It’s simply impossible to read the recently published Go Set a Watchman without comparing it to Harper Lee’s only other published book, To Kill a Mockingbird. I wanted to give Lee the chance to write something completely different, and to approach it without prejudice—to understand rather than be disappointed if she did not portray the characters of Atticus, Jem, and Scout Finch, as well as Dill and Calpurnia, as I’d come to know them. I wanted to allow Lee the room to breathe, and let this enormously anticipated book take me where she wanted to go, and to let that happen as naturally as possible. Unfortunately, it was not that kind of a read.
Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set A Watchman is not a book about children coming of age. Instead, it’s the story of a twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise (Scout) returning to Maycomb, Alabama, during the civil rights era and finding it changed. Jean Louise reacts to the knowledge that her father, and perhaps our idealized father, Atticus, is not the same man she remembers and she investigates the ideas of other adults she’s known since childhood—Aunt Alexandra, Uncle Jack, and Calpurnia. Watchman also surprises (spoiler alert!) with the death of Jem, Scout’s beloved brother. (Having Jem die was a shock; I felt like someone I knew intimately had been erased from the universe.)
The major conflict of the book comes when Jean Louise hears about the all-male Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, to which both Atticus and a new character, her love interest Henry (Hank) Clinton, belong. Like Scout in Mockingbird, she sneaks into the top balcony of the courthouse and watches all of Maycomb’s finest men listen to “a God-fearing man just like any ordinary man, who had quit his job to devote his full time to the preservation of segregation.” Jean Louise, watching Hank and (even worse) Atticus listen to the racist rant, grows physically ill with the realization that everyone around her is dead, damaged, or deliberately racist.
Hank is said to come from “trash,” but as a boy Atticus took him in hand and raised him to be a “good” man. He served in WWII, used the GI Bill to study law, and went back to Maycomb to work with Atticus. Hank is more of a fictional device than a fully developed character, however Lee inserts him, sometimes clumsily, into Jean Louise’s childhood and adolescent memories. Lee also uses Hank to represent the “new” South: post-WWII energy coupled with a desire to achieve the American Dream despite the constraints of one’s birthplace.
Hank claims to be in love with Jean Louise and wants to marry her. However, Aunt Alexandra still sees him as “trash,” again bringing up the theme of class. Hank has overcome his humble beginnings, but, counterintuitively, he doesn’t want African Americans to “rise above their station.” He clearly explains to Scout that he must be on the Citizens’ Council, comparing it to something like the Kiwanis Club with the theme being “justice delayed” for the black citizens of Maycomb County and the South in general. Hank argues that his background is so weak, he has to do what everyone else does or he’ll be ostracized. But he also reminds Jean Louise (and the reader) that he’d rather not be in economic competition with the black community. Throughout the book, NAACP lawyers are vilified, and Atticus and Hank try to keep them out of Maycomb as best they can.
Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack also take up major roles in the novel. The former still does not approve of Jean Louise for consistently shedding the conventions of a Southern belle. Still, Alexandra throws a “coffee” for her, inviting every proper young woman between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. Again, Jean Louise finds herself bored in this company. The younger women mis-repeat what their husbands say about racism, segregation, and communism. The older set discusses the wet diapers and snotty noses of their collective children. Jean Louise, with Hank on her mind, genuinely asks herself if she could do this, if she could become a part of Maycomb’s league of proper Southern women. She vaguely suffers through the morning, as a resplendent Aunt Alexandra enjoys entertaining and showing off her niece. Though Jean Louise often doubts herself, in this situation she does not. “If we married—if I married anyone from this town—these would be my friends and I couldn’t think of a thing to say to them,” she says. “It takes a lot of what I don’t have to be a member of this wedding.”
There is surprisingly little of Atticus in the novel. He functions as more of an ethereal figure, represented as larger than life, filling Jean Louise with blessed memories, fears, and sometimes rage. When she finally confronts Atticus, they argue about racism—though it’s not completely satisfying for the reader or for the protagonist. Jean Louise agrees that as a Southerner, she was angry when the U.S. Supreme Court overruled “state’s rights” to desegregate the South. But her argument becomes loose and unfocused as Atticus argues the paternalistic view that “negroes” are “backward,” and “when they vote, they vote in blocs.” He also asks her if she’s 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.” So, there you have it. Atticus Finch, the best father in literature of the twentieth century, our moral compass, fictional champion of the civil rights movement, and the character who taught so many of us to “do what’s right even when you know you’re licked,” is, himself, racist. He even joined the Ku Klux Klan once, stating he wanted to know who was behind the white masks.
So, if there’s any question as to why Harper Lee postponed the publication of this book for so very long, it’s probably because she didn’t want to topple the marble statue of Atticus Finch. Instead of seeing him in this unbecoming and unseemly fashion, perhaps she wanted the world to remember Atticus as he was in To Kill A Mockingbird (and in Gregory Peck’s film portrayal): a southern gentleman and patient father, honorable to all.
Perhaps Lee wanted to touch a nerve. Because there is something in this novel, though it takes place in the 1960s, that feels very contemporary. Today, we are surrounded by #blacklivesmatter, mass shootings, executions on YouTube, and presidential candidates lobbying against immigrants, women’s rights, and the middle class. Does anyone other than Jean Louise Finch lobby for the enfranchisement of anyone other than the 1 percent? As the United States struggles with its radical forms of racism, sexism, and class division, maybe Lee wants the reader to calmly consider the arguments of “the other”—the activist, the feminist, the prejudiced, and even the atheist.
The title of Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman, comes from a Bible verse in the book of Isaiah that states: “For thus has the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” It’s clear that Jean Louise has become a watchman (or watchwoman), despite the fact everyone around her says she doesn’t “see.” Even Uncle Jack, near the end of the novel, admits that, “every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious [sic].”
So, we are left with another puzzle: What is in our conscience? Who is our watchman? And are we civilized enough to have a “collective conscience” in the wild, noisy, and dangerous world we now inhabit?