Review of Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee
This novel cannot be discussed without reference to Lee’s first and famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. However, as Go Set a Watchman is set after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird, comparisons are both inevitable and useful. Go Set a Watchman is adroitly written, with hardly a word out of place and nothing extraneous or repetitive. Reading it as a novel of and about the 1950s it is still interesting and (quite surprisingly) engaging. It might be a sequel (or even a type of prequel) but it can stand alone as a very good work of fiction. To read the full book review Click me. If you want the context, read on… Firstly, I, personally, have no particular liking for To Kill a Mockingbird. I believe the popularity of the novel is a particularly American phenomenon, perhaps enhanced by Harper Lee’s status as a mysterious recluse, and the massive impact of the 1962 film adaption and Elmer Bernstein’s unforgettably sad and captivating soundtrack of it. While it is certainly an outstanding novel, I think there are other, better novels on the same subjects and in the same genres – coming-of-age novels, for instance, The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (2003), Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), and The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (2013). And in the Southern Gothic genre, there are Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers, and an almost, oft-read favourite of mine, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt (1994). But these are my personal preferences.
I had read To Kill a Mockingbird in school in South Africa (yes, its fame even spread that far) – a strange choice in a country where Apartheid was still in effect. Perhaps the censors didn’t know of the book’s message about the stand against segregation, or racial heroism. As a Southern Gothic novel and a Bildungsroman, the primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird involve racial injustice and the destruction of innocence. The book is widely taught in schools in the United States with lessons that emphasize tolerance and decry prejudice.
And since 1960, when it came out, the literary world, America in particular, has waited for another novel from Harper Lee – with, of course, the risk to her reputation that the second book won’t be as good as the first.
Starting in 1964, Lee began to turn down interviews, and has declined ever since to talk with reporters about the book. She broke her silence when she announced on her 88th birthday (she was born April 28, 1926), that the novel will finally be released as ebook and downloadable audiobook. On 8 July 2014, the book was available, published by Cornerstone in the UK. In a rare public statement released through her publisher, HarperCollins, Lee said:
“I’m still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries. I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation.”
I read Go Set a Watchman in e-book format, which is a first for me. Like Lee, I like books printed on paper – they feel nice and are more robust than ipads. And they don’t run out of battery power.
Following the release of the ebook, Go Set a Watchman was published on July 14, 2015. Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was (re?)discovered in late 2014. That’s according to her publishers – I don’t think “rediscovered” is quite the right word. It has been there all along. Why publish it now?
Controversy – as expected
Some critics have called the timing of the book “suspicious”, citing Lee’s declining health, statements she had made over several decades that she would not write or release another novel, and the death of her sister (and caregiver) just two months before the announcement. NPR reported on the news of her new book release, with circumstances “raising questions about whether she is being taken advantage of in her old age.” Writing for the New York Times, Joe Nocera commented, same as I had thought, that that Lee’s family and her publishers knew full well that it was the same manuscript submitted to Tay Hohoff in the 50s that was [later] reworked into [To Kill a] Mockingbird, and that the publishers knew of the manuscript for decades, and it is not a discovery at all. “Issue No. 2 is the question of whether “Go Set a Watchman” is, in fact, a “newly discovered” novel, worthy of the hoopla it has received, or whether it something less than that: a historical artifact or, more bluntly, a not-very-good first draft that eventually became, with a lot of hard work and smart editing, an American classic.”
Controvery aside, this was quite a literary event. By July 2015 Go Set a Watchman had 19742 ratings and 5665 reviews on Goodreads alone. While sales for the book dropped sharply in its second week of publication, it remained the best-selling book in the US for the week ending July 26, according to Nielsen BookScan, with more than 1.1 million copies in all the different formats already sold in North America.
Full review below
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Why review it?
To Kill a Mockingbird is a phenomenon, it has been filmed, reprinted, analyzed, studied, prescribed, illustrated, set to music, challenged, banned, endlessly quoted from, even tattooed. If praise for Lee’s next novel was therefore almost inevitable, why bother reviewing it? I wondered if I might, as an “outsider reader”, find this vintage novel with retro appeal, worthwhile reading. Besides, it shows respect to an author to take their work seriously and give it a deep reading, rather than just passing it off as “obviously great” effort, as if the author is already dead and resting on their laurels, so to speak.
Narration and characters
It reads as a sequel, despite being written before To Kill a Mockingbird, since it is set about 20 years after the events in the first book. It has 3rd person narration with many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird featured, but older and changed, and new ones have been added. The main characters are Jean Louise Finch, her father Atticus, his sister, the widowed Aunt Alexandra (Zandra) Finch Hancock, Jean Louise’s beau, Henry (Hank) Clinton, Calpurnia, the maid, and Jean Louise’s uncle Dr. John (Jack) Hale Finch.
Returning from New York where she is studying, to Maycomb, Alabama, Jean Louise is at first quite happy and just bit bored with the people and the town. Her main worry is whether to marry Hank. In the years before, Calpurnia has retired, her brother Jeremy (Jem) died from a heart attack, and seemingly, Maycomb’s occupants are coping nicely with desegregation in 1950s Alabama, and the growing strength of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Americans know (or should know) the time period in which this novel is set better than me, but in short: The campaign for desegregation culminated in a unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown versus the Board of Education that held that state-sponsored segregation of elementary schools was unconstitutional. Following that decision, the NAACP campaigned for full desegregation throughout the Southern United States.
It is into this powderkeg that Jean Louise innocently steps on her arrival back. She thinks of herself as “color-blind” and has got quite used to studying and living alongside people of different races in New York. Integration seems the normal thing to do to her. She is still the apple of Atticus’s eye and she still adores her father and proudly lives by every rule he taught her. She doesn’t doubt his honor and believes he always does the right thing. If he were not, would he have tried to defend the Black man, Tom Robinson, in the 1930s?
Then she finds a pamphlet titled “The Black Plague” among her father’s papers, and witnesses her father and Hank, who is being trained by Atticus as a lawyer, allowing a racist, O’Hanlon, to speak at a Citizens’ Council meeting, and they apparently agree with him. She is shocked to her core, and outraged by her father and her boyfriend’s betrayal of their principles. When a black man, family of Calpurnia, is accused of murder, she thinks that she will still be welcomed into Calpurnia’s house, as a friend of the family, and someone who never saw anyone as White, Black or any other colour. But Calpurnia keeps her carefully at arm’s length, like she would any White stranger.
This is the tipping point for Jean Louise: she realizes the town’s people have not changed at all. Despite desegregation going on in the rest of the country, in Maycomb people are still in lynch mode, and still see Blacks as little more than weak-minded children. Strong stuff then, stronger stuff now, considering the recent race riots and racially motivated shootings in the USA.
“Jean Louise said slowly, more to herself than to Calpurnia: ‘As long as I’ve lived I never remotely dreamed that anything like this could happen. And here it is. I cannot talk to the one human who raised me from the time I was two years old…it is happening as I sit here and I cannot believe it. Talk to me, Cal. For god’s sake, talk to me right. Don’t sit there like that.’…Jean Louise rose to go. ‘Tell me one thing, Cal,’ she said, ‘just one thing before I go – please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?’ The old woman sat silent, bearing the burden of her years. Jean Louise waited. Finally, Calpurnia shook her head.” (p.224)
The Black community members at Calpurnia’s house says “Yessum” to Jean Louise. Jean Louise says “Yessum” to her aunt, “yes sir” to her father. Seems like both Whites and Blacks in the town are carefully subservient, even Jean Louise, because she does not stand up for her own opinion. Nor is she brave or open-minded enough to give others a chance to voice their opinion if it is different from her own. In stead, she rages at her father and accuses him of being a racist and a traitor. Atticus says:
“Have you 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?” (p.335). Aticus fears the repercussion if all “Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights.” (p.342).
Jean Louise fumes: “I mean I grew up right here in your house, and I never knew what was in your mind. I only heard what you said. You neglected to tell me what we were naturally better than the negroes, bless their kinky heads, that they were able to go so far but so far only, you neglected to tell me what Mr. O’Hanlon told me yesterday. That was you talking down there, but you let Mr. O’Hanlon say it. You’re a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant, Atticus.” (p. 343, 344)
Atticus dryly responds that O’Hanlon is not prejudiced – he is a sadist, and the Council let him speak, “because he [O’Hanlon] wanted to.” (p.348)
Jean Louise storms out of her father’s office, and he responds to her insults with “As you please.” In Jean Louise’s mind, she has unmasked her father as a raging racist, followed promptly by the same decision about Hank and her aunt – and for that matter, the whole town that wants to “keep things the way they were”. The arguments around the 10th amendment to the US Constitution and the finer points of the history of segregation are not crucial to understand the argument: Jean Louise is deeply disappointed in everyone but herself.
Eventually her Uncle Jack talks some sense into her:
“You have a tendency not to give anybody elbow room in your mind for their ideas, no matter how silly they are. Good grief Baby, people don’t agree with the Klan, but they certainly don’t try to prevent them from puttin’ on sheets and making fools of themselves in public.” (p.371).
Emphasising that her father was also entitled to his own opinion – and is not a saint on a plinth – Jack calls her a “turnip-sized [little] bigot” and points out that Atticus let O’Hanlon speak because everyone has the right to free speech. But that cool, calm reasoning – and open-mindedness – will defeat racism. Eventually, when Jean Louise says goodbye to her father at the end of her vacation, she thinks: “As she welcomed him to the human race, the stab of discovery made her tremble a little.“ (p.348.)
With that begins Jean Louise’s transformation into an adult. So Go Set a Watchman is indeed a Bildungsroman, like To Kill a Mockingbird. But even at more than 60 years old, the book’s message for today is clear – and for the time it must’ve been radical indeed, having been so plainly spelled out:
“The white supremacists fear reason, because they know cold reason beats them. Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends…It’s one of the oddities of the world.” (p.374) As uncle Jack concludes: “it takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days”.
While the discourse of the USA in the fifties, and the discourse amongst the characters in the novel are again relevant today, the book is clearly a product of a writer born in 1926. The language is sometimes downright odd, with old-fashioned phrases and references I did not know and had to look up:
- “Cousin Joshua looked like a ratty Algernon Swinbourne” (p.11);
- “white smoke comes up and you think you’re inside a chafing dish” (p.14);
- “Home was Maycomb County, a gerrymander some seventy miles long” (p.14);
- “a self-constructed private Gehanna with the latest Westinghouse appliances.” (26);
- “His attitude was Asquithian” (p.75);
- “lectures on the poetry of Mackworth Praed” (p.126);
- “Bill said he wouldn’t be surprised if there was another Nat Turner Uprisin’” (p.240)
Lee commonly uses the word “Negro”, as opposed to “Black” or “African-American”, typical of the time, and frequently refers to “kinky heads” or “wooly heads”. Sometimes she is just plain funny: “When she looked thus, only God and Robert Browning knew what she was likely to say.” (p.32) The whole section on Jem, Scout and Dill reenacting a church confirmation and ending up in the lily pond is really funny, especially Dill’s imitation of the preacher. (p. 93)
Explanation of title
The title refers to the Sunday preacher’s sermon from the Bible, Isaiah 12, verse 6: “Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” After discovering her family’s political inclinations, she thinks to herself:
“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 this is justice and there is justice and make me understand the difference.” (p.252).
Of course, what she needed was a watchman like her uncle to tell her she was being a “turnip-sized bigot” and to get some “humbleness of mind”.
The novel was an easy read. The characterization is rich and consistent and the setting is beautifully, even poetically described. The narrative flows and bears the reader along without unnecessary digressions. Even the flashbacks are necessary and well integrated into the plot. The moment of Jean Louise’s greatest disappointment at the town Council meeting is almost unbearably tense. One has to pay attention in the sections where Jean Louise argues with Atticus and her uncle – but on the whole Lee makes her point clearly and convincingly.
It is adroitly written, with hardly a word out of place and nothing extraneous or repetitive. Reading it as a novel of and about the 1950s it is still interesting and (quite surprisingly) engaging. It might be a sequel (or even a form of prequel) but it can stand alone as a very good work of fiction.