Go Set A Watchman
by Harper Lee
Published July 2015 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: loaned to me by a friend
Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch—Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.
I wasn't going to read this one - I'm still vehemently opposed to the way it came to be published at all and the way that HarperCollins has marketed it. But when a friend offered to loan me her copy, I didn't hesitate. If I might, ultimately, be convinced to read it, I might as well read it now while everyone's talking about it and be able to form my own opinion.
Go Set A Watchman
is neither a prequel to To Kill A Mockingbird
(although it was written first), nor is it a sequel (although it is set later). Instead, it's a first draft of a what would become a beloved classic. It was rejected by the publisher when it was first presented to them. Had TKAM
not become so popular, had Lee written more than one book, this book would likely never have seen the light of day. I can't help but think that Lee must have, at some point in her life, considered writing a sequel to TKAM
. If she has wanted it to be this, I would think she would have reworked it and published it. She didn't do that and I don't believe that she truly wanted this published.
I didn't first read To Kill A Mockingbird
until a couple of years ago, so I don't have a decades-long love of it that was going to be shattered by reading this (unlike when I discovered what a terrible father Bronson Alcott was, which has forever tainted my believed Little Women
). Still, knowing that I was going to be meeting a racist Atticus Finch in GSAW
was disconcerting. Oh, yes, I know, it's more realistic to that time and place. And, yes, I know that Atticus comes off as yet another white savior in TKAM
. And that there will always be something missing in a book that deals with racism from a white person's point of view.
I went into Go Set A Watchman
trying to think of it as an entirely different book that just happened to have some of the same characters. Which might have worked better if Lee had thrown Atticus' racism at readers right from the get go. Instead, as seen through Jean Louise's eyes, we see the saintly Atticus we're familiar with until almost half way through the book. Suddenly we get an entirely different man. Now how, I wondered, could this have come as such a surprise to twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise? Surely at some point in her life hints would have been dropped, at least. Lee explained it this way:
"Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually through the years until now? Had it always been under her nose for her to see if she had only looked. No, not the last."
But, of course, it would have to have been the last, at least to some extent, for Jean Louise and readers of TKAM
. We are prone to see our heroes with halos over their heads.
"...no you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father's. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with a God. You never saw him as a man with a man's heart, and see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes 'em like all of us."
The first part of the book plays like a traditional ode to the glorious South where life was slow, small towns flourished with populations who had lived there for generations. Jean Louise has come home for a holiday from New York to a place she has never felt she belonged. She battles an aunt who wants her to become a proper Southern woman, a lowborn beau who would have her settle in Maycomb, and her own memories of an idyllic youth and her beloved brother. And then everything changes.
The second part of the book is, in fact, nearly entirely debates between Jean Louise and her uncle and father. The two men try to explain to her the Southern liberal point of view in the 1950's - they must protect a minority that has not yet become civilized enough to care for itself and the Federal government and NAACP have no business butting in. We also get an entirely new view of why the Civil War was fought.
Go Set A Watchman
may well be more true to what would have been the norm at that time. It certainly feels that it must have been truer to Lee's own beliefs. But a book that couldn't be published in the 1950's certainly won't work sixty years later.
"For thus hath the Lord said unto me,
Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth."