Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman
© 2015 Harper Lee
288 pages

When it was announced that Harper Lee had published a sequel to her legendary book, Go Set a Watchman,  I was skeptical, as were many.  Given how close its author was to death,  the book’s sudden ‘discovery’ and publication appeared to be nothing more than rank opportunism from her lawyer. A recent lecture by Dr. Wayne Flynt, an Alabama historian who was friends with Lee for years prior to her death,  piqued my curiosity in the title: even if Lee didn’t initiate its late publication, Flynt indicated that she didn’t fight it, either. The moral questions explored in the book were interesting enough that I wanted to read it,  doubts about its legitimacy aside.   Although continuity issues discredit it from being regarded as a proper sequel,  Watchman is nonetheless thought provoking.

As most readers know, To Kill a Mockingbird was a racial & legal drama about a socially prominent southern attorney defending a black man accused of raping a young white woman,  going against the demands of respectability and squaring off against his peers and a would-be lynch mob for the sake of his conscience.  That man, Atticus Finch, became a moral icon, idealized by his young daughter Jean Louise, or ‘Scout’.In Go Set a Watchman, however, young Scout is older: Jean Louise has reached early adulthood, that charming period where the confidence of adolescence hasn’t yet been tempered by the burden of time and experience, and she has returned home for a two-week visit with her family and her part-time beau.  Jean Louise finds her hometown altered from her youth: the Civil Rights movement is sweeping the nation,  disrupting the old order and making tension in town palpable. She’s at first confused and distressed to experience cold distrust from blacks she’s known all of her life, but outright horrified when she finds her father Atticus and her suitor Hank attending a meeting of the White Citizens Council – the upright and respectable  sitting side by side of sleazy, corrupt demagogues. To see Atticus keeping company with that ilk, to see him giving an ear to the cause of resistant segregation –  voicing a distrust of a community he now viewed as Other even though he once defended the common humanity of all – breaks Jean Louise’s heart and destroys her world.  If her father, the paragon of virtue, could be compromised, what was left?

If Go Set a Watchman were merely a book about a young idealist discovering that her father is guilty of being human and preaching to him about the virtues he’s apparently forgotten, it would be sanctimonious and boring.  Instead, we find characters who are all riven with conflict. Scout fled Maycomb, but retains attachment to the world she knew: she’s dismayed to learn of property sold, of church hymns changed, and of the muted antagonism she witnesses between her town’s people, black and white.  In her great confrontation with her father,  she expresses her own reservations about the recent court decision (Brown vs. Board) on constitutional grounds –  reservations that make her father chuckle, for he declares she makes him look like a Roosevelt democrat by comparison.  Their shared attachment to what they know, though, and their shared concern over the steadily-ballooning power of DC only go so far.   Jean Louise has been absent from Maycomb and has no idea what’s been happening in the community, and neither she nor the reader are given details about the recent trouble — we only witness fragments of hostility. Whatever has been happening is enough to make Atticus and his brother Dr. Finch staunch opponents of the new activism, which they see as nothing more than the creation of outside pressure groups creating unnecessary strife. They’re particularly opposed to the insertion of the Federal government into local matters, which to them matters more than race, more than peace, or even a good name. It’s the reason that when Scout releases a sailor’s vocabulary of condemnation against her father that he sits peaceably and doesn’t twitch an eye: he can tolerate any kind of name-calling, he says afterwards, so long as it’s not true. He for one is square with his conscience. Although Scout and the reader may be prepared (or resigned) to dismiss the Finches as bigots, the back and forth arguments that constitute the second half of the book indicate that the truth is more complicated than reaction and impulse will admit.

Go Set a Watchman is a compelling book, though it’s unfinished; it begins in story then switches purely to back and forth dialogue, and there are details missing that make trying to understand Atticus’s obstinence more difficult. Whether the reader will find it worth reading varies on the reader: I was drawn in by the tension of a good man having to make stands in a more murky moral area — resisting good causes being advanced through bad means, for instance. While it’s very easy for contemporary people to assert that had they been living back then, they would have made The Right Choice, that’s extremely unlikely — and would have made for a much less interesting story. Personally, Watchman was worth reading just for the character of Dr. Finch, who in retirement has retreated into the Victorian era and is a perfect southern eccentric. It helps to know something of the novel’s history before reading it, though — the fact that it was Lee’s first idea for a novel, and that she was advised to refine the story to better advance its moral arguments. The result was To Kill a Mockingbird, which has inspired people for decades. It’s neither a prequel nor a sequel, but an interesting look into Harper Lee’s attempt to come to terms with the conflict between her community’s values as espoused and those same values as practiced.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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