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So iconic are Harper Lee’s characters, Go Set a Watchman sure seems like a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize–winning, quintessential American tale, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). But Lee wrote this very different novel before she wrote the book that brought her lifelong fame and turned her hometown, Monroeville, Alabama, into a tourist attraction. To Kill a Mockingbird—its renown amplified by the Academy Award–winning film version that forever fused Lee’s hero, Atticus Finch, with Gregory Peck, was the writer’s only published book for 55 years. Heated speculation about how and why this book was finally released propelled a high tide of media coverage, a deluge of preorders, and readers lined up outside bookstores. It’s exciting to be part of such a mighty surge of passionate curiosity about a book, and this is only the beginning. The sharp and disquieting contrast between the two novels, especially between the two variations on Atticus, will fuel discussions and dissertations for years to come.
Jem has died young and suddenly, as their mother did. Atticus, at 72, is struggling with rheumatoid arthritis. Jem and Scout’s childhood friend, Henry, a character new to readers, is now a lawyer working with Atticus, and anxious for Jean Louise to finally say yes to his repeated marriage proposals.
She and Henry share a deep and precious history, but she just doesn’t love him the way she should. She also doesn’t know if she can move back to Maycomb and its dense web of gossiping kin and neighbors, and she recoils at the very idea of marriage. She has always been appalled by the circumscribed lives the women live there, and wonders if “loving your man” means “losing your own identity.” Her quandary over Henry is complicated by a fatal car accident in which Calpurnia’s favorite grandson accidentally kills a white man. When Atticus takes the case, his daughter is proud, remembering how, years ago, he “accomplished what was never before or after done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge.” But certain nauseating disclosures, precipitated by her finding a pamphlet titled The Black Plague, reveal the poisonous truth about her father’s attitude toward his African American neighbors, which ranges from vile white supremacist delusions to outrage over the NAACP’s calling for the seating of black jurors. Jean Louise is devastated by her father’s racism. She feels betrayed right down to the marrow in her bones, and begins questioning everything about her past.
Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman soon after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which put an end to segregated public schools, a decision that ignited rage and fear among whites and catalyzed the civil rights movement. By revealing the insidious prejudice of a man as seemingly upright as Atticus, Lee uncloaks the malignant hatred, anger, and fear that have made the South a land of terror for African Americans, a legacy exposed yet again in recent weeks with the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, followed by the long overdue removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capital.
Lee addresses another volatile topic, sexism, primarily in flashbacks to Jean Louise’s reluctant and utterly unprepared passage into young womanhood. Scout is shocked by menstruation and dangerously confused about sex and pregnancy, and her one attempt to dress up results in a hilarious falsies mishap. These are the most richly imagined and crisply realized sections in the novel. The incisive editor who worked with Lee on the manuscript encouraged her to rewrite the novel, setting it in the mid-1930s, when Scout was eight and the old order, which strictly defined race relations, was still in place. Lee worked intensely for two years on what became To Kill a Mockingbird, and set this novel aside.
Though Lee’s prose is frequently stilted in Go Set a Watchman, her transitions awkward, her descents into exposition bumpy, this is a daring, raw, intimate, and incendiary social exposé. A story, perhaps, far too alienating, too candid, and too hot to handle fresh from the typewriter, during that more buttoned-up era. Given the systematic racist invective unleashed during the two terms of our first African American president, and the increasingly visible police violence against African Americans, now truly is the time for Harper Lee’s unsettling confrontation with racism, our national malady.
Jean Louise suffers through a church service in which the minister reads from Isiah: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, / Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” Later she thinks, “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 . . .”
Let Harper Lee be our watchman.
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