A Review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

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 hear 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.

Scout

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Thoughts on Girlhood

“I don’t know how it is with boys. I’ve never been a boy. But girls somewhere between the ages of, say, eight and puberty, girls forget they have bodies. It’s the time she has trouble keeping herself clean, socks always drooping, knees pocked and bloody, hair crooked as a broom. She doesn’t look in mirrors. She isn’t aware of being watched. Not aware her body is causing men to look at her yet. There isn’t the sense of the female body’s volatility, its rude weight, the nuisance of dragging it about. There isn’t the world to bully you with it, bludgeon you, condemn you to a life sentence of fear. It’s the time when you look at a young girl and notice she is at her ugliest, but at the same time, at her happiest. She is a being as close to a spirit as a spirit.”

—From Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros (Pages 433-434)


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Recently Reading Rainbow Mom Jenni Buchanan blogged about “The Best Friends That Never Were: 3 Unlikely Pairings.” This got me to thinking about some dream best-friend pairings from my favorite books. Lyra from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Scout from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird were at the top of my list. While daydreaming about other literary friendships, I started thinking about girlhood in some of my favorite books. At the beginning of their books, both Lyra and Scout embody the kind of girlhood Cisneros refers to in the passage above. Caramelo itself takes up the notion of girlhood in this passage and tells us the story of Lala.

It’s a freeing sort of idea to remember a time when things like skinned knees, messy hair and the fact that I had not showered for a couple days didn’t bother me. Reading the stories of these girls makes me nostalgic for a time when I was not worried about how others saw me.

We are constantly bombarded with messages about how a woman is supposed to look and behave and what products she needs to buy to achieve that. Every time we step out of the house, it is hard not to think about whether our appearance is acceptable. If we opt for sweat pants, it is often with an excuse about why we had to dress down that day. It is hard for women to feel free in their bodies when we are constantly aware of how others may see us and judge us. 

I am a big fan of Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time. Aside from awakening a lifelong interest in stories about time travel, this book gave me a main character I could identify with in her struggle to fit in—even as an adult. Meg is taking her first steps beyond the phase of girlhood Cisneros mentions. She finds her strength in realizing she has the ability within herself to save her brother. For this reason, I think it is important that we go back and revisit our favorite literary girls from time to time. Girls like Scout, Lyra, Lala and Meg show us that there are possibilities for being smart, brave, strong and free—even as we look back on girlhood and realize what it means to be women. They also remind us that deep inside us there is still the girl that Cisneros writes about.

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Click on the titles of the books mentioned in this post to be taken to Powells.com to buy a copy, or head to your local library or favorite independent bookstore.

Work Cited:

Cisneros, Sandra. Caramelo. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.