Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

Nelle Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee was born noticing the content of a person’s character rather than the color of their skin.  It wasn’t a welcome attitude in her small hometown in rural Monroe County, Alabama ~ especially for a descendant of Robert E. Lee:

You’re color blind, Jean Louise. . .The only differences you see between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character. . .race is the burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially.  You see only people.


I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell
with the reactions to Watchman.
– Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman, which was published yesterday, is Harper Lee’s first book.  Her publisher knew the public in 1957 wasn’t ready for her enlightened point of view or nuanced study of racial prejudice.  She was encouraged to rewrite the book from the point of view of a child.  It took her two years to complete the task.

To Kill a Mockingbird was the idealized, fairly-tale book the public would buy in 1960 which was the beginning of the Age of Camelot.  We were thirsty for heroes who were larger than life.  The book won a Pulitzer, and the movie won three Academy Awards.  It earns Ms. Lee about $3 million/year in royalties.

Scout and Atticus Finch

Scout and Atticus Finch

If you just learn a single trick, Scout,
you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks.
You never really understand a person until
you consider things from his point of view.
Until you climb inside of his skin and
walk around in it.

In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is forced to jettison her childish belief that her father Atticus is a fearless champion for racial equality and to develop empathy for a man ~ who like all of us ~ has feet of clay.  It doesn’t go down easy, and she needs a whiskey assist along with a brutal reality check from her eccentric uncle, Dr. John “Jack” Hale Finch, an orthopedist who practiced in Nashville and made a pile of money playing the stock market.

Dr. Finch retired early to study literature.  He confessed to Jean Louise that he had been in love with her late mother and considered his brother’s children as his “dream-children.”  When I was a kid, people were fond of self-righteously saying that someone with a different point of view needed “some sense knocked into” them.

After Uncle Jack hit his niece twice to wake her up to the fact that she didn’t really know her father, he decided he “deserved” some whiskey.  The scene upset the hell out of me before I realized I was receiving a tremendous lesson about the misogynistic. bigoted manipulations of tyrannical, patriarchal, arrogant, small town narcissists.

Nelle Harper and her father Amasa Coleman Lee in 1961

Nelle Harper and her father Amasa Coleman Lee in 1961

Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?
No.  She had not.  She was terrified.
– Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

The last chapters of the book are a powerfully compressed crescendo.  Uncle Jack manipulates Jean Louise into believing that she ~ not Atticus ~ is a “turnip-sized bigot.”  She reaches for the dictionary and challenges her uncle to a debate on bigotry, racism, and prejudice:

Noun.  One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion. . .

What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions?  He doesn’t give.  He stays rigid.  Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out.

Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird

Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird

He’ll always do it by the letter and
by the spirit of the law.
That’s the way he lives.
– Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

Uncle Jack then spins the debate into a lecture on the “tom-toms the white supremacists beat” which is as true today as it was in 1957:

The white supremacists are really pretty smart.  If they can’t scare us with the essential inferiority line, they’ll wrap it in a miasma of sex. . .feared in our fundamentalist hearts. . .try to strike terror in Southern mothers. . .white supremacists fear reason. . .cold reason beats them.

Throughout the book, Jean Louise struggles to comprehend post-Civil War racism:

Not much more than five per cent of the South’s population ever saw a slave, much less owned one.  Now, something must have irritated the other ninety-five per cent.

Harper Lee in Monroeville, AL in 1961

Harper Lee in Monroeville, AL in 1961

When you write a hit like [To Kill a Mockingbird],
you can’t go anywhere but down.
I said what I had to say.
– Harper Lee

The book’s title springs from Isaiah 23:6:

Go, set a watchman on the city wall to shout out what he sees.

The watchman is a person’s moral compass or conscience.  The title brilliantly evokes the perceived attacks states’ rights segregationists felt post-Brown v. Board of Education and mounting NAACP victories in federal courts.  It also speaks to hallmarks of maturity:  empathy, integrity, and strength of character.  Uncle Jack tells Scout it is time to grow the hell up and jettison her idealized perception of her father:

. . .now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s.  As you grew up. . .you confused your father with God.  You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings. . .he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em. . .You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him. . .

When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience ~ your conscience ~ you literally could not stand it.  It made you physically ill.

Nelle Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee

Not just no, but hell no.
– Harper Lee’s response to requests for interviews

I’m not entirely certain the world is ready for Go Set a Watchman.  I read the book on the 10th anniversary of my own narcissistic father’s death.  In a sense, like a prodigal daughter, I too returned to my roots in Monroe County, IL.  I don’t recall To Kill a Mockingbird being on any school reading list.  This doesn’t surprise me because my hometown was as bigoted and as parochial as Monroe County, AL.

Alexandra Finch Hancock, Jean Louise’s corseted aunt, is very familiar to me.  Her social dictates and imperious attitudes are the bane of many young women’s existence.  Oh, how I would love to say:

Aunty, why don’t you go pee in your hat?

Alexandra thinks Henry Clinton, who is an associate in Atticus’ law firm, is white trash unworthy of her niece’s hand.

Harper Lee receiving the Medal of Freedom

Harper Lee receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 5, 2007

He has everything but breeding. . .
he sits nursing his hangover of hatred.
– Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

The white trash theme is woven into a debate between Uncle Jack and Jean Louise about prejudice:

[Confederate soldiers] fought to preserve their identity. . .

That’s been over for a ~ nearly a hundred years, sir. . .

Has it really?. . .The remnants of that little army had children ~ God, how they multiplied. . .Reconstruction. . .was no more than slavery. . .They were ground into the dirt and up they popped.  Up popped Tobacco Road. . .white man who lived in open economic competition with freed Negroes.

For years and years all that man thought he had that made him any better than his black brothers was the color of his skin. . .just as dirty, he smelled just as bad, he was just as poor. . .

The have-nots have risen and have demanded and received their due ~ sometimes more than their due.  The haves are restricted from getting more.

HL Quote
History is repeating itself. . .
history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.

– Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

Jean Louise falls out of love with her father Atticus as well as her beau Henry Clinton when she discovers them plotting segregationist strategies.  She calls Atticus a coward, snob, and tyrant and tells Henry it is time for him to be a real man.  She lashes out with sentiments that are as true today as when the book was written:

They’re people, aren’t they?  We were quite willing to import them when they made money for us. . .

They’re entitled to the same opportunities. . .the same chance.

. . .you better go warn your younger friends that if they want to preserve Our Way of Life, it begins at home. . .

You deny that they’re human.  You deny them hope. . .

Producer Alan J. Pakula and Harper Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird

Producer Alan J. Pakula and Harper Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird

You are telling them that Jesus loves them, but not much. . .you can not use people as your pawns. . .You just try to kill their souls instead of their bodies. . .

Have you ever been snubbed Atticus?  Do you know how it feels?

. . .A really good snub, Atticus, makes you feel like you’re too nasty to associate with people.

1966, Holcomb, Kansas --- Truman Capote signing copies of his book  with Harper Lee.  Capote and Lee are in Kansas during  the making of the film of the same name.   --- Image by © Steve Schapiro/Corbis

1966, Holcomb, Kansas — Truman Capote signing copies of his book with Harper Lee. Capote and Lee were in Kansas during the making of the film of the same name. — Image by © Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Truman Capote and Harper Lee were childhood friends.  He helped her secure funding to write To Kill a Mockingbird, and she helped with the research on his book In Cold Blood.  He appears again in Go Set a Watchman as the vagabond Charles Baker “Dill” Harris.
Go Set a Watchman bristles as much with sexism as it does racism.  Back in the day, Ms. Lee’s accomplishments were not perceived to be as great as her dear friend Mr. Capote’s.  I was surprised today to discover that she studied law and attended Oxford.

My hope is that one day we will all be color blind.  My hope is that we will see each other as equals in God’s eyes.  It is the only route to peace.

Harper Lee

Related links and post:

Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” by Randall Kennedy, New York Times review, 7/14/15

It will upset some readers, but this new Mockingbird has sharp lessons about race today: From the best-selling author of Chocolat, first full review of ‘Go Set A Watchman’, the book everyone’s talking about, by Joanne Harris, Daily Mail, 7/13/15

Book Review:  To Kill a Mockingbird, 7/17/15

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