Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman coverBook Title: Go Set a Watchman

Author: Harper Lee

Year Published: 2015 (written in the 1950s)

Publisher: HarperCollins

Rating: 4/5

Go Set a Watchman is Harper Lee’s recently published first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer, found the manuscript in a safe-deposit box in Lee’s hometown. Since Harper Lee is now 89 years old and living in an assisted living facility, there was a lot of suspicion surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Harper Lee had always avoided addressing the public and maintained up until recently that she would never publish another book. It seems like a cash-grab by the publisher to try to sell a first draft of a classic novel as a sequel, but it’s hard to know how Harper Lee feels about it. In the HarperCollins press release, Lee is quoted as saying: “After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.” However, this quote could be spurious, since it’s in a press release written to sell the book. In any case, I really enjoyed the book. It feels like a more grown-up, darker, rougher-edged version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and while it’s not a masterpiece like the edited version, it still has the same sense of humor and heart that To Kill a Mockingbird does.

Scout (now called by her given name, Jean Louise) comes home from studying law in New York to her Southern hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. The story is written and set in the 1950s shortly after the passage of Brown v. Board of Education (I’m still not clear how Jean Louise feels about BvB – she definitely believes black people and white people should have equal rights, but when Atticus asks her directly what she thinks of the decision, she denounces it as a violation of the 10th Amendment, which guarantees states’ rights, so she thinks that the Federal government shouldn’t be allowed to tell the South to desegregate its schools). Jean Louise is disgusted to find that everyone in Maycomb, including her father Atticus who she idolized, is extremely racist. The main conflict in the novel (there isn’t really a plot, per se) is Jean Louise trying and failing to reconcile her egalitarian morality with the white supremacist beliefs she encounters in the South. The narrative is interspersed with funny anecdotes about Jean Louise’s childhood, and it was these anecdotes that the editor asked Lee to expand on in To Kill a Mockingbird. The flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood are some of the best parts of the book, and they take part when Jean Louise is going through puberty, so I’m assuming they weren’t in Mockingbird, since Scout was six years old then (I haven’t read Mockingbird since 8th grade). So, I’m pretty glad that the stories about lost push-up bras, first kisses, and hilarious misconceptions about sex (apparently sex ed didn’t exist yet… or at least not in Alabama) got to see the light of day.

The rest of it, though, is honestly not that great. The statements that the book makes are so veiled in euphemism that they come out muddled. Jean Louise seems really against everything that people around her are saying, but at the end she kind of turns tail and realizes she still loves her dad, even if he’s a racist. Jean Louise’s character is so vigorous full of bluster that I never thought she could be talked into accepting her society, but I guess that’s what happened to Harper Lee seeing as she lived the rest of her life in Monroeville, the town in which she set Scout/Jean Louise’s story. It’s a little disappointing that fiction stayed so close to fact, but that is essentially the difference between Mockingbird and Watchman – Mockingbird shines with moral strength, while Watchman harbors a more bitter reality.

Watchman contains a handful of brand new characters – Jean Louise’s Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack, and Hank, whom Scout has been dating on-and-off since she was a teenager. Henry wants to get married but Scout doesn’t feel she’s the marrying type; she’s a tomboy and doesn’t like the idea of being subservient to a husband. It takes her a while to break it off with him, because she has a hard time letting go of her childhood, but eventually she does. Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack, on the other hand, are relics of the Victorian Era: Alexandra always wears a corset and Jack is obsessed with Victorian literature. They’re both really amusing; Alexandra with her prudishness and Jack with his verbal discombobulation. Lee’s portrayal of them reminds me of the parents in Heathers, well-meaning, but out of step with the present day.

One of my favorite scenes in the book is this exchange between Scout and Alexandra:

“Aunty, when Hank comes tonight tell him I’m… indisposed.”


She could not stand there another minute. ”Yes, Aunty. I’m gonna do what every Christian young white fresh Southern virgin does when she’s indisposed.”

“And what might that be?”

“I’m takin’ to my bed.”

This line just encapsulates the sense of privilege and graceful laziness of Southern Belles so well. Jean Louise both is and is not a Southern Belle: she grew up white and wealthy and doesn’t have much awareness of her privilege (as in the scene where she dismisses Hank’s claim that the town doesn’t judge her as harshly as they do him because he grew up poor, or when she doesn’t understand why Calpurnia is cold with her now that she’s not being paid to take care of her), but she also wants those same privileges for everyone else. She has a strong sense of justice, but it’s a blind sense of justice, like her father’s, and in the end she turns out to be over-concerned with laws and compromise.

Jean Louise is a lot like current social justice warriors. She’s in her 20s, she’s gone to a liberal city for college, and she’s pretty strident about her beliefs and horrified when she sees her principles being broken. She’s shocked by what her old friends say about black people and the NAACP at the coffee her aunt throws for her, and she doesn’t know whether to speak out against them or just let them keep regurgitating their husbands’ opinions. She goes to her Uncle Jack to complain about her father’s silence at the town hall meeting and he calls her a “turnip-sized bigot” because she refuses to see the other side of the argument (whether the other side of the argument is valid is debatable, but Jean Louis hadn’t considered it up until that point). Uncle Jack and Atticus don’t see racial inequality as something that the government should address. They see the BvBE decision as the federal government imposing Northern social mores onto the Southern states as law. They’re opposed to welfare, reparations, and acknowledgement of institutionalized racism. As Jack succinctly puts it, “a man can go as far as his brains can take him or he can go to hell if he wants to.” It’s the same political debate Aristotelians and Platonic idealists, Republicans and socialists/communists have been having forever. How much power should the government have? How can we create a system that doesn’t unfairly disadvantage women or minorities without limiting the majority’s ability to achieve their happiness?

In the end, I think Go Set a Watchman is an especially timely read now, considering all that’s going on in Missouri and for the past couple of years. 2015 has been a year that really reminds us that there is a lot of discussion and work left to do to make America a fair and equitable country. It’s especially interesting that we have a black candidate, Ben Carson, running on the Republican ticket. He’s opposed to welfare for individuals and does not believe that race in 2015 is a factor holding people back from achieving success (and he is a model of this as a black neurosurgeon). On the other side, there’s Bernie Sanders, an old white man who supports Black Lives Matter and whose platform is very close to the philosophy of Occupy Wall Street. It’s good that race does not define either of these candidates, but there’s something that invites a little more scrutiny about both of them. Is Bernie pandering to white liberal voters and condescending to black people with his support of government handouts and Black Lives Matter? Is Ben Carson pandering to white Republicans, lending his image and aura of respectability to policies that will hurt the poor and people of his race? I don’t have an answer now because I don’t have a great grasp on economics or what specifically will help poor or black people, but as you can see this is a very complicated issue and it’s hard to clearly mark out each candidate’s goals and motivations when there’s strong possibility that they may be trying to appear as something they’re not (although they both seem quite a bit more trustworthy than Hillary Clinton, who changes her positions according to the dominant thought of the Democratic Party… which I guess makes a good representative but it belies a lack of integrity).

Let me get off of political digressions and back to Watchman: what is the watchman in the title referring to? It comes from this passage in Isiah: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth” (21:6). Jean Louise says she needs a watchman:

“I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference.”

In this day and age, I can certainly agree with her. It would be nice to sit back and have a watchman tell us what to believe, but in reality, we have to figure these things out for ourselves. We’re better equipped than ever to do our own research and come to our own conclusions. Smartphones and social media have given people an outlet to show the world their realities and draw attention to issues that the conventional media would ignore or dismiss. In 2015, being a citizen of the world means being your own watchman. Go Set a Watchman highlights beautifully that all external Atticuses are incomplete and we have to clean out our own attics-s and keep them clear of both ideology and prejudice so that we can let new insights in.


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