Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
For a long time, Scout (Jean Louise) Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird reminded me of Huckleberry Finn. Just a kid from the American south, smart but crass, and willing to live by her own convictions. Interestingly, Go Set a Watchman has solidified this similarity for me. While reading, I repeatedly wondered: could Harper Lee be the love child of Mark Twain and Jane Austen? I know that sounds hilarious, especially considering how much Twain despised Austen’s work, but still. We have here a merging of regional American literature with a novel of assumed propriety and morality (Jean Louise, like many of Austen’s characters, often pokes fun at presumptions of ‘decorum’ or ‘class’). And Scout, like Huckleberry Finn, is often at a loss for what to do – questioning what is right and wrong, and wondering what is wrong with her when she feels that everyone else around her is mistaken about things like race. And, like Huck Finn, she’s willing to write-off her whole town for lost, striking out for New York City just as Huck lit out West.
I’ve heard and seen some say, “this book should never have been published.” Certainly, Go Set a Watchman is not without flaws, and those who loved To Kill a Mockingbird (and who adored Atticus Finch) are sure to be bothered by much of what happens here. But, ultimately, that doesn’t matter. This book shouldn’t be measured by how we felt about another book or about the same characters told from a different perspective (that of a child) at a different time (20 years earlier). While I can understand why the book is upsetting and how it basically pales in comparison to the original, I can’t agree that it shouldn’t have been published, and I don’t know what the point of that argument is, anyway. It has been published: Let’s deal with it.
So, where to start with this one? I would like to begin by saying that Go Set a Watchman is neither a prequel nor a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, despite what some blurbs and reviews would have us believe. It is the exact some book told from a different perspective and a different time. Even a number of the passages overlap, word for word. This is important. What is most important to note, I think, when deciding whether or not to read this, or what to think about it, is this: To Kill a Mockingbird was told though the eyes of a young Scout Finch, a tomboy who adored her father Atticus, and who could see only the best in him. On the other hand, Go Set a Watchman is the story of an adult awakening to her own individuality, claiming her own identity.
As the old adage goes, “we can’t go home again.” This is the lesson Jean Louise learns, with help from her eccentric Uncle Jack, who tells her that “it is always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along” (269). We readers, too, need to recognize that the Finch family, and Maycomb County, have changed in the twenty years of narrative time (or fifty of actual time) since we last saw them. The Civil Rights movement in America changed people, changed entire ways of life. Most of us would probably argue that this was good and necessary, but that still doesn’t mean the change was or has been easy, especially for those whose worlds were altered the most.
The first sections of the book tell of Jean’s visit home. There is some romance between herself and a man she’ll never marry. We meet Jean’s Aunt, again, and are treated to a host of delightful flashbacks from Scout’s childhood. This part of the book is like going home again, and it’s wonderful! But from the mid-point onward, we have a different story. Jean Louise is repeatedly struck by how different everyone seems, even her beloved Calpurnia. Her best friend is gone. Her brother is dead. There’s no one there to help her navigate the changing terrain.
Uncle Jack and Jean Louise spend the last section of the book discussing how Atticus had been Scout’s idol, her own self, really, for most of her life. Until now, the idea that she and her father would disagree on anything was completely foreign to her, unthinkable. But now Scout must “shake off a twenty-year-old habit and shake it off fast” (271). She has to be her own person, which means recognizing her own failures (that she is colorblind – not in the sense we might mean it now, but in the sense that she genuinely doesn’t see how people act, and are treated, differently, like it or not) as well as the failures of those most important to her, little Maycomb, Henry Clinton, and especially her father. There’s a painful break from childhood, and it’s going to be hard for those of us who were there with her, but that doesn’t mean the book is bad. It’s just hard. It’s a challenge.
I definitely think reading Go Set a Watchman is an exercise in suspending our egos. Which is ironic because Jean Louise has a similar task. For many of us, To Kill a Mockingbird was a special experience, and it holds a special place in the canon of American Literature. Atticus Finch is everything a good American should be: a stand-up guy who defends the less fortunate, who teaches his children to be who they are while also respecting others, who puts his own life and career on the line in his effort to ensure justice and a common good. What’s not to love about that? But, realistically, that was the young narrator’s perspective. That was the story told through memories of an adult looking back on her childhood from a nostalgic distance.
Go Set a Watchman is a worthwhile read for many reasons, one of which is for its intimate look at the many types of racism. It seems that every character in this book exposes their prejudices at some point, but each is also prejudiced, bigoted, in a particular way. Some of the characters simply hate black people. Others believe there’s some kind of natural, biological difference which elevates whites over blacks (and popular “science” of the time that explores this theme is referred to in the book). And still others seem reactionary: times are changing, and they respond with fear and resistance – there’s little real malice in this, just a personal anxiety of sorts.
The book is also interesting in how it addresses the Supreme Court’s integration decision, especially illustrations of how different people react to it; most of the southern characters disagreed with the decision, but some, like Scout, still found it necessary. There’s an intriguing look at the ideological differences between “States’ Rights” conservatives and “Federalist” liberals. Considering recent events, such as the newly-raised debates surrounding the Confederate Flag and “Southern Pride,” the release of this book is bizarrely serendipitous as it tackles the very same arguments going on right now. In reflection, it’s also incredibly scary (and disappointing) that these same conversations are still happening, half a century later.
One difficulty I have with this book, aside from my personal reactions to being disillusioned with the reality of Atticus (who, by the way, may be racist, but who is also still committed to justice and nonviolence) is the narrative construction. While Harper Lee’s prose style is still incredibly attractive, much of the book reads as compilations of scenes with fascinating and revelatory flashbacks, but which struggle to work together cohesively. It becomes very clear where, why, and how this book became To Kill a Mockingbird, but it also left me wondering what might have happened had that original classic developed into something twice the size, an epic spanning the length of time that is ultimately covered by the two works, and corrected accordingly. An interesting thought.
I can say that I think this is a fascinating, intellectually and emotionally challenging companion to To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of looking to Atticus as the hero of this novel, we’re going to turn to Jean Louise and, despite her own racism, try to applaud her courage in standing up to her family, empathize with her growing pains, and hope the best for her. Will she stay in Maycomb, where she might be able to do the most good (as Uncle Jack so presciently notes: “the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong . . . they don’t need you when they’re right”). Or will she go back to New York, where she can see people of other races as simply people?
Ultimately, I don’t think Go Set a Watchman works well without To Kill a Mockingbird, which is problematic; still, for those who know the originally or who will eventually read it, this one adds so much depth and reality to the story of Maycomb and the Finches. Lee wades into difficult, muddy, maddening terrain; she does it well, and with her own characteristic flavor.