Go Set a Watchman
by harper lee
harpercollins, 288 pages, $27.99
It might be the greatest American literary controversy of recent years: In summer 2015, millions of excited readers discovered to their great dismay ugly racial elements in Harper Lee’s new/old novel, Go Set a Watchman. But this tempest in a book-bag will finally do nothing to undermine the lasting popularity, literary worth, and cultural importance of the book for which she will always be best known, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Of course, Watchman isn’t a new novel, but something of an earlier version of Mockingbird that Lee first submitted to publishers in the mid-1950s. Here, the noble Atticus is an aging lawyer who openly associates with the crude and racist men of the town. Whereas in Mockingbird he opposed the bigots, in Watchman he joins them as they organize to resist the implementation of desegregation policies in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. His daughter, Scout, now in her mid-twenties and visiting home from her erstwhile and vaguely described life in New York, finds Atticus at a meeting where a professional scaremonger warns the sympathetic audience that their concern is “not the question of whether snot-nosed niggers will go to school with your children or ride in the front of the bus . . . it’s whether . . . we will be slaves of the Communists” and “nigger lawyers.”
Lovers of Mockingbird were shocked at the fall of one of American literary history’s moral heroes. But I think there was more to their dismay than that. In Mockingbird, the action passes through the eyes of young Scout, whose confusion over the case and rising admiration for her father combine just the right amounts of innocence and awareness. In the courtroom, Scout watches Jem grip the rail in front of him, his hands tensing with every “Guilty” decision read out from the jury at the conclusion of the trial of Tom Robinson. A great writer notices those human details and renders them in a way that remains memorable long after their plot catalysts are forgotten. There are no such striking details in the town meeting sequence in Watchman. All of the noisy speechifying seems a mere pretext for the grown-up Scout’s emotional grandstanding.
After witnessing Atticus countenance so much demagoguery, she is left reeling: “The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, ‘He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,’ had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”
he great disappointment of Go Set a Watchman isn’t that it deflates a cherished view of Atticus. That view, incidentally, has been thoughtfully contested by literary critics and legal scholars alike over the years, who have questioned whether Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson in the 1960 novel was motivated by a commitment to justice that transcended race, or by a commitment to professional rectitude.
What’s actually disappointing is just how unappealing Scout is. Self-involved, self-righteous, and sullen, the adult Scout is a young woman trying to make sense of her relationship to the town, or more precisely, trying to make sense of what it means to remain in continuity with this world when its aggressive reaction to national events is at odds with her own, which, it has to be said, is not without some unseemly elements (as when she assures a relative that while she supports civil rights, she’d never want to marry a black man, personally).
“I can say only this,” she tells herself after she discovers Atticus in league with local segregationists, “everything I learned about human decency I learned here.” Yet her hometown seems to have come under the moral sway of “grubby-minded little men.” Such stark differences, alas, occasion too many overt reactions from Scout and tedious and condescending apologies and counterarguments from a temporizing Atticus.
child coming into a fuller sense of her parent and the world they share asymmetrically is a rich and complex premise that served the dark subject matter of To Kill a Mockingbird especially well. As a young girl, Scout might not understand the full implications of the guilty verdict for Tom Robinson, but she surely senses that something wrong has happened and something worse will happen next, a sense made vivid by her watching her brother grip the rail in front of him. In Watchman, Lee never achieves that remarkable interplay of opposing feelings—surprise, confusion, wonder, awe, disappointment, admiration—so powerfully at work in Scout’s sense of the world around her and specifically of her father in Mockingbird,whether it’s when she watches Atticus drop his eyeglasses to the street and shoot an approaching rabid dog, or when a black minister turns to her, during the Tom Robinson trial, and says, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, your daddy’s passing.” There, the events pass through her maturing mind and we share its growth.
In Watchman, Scout’s thoughts and feelings add nothing essential to the action; they are simply reactions to it. We aren’t engaged with or through her. She’s just upset—and not only with Atticus, but with hectoring Aunt Alexandra, aloof Uncle Jack, and wannabe fiancé Hank, the young lawyer whom Atticus took on after Jem died of a heart attack. Hank shares Atticus’s views on the desegregation question and related local alliances, which imperils his prospects with Scout. Yes, on a few occasions, her barbed ways afford wicked humor, as during a monstrously affected “Ladies’ Tea” that her aunt organizes so Scout can catch up with old classmates: “Their makeup would have put an Egyptian draftsman to shame,” she thinks, while failing to join their small talk and flinching at their only question, “well, how’s new york?” It is easy, too easy, in fact, to join Scout in laughing at these matrons. Imagine if Lee could have found a greater humanity in these people and the others around town, not least Atticus. Conflicted and failing to adapt to a world moving toward greater justice and uncertainty, they double down on old ways that aren’t just outmoded but are mortally flawed.
atchman’s most enjoyable segments are, unsurprisingly, the childhood adventures Scout recollects. These include a fantastic sequence in which Scout and Jem and Dill play the main parts of a revivalist meeting that culminates in Dill’s grandly appearing as nothing less than the Holy Ghost, but not before the children have a pointed argument about denominational differences—Methodist vs. Baptist—and related liturgical practices (how’s that for dating the novel?). Later, a pubescent Scout has an impossible but still terrifying pregnancy scare, and near the end, with much melodrama, Scout goes to a high school dance with Hank while sporting a set of falsies that eventually go missing, only to be discovered the next morning—by the principal. These funny and endearing stories afford retreats from the adult Scout’s disagreement with her father, and the reader welcomes them when they come. Throughout the argument at the heart of this book, Scout’s reliably in the right, and she knows it. That’s why the grownup Scout would never think to ask her father why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. She’s already got it all figured out. Good for her, but too bad for readers.
Randy Boyagoda is professor of American studies at Ryerson University. His latest book is a biography of Richard John Neuhaus.