Go Set a Watchman

By Harper Lee

(HarperCollins, $27.99, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Harper Lee, who is now 89, won a Pulitzer Prize for her iconic 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which also won her a permanent place in the hearts of American readers and various lists of classic American books. A 1999 poll by Library Journal named it the Best Novel of the Century and her work earned Lee (whose first name is Nelle) a Presidential Medal of Freedom. As a child, she was a close friend of writer Truman Capote, who was the inspiration for the character Dill in Mockingbird. A descendant of Robert E. Lee and daughter of a lawyer, newspaper editor and state senator in Alabama, Harper Lee wrote one of the most influential novels on race relations in the past century and her book shaped the understanding of its complexities for readers of the Baby Boom generation. Always one to shun publicity, and for years a resident of a nursing home, Lee was thrust back into the literary spotlight this year with the publication of Go Set a Watchman, written in the mid-1950s, before Mockingbird, and never published. It portrays the heretofore-considered saintly Atticus Finch in a much harsher light, and some maintain it was published against her will and ought never to have been.

What is this book about?

Go Set a Watchman, written in the mid-1950s, was Harper Lee’s first attempt at telling the saga of Scout and Jem Finch and their father, Atticus, a small-town Southern lawyer who unexpectedly defends a falsely accused black man. But this manuscript was rejected by her publisher, and Lee later reworked the material to produce Mockingbird.  In Watchman, Scout, now using her given name Jean Louise, is in her 20s and returns from New York to Maycomb, Alabama,  to visit Atticus, at a time when the civil rights movement was beginning to alter America’s beliefs and behavior concerning racial disparities. Jean Louise must confront unpleasant revelations about her father and his political views and question her own values in this troubling but intriguing tale.

Why you’ll like it:

In all honesty, you may not like it at all, if you feel it spoils your affection for To Kill a Mockingbird. And you may be troubled by news reports of the machinations of Lee’s lawyer, who brought the old manuscript to light, perhaps without Lee’s explicit approval, and troubled further by being forced to see the saintly Atticus in a new light. Reviewers are split, but some praise the book for its exploration of the fraught issues of race relations in America, as well as for its wit and graceful writing.  If you loved Mockingbird, curiosity alone should propel you to read this prequel that has become a sequel.

What others are saying:

The San Francisco Chronicle says: “Go Set a Watchman’s greatest asset may be its role in sparking frank discussion about America’s woeful track record when it comes to racial equality.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “The editor who rejected Lee’s first effort had the right idea. The novel the world has been waiting for is clearly the work of a novice, with poor characterization (how did the beloved Scout grow up to be such a preachy bore, even as she serves as the book’s moral compass?), lengthy exposition, and ultimately not much story, unless you consider Scout thinking she’s pregnant because she was French-kissed or her losing her falsies at the school dance compelling. The book opens in the 1950s with Jean Louise, a grown-up 26-year-old Scout, returning to Maycomb from New York, where she’s been living as an independent woman. Jean Louise is there to see Atticus, now in his seventies and debilitated by arthritis. She arrives in a town bristling from the NAACP’s actions to desegregate the schools. Her aunt Zandra, the classic Southern gentlewoman, berates Jean Louise for wearing slacks and for considering her longtime friend and Atticus protégé Henry Clinton as a potential husband—Zandra dubs him trash. But the crux of the book is that Atticus and Henry are racist, as is everyone else in Jean Louise’s old life (even her childhood caretaker, Calpurnia, sees the white folks as the enemy). The presentation of the South pushing back against the dictates of the Federal government, utilizing characters from a book that was about justice prevailing in the South through the efforts of an unambiguous hero, is a worthy endeavor. Lee just doesn’t do the job with any aplomb. The theme of the book is basically about not being able to go home again, as Jean Louise sums it up in her confrontation with Atticus: “there’s no place for me anymore in Maycomb, and I’ll never be entirely at home anywhere else.” As a picture of the desegregating South, the novel is interesting but heavy-handed, with harsh language and rough sentiments: “Do you want them in our world?” Atticus asks his daughter. The temptation to publish another Lee novel was undoubtedly great, but it’s a little like finding out there’s no Santa Claus.

Library Journal says:  “As every reader knows, Lee’s second novel, from which her iconic To Kill a Mockingbird was spun 55 years ago, has just been published by Harper with considerable excitement and some still-shifting uncertainty, as reported by the New York Times, about how the manuscript was rediscovered. Lee’s original work has feisty 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout as a child and the basis for Mockingbird’s beloved heroine, returning home from New York to Maycomb Junction, AL, post-Brown v. Board of Education and encountering strongly resistant states’-rights, anti-integrationist forces that include boyfriend Henry and, significantly, her father, Atticus Finch, Mockingbird’s moral center. Readers shocked by that revelation must remember that there are now two Atticus Finches; the work in hand is not a sequel but served as source material for Lee’s eventual Pulitzer Prize winner, with such reworked characters a natural part of the writing and editing processes. Even if one can imagine that the seeds of the older Atticus are there in the younger Atticus—and that’s possible—these are different characters and different books. More significantly, the current work stands as you-are-there documentation of a specific time and place, contextualizing both Mockingbird and the very beginnings of the civil rights movement, and for that reason alone it’s invaluable and recommended reading. Mockingbird’s Atticus was right for 1960, just after the Little Rock integration crisis, with his defense of a wrongly accused African American making him a moral beacon and a lesson for all. Yet for many readers, even those who love and admire Mockingbird, it also smacked of white self-congratulation, and the current book is a rawer, more authentic representation of Southern sentiment at a tumultuous time, years removed from the solidly (and safely) segregationist era of Mockingbird. If Watchman is occasionally digressive or a bit much of a lecture, it’s good enough to make one wish that Lee had written a dozen works. It’s also a breathtaking read that will have the reader actively engaged and arguing with every character, including Jean Louise. In the end, despite Jean Louise’s powerful articulation that the court had to rule as it did, that “we [whites] deserve everything we’ve gotten from the NAACP,” and that Negroes (as the novel says) will rise and should rise, it’s unsettling and, yes, disappointing that the confrontation between Jean Louise and Atticus is ultimately an engineered effort to make her stand up for herself and stop worshipping her father. That’s not quite believable, and what’s right gets a little lost in states’ rights, which Jean Louise herself supports. At least she doesn’t run back to New York, but did she really win her argument? The ugly things she hears around her are still being said today. VERDICT Disturbing, important, and not to be compared with Mockingbird; this book is its own signal work.”

Kirkus Reviews says:  “The long-awaited, much-discussed sequel that might have been a prequel—and that makes tolerably good company for its classic predecessor. It’s not To Kill a Mockingbird, and it too often reads like a first draft, but Lee’s story nonetheless has weight and gravity. Scout—that is, Miss Jean Louise Finch—has been living in New York for years. As the story opens, she’s on the way back to Maycomb, Alabama, wearing “gray slacks, a black sleeveless blouse, white socks, and loafers,” an outfit calculated to offend her prim and proper aunt. The time is pre-Kennedy; in an early sighting, Atticus Finch, square-jawed crusader for justice, is glaring at a book about Alger Hiss. But is Atticus really on the side of justice? As Scout wanders from porch to porch and parlor to parlor on both the black and white sides of the tracks, she hears stories that complicate her—and our—understanding of her father. To modern eyes, Atticus harbors racist sentiments: “Jean Louise,” he says in one exchange, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?” Though Scout is shocked by Atticus’ pronouncements that African-Americans are not yet prepared to enjoy full civil rights, her father is far less a Strom Thurmond-school segregationist than an old-school conservative of evolving views, “a healthy old man with a constitutional mistrust of paternalism and government in large doses,” as her uncle puts it. Perhaps the real revelation is that Scout is sometimes unpleasant and often unpleasantly confrontational, as a young person among oldsters can be. Lee, who is plainly on the side of equality, writes of class, religion, and race, but most affectingly of the clash of generations and traditions, with an Atticus tolerant and approving of Scout’s reformist ways: “I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right—stand up to me first of all.” It’s not To Kill a Mockingbird, yes, but it’s very much worth reading.”

Says the Los Angeles Times: “Don’t let ‘Go Set a Watchman’ change the way you think about Atticus Finch…the hard truth is that a man such as Atticus, born barely a decade after Reconstruction to a family of Southern gentry, would have had a complicated and tortuous history with race.”

Says the Washington Post:

“A significant aspect of this novel is that it asks us to see Atticus now not merely as a hero, a god, but as a flesh-and-blood man with shortcomings and moral failing, enabling us to see ourselves for all our complexities and contradictions.”

When is it available?

This controversial novel is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Camp Field, Dwight, Mark Twain and Park branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.