Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Author: Harper Lee
TitleGo Set a Watchman
Publication Info: New York, NY : Harper, An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, [2015]
Books By the Same Author: To Kill A Mockingbird

This book is controversial for two reasons.  First, it’s questionable whether Lee ever wanted it published and possible she was exploited in her infirmity and old age.  Second, it presents Atticus Finch, one of the noble heroes of American literature, as an unrepentant racist.

Of course, this Atticus is not the same Atticus as in To Kill A Mockingbird, as Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel but an early draft of that novel that was heavily re-written and edited.  Still this Atticus is a valuable character for a couple of reasons.  First, it shows that white people who may have been considered equitable when Jim Crow was firmly in place became reactionary once the Civil Rights Movement started, and found ways to justify it to themselves.  Second, it seems like each book has the Atticus that the readers of its time need.  In the 1960s, the Atticus who was a model of a white person advocating for equality and justice.  In the “colorblind”  2000s, we have white people who admire Atticus Finch but with no self-awareness will say things like “I’m not racist but…” or “all lives matter.”  A major plot point is that Atticus thinks Jean Louise needs to stop looking up to him for the answers and make up her own mind and that’s probably a good lesson for the reader as well.

The novel starts with Jean Louise (aka Scout) Finch returning to visit Maycomb, Alabama from New York.  There are some humorous bits as the unrepentant tomboy Jean Louise ponders just how much she doesn’t fit in to the community she fled.  There are also interesting and humorous flashbacks to her younger days (which an editor considered the best parts of the book, thus inspiring Lee to rewrite the book from the perspective of Scout as a child).

Then Jean Louise discovers that Atticus and her fiance Hank are attending the local Citizens Council meeting and she is shocked and disillusioned. Frankly, at this point the novel goes south as Jean Louise engages in unnatural conversations with several characters each a didactic representation of a Segregationist or States Rights point of view, while Jean Louise represents the Northern Liberal perspective (and frankly, Jean Louise is very weak as a proponent of equality and integration, although she may have seemed more radical in the 1950s).

This book is good for a couple of things.  For one, it helps understand the writing process, giving a peek at an early draft of a great novel.  Second, it’s a snapshot of opinions of white Southerners on racial issues in the late 1950s.  Sadly, what it is not is a good or well-written novel.

Favorite Passages:

She was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way.

It had never fully occurred to Jean Louise that she was a girl: her life had been one of reckless, pummeling activity; fighting, football, climbing, keeping up with Jem, and besting anyone her own age in any contest requiring physical prowess. When she was calm enough to listen, she considered that a cruel practical joke had been played upon her: she must now go into a world of femininity, a world she despised, could not comprehend nor defend herself against, a world that did not want her.

There was a time, long ago, when the only peaceful moments of her existence were those from the time she opened her eyes in the morning until she attained full consciousness, a matter of seconds until when finally roused she entered the day’s wakeful nightmare

You are fascinated with yourself. You will say anything that occurs to you, but what I can’t understand are the things that do occur to you. I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. We were both born here, we went to the same schools, we were taught the same things. I wonder what you saw and heard.

Blind, that’s what I am. I never opened my eyes. I never thought to look into people’s hearts, I looked only in their faces. Stone blind . . . Mr. Stone. Mr. Stone set a watchman in church yesterday. He should have provided me with one. I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.

I’ll come down to you. I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me—if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. Then I’d have said that’s just His Way, that’s My Old Man, because I’d have been prepared for it somewhere along the line.

Rating: **