Go Set a Watchman is no To Kill a Mockingbird




By Harper Lee

HarperCollins, 278 pages.

★★ ½


I didn’t rush to read Go Set a Watchman. The initial reviews were damning, though they gave way to others declaring it a brilliant lost gem. Which is it? In my estimation, neither. I’d call it a prosaic effort that wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day had not Harper Lee (1926-2016) published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960.


Go Set a Watchman is an oddity in Lee’s total output of two novels. It was supposed to be her first novel. She penned it around 1957, began revisions, and then locked it away. To Kill a Mockingbird went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a hit movie in 1962 that won three Academy Awards. Lee either never got around to finishing revisions of Go Set a Watchman, or deemed it beyond repair. It was thought to be lost until it surfaced in a lockbox and, in 2015, Lee was persuaded to allow its publication. This was controversial, as some critics alleged elder abuse on the part of Lee’s conservators.


It’s a pointless debate given that the novel was ultimately released. What we have is a first book sequel to a book that was released before it– a sequel to a prequel, if you will. If only that were the most problematic thing about it. Before diving into this, a quick note on the title. It’s from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah: “Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” (It’s from Chapter 21 and the next line gave rise to a famed song: “Babylon Has Fallen.”)


In Go Set a Watchman Jean Louise Finch (“Scout”) is a 26-year-old woman who has been living in New York City. Each year she spends two weeks with her father, Atticus, in Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus is now 72 and slowing down a bit. He still has his law practice, but most of the work has been turned over to his protégé, Henry “Hank” Clinton, who comes from a humble background, but is seen by Jean Louise as the man she’ll probably marry. Her brother Jem is dead from the same weak heart that killed their mother and their African American maid Calpurnia has retired.


One wonders if Lee was channeling Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again. Jean Louise is a young woman who is too Southern for New York and too New York for Alabama. She loves Atticus, her Uncle Jack, and her Aunt Alexandra, but the latter two drive her batty. The learned Jack, a retired doctor, tells circuitous stories and utters remarks obscure even by his standards and the heavily corseted Alexandra is obsessed with propriety, religion, and getting Jean Louise married off. She’d be okay with the latter, but New York has made her too independent for the traditional role expected of her, she’s not at all sure she wants to move back to Maycomb, and Hank wants to stay. Gossip seems to follow Jean Louise around like a shadow. Go Set a Watchman is at its best in revealing Alabama as a time warp challenged by post-World War II social changes.


The novel’s crisis comes from those changes. When Calpurnia’s grandson runs over an elderly drunken pedestrian, it scarcely matters that it’s not his fault. The accident reveals racial fault lines in the Deep South just a few years removed from Brown v. the Board of Education. Suffice it to say, the NAACP is not popular among Maycomb whites and African Americans are beginning to sluff off their subordinated skin and with it the fiction of easygoing racial relations.


Social friction gives way to personal trauma when Jean Louise catches wind a meeting of the all-white Citizen’s Council and finds that both Hank and Atticus are members of it and the Ku Klux Klan. She is outraged and explodes at each of them. The open question is whether they are infiltrators or collaborators. Uncle Jack helps bring the book to what I’d call a compromised conclusion that certainly will not please those weaned in the age of wokeness.


The last point aside, Go Set a Watchman is a wildly uneven novel that reads like what it probably was: an insufficiently revised work. Numerous To Kill a Mockingbird devotees expressed their displeasure at the depiction of Atticus Finch, whose morality is at best ambiguous in Go Set a Watchman. Other detractors have called the novel an apologetics for whiteness, though one could just as easily make a case that it is a more realistic portrait of race than one gets from To Kill a Mockingbird. I hold the view that it’s simply a subpar book.


Rob Weir

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