‘Go Set A Watchman,’ book review

That the prequel/sequel of To Kill A Mockingbird would be the literary event of the year was assured as soon as it was announced. Go Set A Watchman is said to be the first book written by Harper Lee featuring many of the characters later made famous in Mockingbird. In Watchman Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (as an adult) is the main character. There are numerous excursuses into her childhood memories in the story. Lee’s publisher suggested a book set in Scout’s childhood instead of the book she submitted. That book became To Kill A Mockingbird. It became an instant classic, and Go Set A Watchman was put on a 50+ year back-burner.

In today’s publishing environment, both books might have been part of a 10-book deal, “Maycomb County.” It would be the cotton field equivalent of Hogwarts.

(This review does not explore the circumstances surrounding the publication of Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s state of mind, or the possibility she was manipulated into agreeing to publish a book she had steadfastly refused to publish for decades.)

There may be spoilers.

An early item of note is Watchman is written in third-person whereas Mockingbird is first-person. Rather than being Scout’s story about Maycomb County, it’s a story about Scout and Maycomb County. I don’t know that it makes a lot of difference, but it is a noticeable change. Scout’s feelings and observations are told for her not by her.

I finished Mockingbird immediately prior to Watchman. There are similar passages in both books: (Cunningham vs Coningham in court) and Aunt Alexandra’s corset. There could have been others. One stark difference is Tom Robinson’s trial lost in Mockingbird is won (with some variation) as recounted in Watchman. It is the centerpiece of the former, but only a context builder in the latter. Lee was the author and could certainly use material from one draft for another finished product.

Jean Louise as an adult is easy to imagine from Scout’s rambunctious childhood. She smokes, swears profusely, and maintains her uneasy alliance with femininity. She has managed to trade her love for Dill Harris for another. Not much of a choice as Dill has taken up residence overseas and Scout has made in only as far as New York City.

Characters throughout are as richly drawn as in Mockingbird, with Finch family history expanded throughout. Dr. Jack Finch, brother to Alexandra and Atticus, plays a major role in Watchman. That character was all but eliminated from Mockingbird. Calpurnia’s family history is expanded as well. Mrs. Dubose is mentioned in passing, but a saying of hers turns up in another context.

The concern many readers have with Watchman is the portrayal of Atticus Finch as a racist. I think the concern is not necessary, and certainly should not detract from the book’s value in its own right.

Disclaimer: Though I’ve watched To Kill A Mockingbird the film 20 times or more, I’d never read it until recently. As such, I don’t have a long term love affair with the book. In my view, Atticus Finch is a literary character, subject to the whims and imagination of the author who created him. That Harper Lee used a different aspect of her own character from a book that was not being published, or recreated him altogether, is her prerogative.

The enduring success of Mockingbird has elevated Atticus as nearly a Christ-figure. As embodied by Gregory Peck, Atticus Finch was named the #1 Movie Hero of All Time by the American Film Institute. Atticus is always wise, always on the right side of the law and culture, always patient, always kind. He was clearly thus to Scout. This point is driven home in Watchman, and forms one of the major points of the story: Scout, at the age of 26, has to face the fact that her father is not perfect and never has been despite her worship of him. It’s the casting down of an idol, and the pain such an act entails, that replaces Tom Robinson’s trial as the centerpiece. That climactic moment is more powerful than anything in Mockingbird.

Related to the Atticus revelation is Alabama’s culture change in the 1960s. Maycomb County has an increasingly mobile and vocal Black population. Where Mockingbird has its racist Ewells and Cunninghams, Watchman has the Citizens’ Council with a traveling White supremacist dunderhead spewing stupidity and venom in equal measure. A later revelation has Atticus attending a Klan meeting “forty years ago,” well before Scout was born. He attended the Citizens’ Council while Scout was visiting. Atticus is not a flaming racist, hood-wearing Klansman. He, in fact, despises them as cowardly. He’s the embodiment of every “good Southern man” of his era.

Atticus’s reasons for participating in the Citizens’ Council are similar to those given by Scout’s suitor, Henry “Hank” Clinton, an up and coming lawyer under Atticus’s tutelage. It’s what they both need to do to remain part of Maycomb’s culture. They cannot affect Maycomb’s people if they aren’t involved with them at every level. She’s appalled by both of them.

Scout’s personal journey seems a rebuke to readers outside the South who would judge its ways, particularly those in the North. Lee could have as easily moved Scout to Denver or San Francisco rather than New York. If she had done so she would have lost the War Between the States connection and the tension between the North and South.

Had she been able to think, Jean Louise might have prevented events to come by considering the day’s occurrences in terms of a recurring story as old as time: the chapter which concerned her began two hundred years ago and was played out in a proud society the bloodiest war and harshest peace in modern history could not destroy, returning, to be played out again on private ground in the twilight of a civilization no wars and no peace could save.

 

Had she insight, could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind. (p 122)

Lest you miss the point totally, Scout does not suffer from protanopia.

The discussions of civil rights, the NAACP, the Supreme Court, and Maycomb County are as vivid as if the book was written last week. Watchman far surpasses Mockingbird, in my view, for taking on the complexities of the 1950s and 60s Southern mindset.

It could be one of the reasons it was not published. In my view Watchman would not have received the acclaim of Mockingbird, not because it is an inferior work, but because it is too straightforward. Mockingbird was set during the Depression. A Southern reader in 1962 could learn its lessons at arms distance. Not so with Watchman which comes at the reader like a punch in the throat. It would have been a contemporary book rather than one set decades before. Mockingbird allowed Southern readers a feeling of progress. Watchman questions whether any progress has been made and the questions any rational for thinking it has.

But, Watchman in not an out-and-out condemnation, either. Lee gives Jack and Atticus a “Lost Cause” style mythology of their own to justify their positions; it’s a mythology Scout comes do understand, while refusing to accept it.

Because of the circumstances of its publishing it is unlikely Go Set A Watchman will ever reach the lofty heights of its predecessor. This is unfortunate. It may not possess all the literary quality of Mockingbird, but had it been given the attention of a to-be-published work it could have. The writing is strong throughout, and in many places absolutely suburb. Scout, Jem and Dill’s “revival” and Scout’s interaction with the aged Calpurnia are two examples.

Go Set A Watchman is a great book. I will not commit reviewer heresy by suggesting it is better than To Kill A Mockingbird. In a moment of private confession, though, I’ll admit I enjoyed it every bit as much. It is worth the read if for no other reason than to consider how different Mockingbird might have been had Atticus Finch been as fully developed. In my view Go Set A Watchman is a far better book than the 3.5 stars on Amazon suggests.

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Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.