by Harper Lee
Go Set a Watchman, published in 2015, arrived to bookstores immersed in controversy over the rights of Harper Lee and the actual placement of the text in relation to To Kill a Mockingbird. Was this “new” manuscript a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird or a first draft of what became the famous novel?
There are details in the book that support the notion that Go Set a Watchman was a first attempt at writing about Maycomb. First, there are a few pages near the beginning of the book that are almost word-for-word the same description of Maybcomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. Second, inconsistencies exist between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. As we all know from our school readings, Atticus Finch does not get Tom an acquittal. However, Scout recalls a rape case in which Atticus defended a black man who was acquitted. Of course there is nothing beyond shadowy details to connect that the cases are the same, but it does contribute minor evidence towards the belief that Go Set a Watchman was a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Another issues of concern when Go Set a Watchman came out was how much control and say Harper Lee had in its publication. The unedited feeling of the beginning portion of the book hints at misconduct. The beginning is rough. It feels unfinished. There isn’t a flow and artistry to the language in the first part of Go Set a Watchman, which exists throughout To Kill a Mockingbird. Such a discrepancy may suggest that the editor-writer relationship was not present in the publication of this manuscript. It reads like a second or third draft still on its way to being polished.
There is one constant – Scout’s voice. Scout still speaks and thinks in Go Set a Watchman as she does in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her voice is recognizable, even though it has matured and includes 1950s slang. This similarity will be a comfort to those who love To Kill a Mockingbird.
Is Atticus the same man?
Numerous reviews of Go Set a Watchman discussed the perceived differences between Atticus Finch in the sequel and in To Kill a Mockingbird. The opinion that Atticus becomes a racist in Go Set a Watchman became so prevalent that I was prepared for something horrendous.
Instead, I found an aged man who says very little throughout the book and is primarily understood through the eyes of Scout (which is the topic of the next section of this review).
From my reading, I cannot agree that Go Set a Watchman portrays Atticus as a racial bigot. It appears, rather, that the older Atticus has simply become more set in his ways, revealing the anxiety that comes with growing old and fearing everything is changing and challenging the world you knew.
Jean Louise rose and went to the bookshelves. She pulled down a dictionary and leafed through it. “Bigot,” she read. “Noun, One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion.”
In To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus aims to better his town, improve social relations, and follow the law. It is the law that drives Atticus in his belief in equality. That does not change in Go Set a Watchman. The law remains Atticus’ primary motivator. However, this time Atticus’ attentions are focused on Constitutional law and the historically situated debate about state’s rights. Atticus fears outsiders coming to Maycomb, whether it’s the federal government or the NAACP, and changing the system without state consent and before the people are ready.
Most of the rhetoric and social understanding portrayed in Go Set a Watchman is racist, but judging Atticus or Maycomb outside of historical context is an inadequate reading. Contextualizing the book does not justify a racist outlook, but it does establish the setting in which Harper Lee wanted to orient her literary conversation about race in the South.
Viewing Atticus as a racial crusader in To Kill a Mockingbird can be an anachronistic reading. As I’ve already stated, the law is Atticus’ love and it is his commitment to the law that fuels his perseverance for equal justice in Tom’s case. I sincerely believe that a close reading of Lee’s works reveal that the social understandings and outlooks of Atticus Finch bemoaned in Go Set a Watchman are present in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Through Scout’s eyes
Scout defines the reader’s understanding of events in Go Set a Watchman just as she does in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her perspective, modified by years of living in New York City, dominates the novel. This myopic view, in part, depicts Atticus as a Judas to all that Scout holds dear. Yet, this one-sided understanding of Maycomb sets up the biggest theme of the book – the loss of innocence.
Scout returns to Maycomb in her 20s for a brief visit and discovers the town she loves is rapidly changing and the people who inhabit it have “betrayed” her understandings of right and wrong. Atticus Finch’s brother, Jack, functions as a narrator to Scout’s passage from a child that blindly admires her father to an awakened adult who understands nothing remains the same.
The struggle to accept the fallibility of parents and the effects of time on a hometown capture the anxiety, nostalgia, rootlessness, and fear that consist of returning home from college or time away. Friendships fade, family dynamics change, and a town develops, while in your mind everything remains frozen as it was when you left.
“Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.” – Jack Finch
Uncle Jack Finch’s lessons about personal identity and learning to cope with change are set against the changing landscape of Maycomb. Jack attempts to educate Scout about what she calls the “prejudice” of Maycomb by revealing sections of her identity that she cannot see. He goes so far as to call Scout a bigot, reminding her that there are always different reasons for one seemingly common action.
To be read on its own terms
If you decide to read Go Set a Watchman prepare to read it separate from the affection you developed for To Kill a Mockingbird. Don’t let your preconceived ideas of what should or should not have happened to Lee’s characters impact your reading, because Go Set a Watchman has its own lessons to convey.
The beginning of the book will be rocky as you adjust to the unedited quality, but you will quickly find yourself immersed in the world of Maycomb again. And you, along with Scout, will experience the turmoil of returning home to a transformed town.