Go Set a Watchman

gosetawatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (2015)

Rarely has a book been as highly anticipated as Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.  The discovery of a long-lost manuscript by the author of the beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird – and the controversy surrounding its publication – made for record-setting preorder sales and non-stop buzz.  But after Watchman’s July release, the hubbub dwindled to a murmur, as though readers couldn’t quite figure out what to make of it.

“If you did not want much, there was plenty.”

That was how Lee described the town of Maycomb, Alabama in the first chapter of Watchman, but her words could apply equally well to the book itself – which is not to say that there is not much to be gained in its pages.  On the contrary, if readers could scale back their Mockingbird-sized expectations, they would find that Watchman offers plenty to discover and contemplate, both about the fictional Jean Louise Finch and the real-life Harper Lee.

According to publisher HarperCollins, Watchman was actually the forerunner of Mockingbird – the original draft that Lee submitted to her editor in the mid-1950’s.  In it, a grown-up Scout Finch, now known as Jean Louise, travels from New York to Maycomb for a visit.  Readers will recognize many familiar faces, including Atticus, Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack.  The story unfolds over a few brief days, as Jean Louise is forced to reexamine deeply-held feelings about her family and her Southern heritage, in light of desegregation and the civil rights movement.

The title of the novel comes from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, in which the prophet is told to send a watchman to observe an impending attack on the city of Babylon.  Lee carries the concept through the book on two levels:  Jean Louise is the watchman sent to observe the town of Maycomb, as it braces for significant social change, and she is also the watchman of her own conscience, as she struggles to understand her loyalties and convictions.

This personal conflict seemed to garner the most attention after Watchman’s publication.  Readers were every bit as shocked as Jean Louise to discover that Atticus is racist.  Perhaps this shouldn’t have been such a big surprise, as he was born and raised in the Jim Crow South.  But until now, he was only seen through Scout’s worshipful eyes, an idealized man and father.

“…a man who has lived by truth – and you have believed in what he has lived – he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing,” Jean Louise laments, after Atticus falls from his pedestal.

This realization is the beginning of Jean Louise’s long-overdue coming of age.  She must accept that Atticus is merely human and discover her own identity.  A worthy goal, to be sure, but the lengthy inner monologues and contentious interactions that Lee uses to achieve it are tough going for readers.  Perhaps that’s why Lee’s editor requested a rewrite focusing on Jean Louise’s childhood memories from the 1930’s.

Many of these memories are drawn from Lee’s own childhood in Alabama as a tomboy with a highly respected attorney father.  I’d like to think that Watchman also provides more clues about the reclusive author as an adult.  Like Jean Louise, Lee moved to New York as a young woman, but always maintained close ties with family and friends in Alabama.  Perhaps the inner struggle depicted in Watchman mirrors Lee’s own efforts to make sense of her feelings as she traveled between South and North, between childhood and adulthood, and between past and present.

As Jean Louise tells Henry, “When you live in New York, you often have the feeling that New York’s not the world.  I mean this: every time I come home, I feel like I’m coming back to the world, and when I leave Maycomb it’s like leaving the world.  It’s silly.  I can’t explain it, and what makes it sillier is that I’d go stark raving living in Maycomb.”  

Watchman gives us a sense of learning the “rest of the story” of Mockingbird, and I have to wonder if one of the reasons that Lee never wrote a follow-on book was because she foresaw the outcry that would result.  Her characters had become cultural icons and she may have felt constrained by a responsibility to preserve their personas.

“Hell is eternal apartness.  What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present?”  Jean Louise asks, realizing that the impossibly virtuous characters of her childhood now exist only in her memories.

I have a feeling that Mockingbird fans are asking the same thing right about now.  Watchman certainly wasn’t what anyone expected, but I think it’s still a gem.  It’s unrefined and a little rough around the edges, but still glimmers with the perceptive eye, keen ear, unbridled curiosity and prodigious intellect that made To Kill a Mockingbird shine.

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