behest of the State – he does his job fairly but the law is clearly his divine ruler rather than a personal code of ethics – and he has moments of true compassion but he also presses home moral positions that appear a little confusing (why, for example, make Jem spend day after day with the clearly bigoted Mrs Dubose?). Admittedly, some of the disquietude about Atticus on my part is inherited from the wider tone of Mockingbird as a novel, which is not all that it might be, but nonetheless I have always felt there was more to the story than was commonly felt to be the case.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee book cover
And so Go Set the Watchman rolled into our consciousness last year with advance stories in the media warning of the demise of Atticus Finch as the totemic preacher of racial tolerance the complacent class would like him to be. Now, it was reported, lovely old Gregory Peck-face is a hard-bitten KKK supporter who stomps around burning at the stake anyone who can’t recite the constitution by heart and trace their lineage back to the Mayflower (okay, I exaggerate a little). Generally there were cries of fear that such an iconic figure’s legacy could be ruined but in these parts my curiosity was piqued. Here, I hoped, I would find some answers that would allow Mockingbird to sit more easily with me. So it proved.

In Watchman, Scout has grown into the wilful, impulsive twenty-something she promised to be as a pre-adolescent – her concessions to convention are somewhere north of token, but only just, and she finds herself removed from the quaint comforts of Maycomb and living her life in the metropolitan atmosphere of New York. However, although Jean Louise (as she is now more commonly known) may have been transported into the modern world, Maycomb has not. Murmurs fly from one porch to the next as the inhabitants of the small town all keep a watch on one another, and endeavour to ensure that biological determinism maintain the social order and that the lower classes and those from the black communities do not get ideas above their station. All outsiders, from communists (pretty much everyone the Maycomb circles disdain in one way or another fall under this general heading) to the federal government, are eyed with suspicion. Church events, coffee mornings, and KKK meetings all remain staples of the social calendar as Maycomb continues to turn its face away from the new world growing up around it. It is to this world that Jean Louise returns to visit her arthritic father, Atticus, who is showing his age at 72.

The story of Jean Louise’s visit is split largely into two sections as Mockingbird was. The first is filled with Scout’s gentle reminiscences of her childhood in Maycomb and a little about her love interest Henry, who works in law with Atticus. Much of this sets the scene in a way that feels a little unnecessary given a good deal of the information is already available courtesy of Mockingbird – not something Lee would have known when she penned Watchman but something that could have been considered during the editorial process. The second half of the book is occupied with Jean Louise’s discovery that Atticus holds views she could never have imagined he would and the fallout from this as her Uncle Jack and father attempt to convince her that the world is not quite as she would like it and communities cannot simply surge headlong into liberation without due time to mature: “Honey,” Atticus says to Scout, “you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”

The condescension of the parental position Atticus claims to take towards the fledgling race whose progress he seeks to limit, or at least pace, must not be borne and Jean Louise necessarily speaks out against it. In doing so, she breaks the bonds of Atticus’s parental guardianship of her own morals and asserts her personal autonomy. Atticus appears to recognise the necessity of this and even to have engineered an opportunity for Jean Louise to strike out on her own. Does this mean the end game of Atticus’s paternalism towards African-Americans is a genuine hope that they be given complete freedom when the right time arises? Whether he does or whether his line is simply a self-delusion is difficult to say but in either case his resulting position is fairly close to indefensible, despite his best efforts.

No line in the book better describes what Jean Louise has lost than this one: “She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father.” But if Jean Louise has lost an idol in Atticus, so too have the reading community. Reading Watchman at this distance from its original conception and following the publication and eminent success of Mockingbird, it seems remarkably prescient that the reader, as well as Jean Louise, should be warned against elevating a (fictional) man (or woman, obviously) to the heights of the morally untouchable. For, to be a human is to be imperfect; it is as important to recognise the wrong in the good as in the bad. The morals of Mockingbird were as childish and comfortably far from reality as the childhood of Scout was contained in a safely nostalgic past but in Watchman everything is drawn into sharper focus and the adult world of greater complexity is presented. It is not as comfortable but it is at least more honest.




While I appreciate the general sentiment of removing from a pedestal anyone who we have placed there as a moral authority, and of breaking with any form of prescriptive morality, the way the denouement to Watchman plays out is fairly pedestrian. The conflict generated between Scout and Atticus is realised through a rather stilted and unimaginative dialogue between the two that references amendments to the American constitution as often as it genuinely pierces to the heart of what it means to have a parent become a fallen idol. In truth, by the time Atticus and Uncle Jack have twisted their truth out of all recognition, it is not clear if Scout actually remains of a truly polarised opinion to her father but perhaps that is neither here nor there as the conversation is largely for the reader’s benefit. One thing worth noting in this fairly clunky dialectic between Jean-Louise and her elders, is the use of the constitution as a sacred document that can be used to justify just about any position a US citizen wishes. This is an incredibly prescient observation and in the modern world where the constitution is often set against ideologies based on the perversion of religious doctrines, it is worth being aware that secular documents are just as liable to such perversions.

The problem with the ending is indicative of a wider problem with the book: too much is told through dialogue and not enough memorable action moves the plot forward. Looking back to Mockingbird, there are flash points that stick in the mind despite the prominence of the soft Southern voice that holds the story together, but in Watchman these are missing. Unfortunately Uncle Jack and, to a lesser extent, Atticus just don’t carry the story strongly enough when they are required to. Some of the better scenes are the flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood when she is at play with Jem and Dill, and the absence of these two foils for Jean Louise in the present does leave the story a little bereft of memorable action. The other issue with the plotting is that plotlines are simply dropped for no apparent reason – Jean Louise’s fiancé-elect, Henry, for example, is built into an important part of the story in the first part of the book but he slips far into the background as the question of Atticus’s racism (a charge that implicates love interest too) is raised.

The move from first-person narrator in Mockingbird to third-person in Watchman creates a different atmosphere to the book too. Scout’s naïve perspective in Mockingbird helped to highlight the issues in the world around her while giving the reader room to appreciate them. Here, held at a distance by the older Jean Louise, one feels less part of the story and more observer to an angry young woman, (literally) sickened by the hue of her childhood world that she is only now appreciating. She might be right but that does not necessarily make her easier to read and with her ability to express her own frustrations far more articulately than her younger form could, the reader has less room to develop their own response to the story. The bigger problem is that, without Mockingbird, the reader is not invested enough in Jean Louise’s plight: what do they care if her father turns out to be a racist, or that her old maid Calpurnia can no longer look her in the eye? For without Mockingbird there is no emotional connection to Lee’s and Jean Louise’s Maycomb.

It is impossible not to draw these comparisons between Harper Lee’s two published works. Watchman is the manuscript that she originally submitted to the agent who suggested she rework it to focus on Scout’s childhood – advice that would lead to Lee’s eventual submission of Mockingbird. In this sense, Watchman is an interesting insight into the creative process and the value of rewriting and reworking stories that their intended impact is felt. As a piece of art, though, taken apart from all the other baggage that weighs it down, Watchman is not, at its fundamental level, a particularly strong book. Without Mockingbird as a complementary piece, the actual basis of Watchman is fairly dry, clichéd at times, and ultimately not very successful. As T. S. Eliot wrote of all literature that is produced, however, each new piece must necessarily alter our perceptions of what has gone before. In this case more directly than most. Mockingbird cannot be read in quite the same way following Watchman and I am quite glad that the comfortable world of Atticus Finch has been disrupted, at least for a while. More than likely Mockingbird will retain its position as one of the classic anti-racism stories, wheeled out and taught in isolation from Watchman for some time to come. But the inherent complexity of racism – its more insidious forms – have at least been highlighted to some extent by Watchman.

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