Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, is a glance into the writing process and how novels evolve. The story goes that Watchman is the original book Lee took to her publisher. Her publisher sent her back to do more work, and she eventually ended up with To Kill a Mockingbird. Put in that context, we can see why the ideas on race that Lee explores in Watchman are a little more raw and unsettling. This is not really a sequel—it is a development of an idea that would become a great work of literature. With this in mind, it is easier to overlook the underdeveloped parts and accept the book for its strengths.
Prior to reading Watchman, I avoided reading the reviews about the new book. After all the press following the announcement of its controversial publication and a single headline that said something about Atticus Finch being a racist in the new book, I wanted to steer clear of anything that could influence my opinion. After finishing the book, I eventually glanced at the reviews and most of them focused on Atticus and the feeling that parts of the book were unfinished or underdeveloped. They seemed to miss what an interesting character Jean Louise “Scout” Finch has grown up to be and how her visit back home is representative of the disillusionment that can sometimes come from the journey home. When home is a small town in the 1950s south, this includes coming to a realization about racist attitudes held by people close to us.
I read this book in a day and started it from a point of accepting it for what it was: an earlier version of Scout’s story that would give birth to Mockingbird. Nowhere in Watchman is this more apparent than in Jean Louise’s delightful flashbacks to stories of her childhood in Maycomb. Lee’s original book is one of the best American novels ever published, and it is a seemingly impossible task to top something that has such a status in our culture. While I think there is some merit to some of the criticisms of Lee’s book, I think many readers also opened the book expecting something new and that continued the feeling of Mockingbird. Anyone approaching Watchman this way was bound to be disappointed.
The book opens with Jean Louise taking the train from her current home in New York City to Maycomb. Shortly after arriving, she tells her boyfriend Henry Clinton, “I just don’t like my world disturbed without some warning” (75). It is not long after this that she discovers that Atticus and Henry are part of a citizens council that is discussing the merits of segregation. This discovery rocks her world, and she has a hard time reconciling the version of Atticus in her mind with the one participating in the council. She reflects on what she previously thought of Atticus’s views on race—ideas which she thought informed her own way of thinking:
She heard her father’s voice, a tiny voice talking in the warm comfortable past. Gentleman, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none (108).
Perhaps that is one thing that some readers struggled with. We want to go back to the “warm comfortable past” of Mockingbird and see that nothing has changed. In a way, we are perhaps a little like Jean Louise in Watchman. We want to go back to that world, and we want it to be perfect and cozy. Instead we saw it again as adults and realized that Atticus was not the unflawed moral compass we previously held him to be.
It was hard to hear Atticus say things that supported segregationist attitudes, and in many ways I was right there with Jean Louise as she confronts and shouts at him. When she runs to her Uncle Jack, he explains:
When you happened along and saw [Atticus] doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience—your conscience—you literally could not stand it. It made you physically ill. Life became hell on earth for you. You had to kill yourself, or he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity (265).
In a way, this is almost a reminder that maybe we, the readers, need to reevaluate our own view of Atticus or anyone we take as a moral compass. In an age where we are so quick to cement our own views based on the opinions that pass for news online or on TV, perhaps the lesson Jean Louise learns in Watchman is a reminder that we need to become separate entities when it comes to setting the course for our own battles against injustice and inequality.
Much has been made of whether or not Harper Lee really wanted this book published and if people close to her took advantage of her in order to make money off a book she did not really want published. Without knowing Lee personally, it is hard to weigh in with an opinion on this; however, I wonder if there was part of Lee who wanted this book out there because she felt readers needed to see Scout’s journey to this moment of realization. It is an important reminder for us as our nation continues to deal with racism in a way that mirrors the time when Mockingbird and Watchman were written.
We are still mourning the nine black lives taken by a white supremacist at a prayer meeting at a church in Charleston, and the Confederate flag is making headlines. It is clear we desperately need to have some serious conversations about race. The discussions that Jean Louise has with Atticus, her Uncle Jack and others in the town are a snapshot of the long held attitudes that shape the way we think about race in this country—it is a reminder of just how far we still have to go. Perhaps in Atticus we are reminded that racism is not always as straightforward as someone spewing derogatory language. If racist thoughts and ideas can come from the mouth of someone as well reasoned as Atticus, it means we need to reevaluate our own ways of thinking about race. This is a hard lesson for both the reader and Jean Louise.
The one thing that unsettled me about the ending of Watchman was the way that Jean Louise’s uncle helped her to see the flaws in her own views. He almost seemed to justify the idea of upholding traditional southern values. This is something we still hear today in the face of different marginalized groups of people gaining rights and how some see these advances as attacking traditional values.
In some ways I see Uncle Jack’s conversation with Jean Louise as a kind of justification for the views of Atticus and others in the town. I hope that the set up here is for Jean Louise to move back to the south and to become a part of the civil rights movement. It might be that her uncle was really trying to help her see the value in moving beyond righteous anger to a point where conversation and change are possible. This is something we in the U.S. desperately need to figure out as we seem to move further and further apart in understanding racism and when many conversations about race become shouting matches. After reading the last page of Watchman, I found myself wishing for another book that gives us a glimpse of Jean Louise ten years later to see how the experiences in this book influence who she comes to be.
This book is jarring in that it forces us to confront the realities of the legacy of slavery in this country and how it has influenced attitudes about race. It also gives us a glimpse into what would become Mockingbird, and for that reason I think it is an important piece of literary history. Take it as such, and I think you will get a lot out of Lee’s new book.