Note: In 1957 the J. B. Lippincott Company purchased Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Editor Tay Hohoff, although impressed with the story, thought it was by no means ready for publication. During the next couple of years, she led Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally became what we know as To Kill a Mockingbird. But what if the publisher had accepted Go Set a Watchman and printed it as submitted? What would the reaction have been at the time? Would Mockingbird ever have happened? This is how I approached my reading of Go Set a Watchman. It wasn’t easy to read this new book in a world without Mockingbird—which is such an unstoppable force of culture—but I blocked it out and concentrated on Go Set a Watchman as a singular work of art. Here is that hypothetical review as it would have been written in 1960.
Harper Lee’s debut is a puzzling mess. Go Set a Watchman is akin to a misbehaving toddler gleefully turning sink spigots on and off, but instead of Hot, Cold, Hot, Cold, we get Good, Bad, Good, Bad.
Ms. Lee, according to the dust jacket, was born in Alabama and now lives in New York City—in much the same fashion as Go Set a Watchman’s too-clever-for-her-own-good heroine Jean Louise Finch. As the novel opens, Jean Louise is traveling back home to Maycomb County, Alabama with “a delight almost physical.” There is a comic encounter between Jean Louise and a Negro porter when she locks herself into a fold-up sleeping compartment and the steward must extract her. It is the first, but not the last, uncomfortable intersection between the races in these pages.
Waiting for her at home is a coterie of characters as die-hard Southern as a plate of hush puppies and crawfish: her father Atticus, a lawyer whose job as a parent primarily consists of being in the right place at the right time with the right bon mot; her Uncle Jack, a level-headed eccentric who lives in the past (“He’s so far out of this century he can’t go to the bathroom, he goes to the water closet.”); Aunt Alexandra, a staunch Methodist who believes it’s always better to give a man a stone before you feed him bread, so as to improve his character; and Henry Clinton, Jean Louise’s childhood crush who aspires to be her husband, as long as his racism doesn’t get in the way. Not present in the welcome home party is Jean Louise’s brother Jem who, we’re told in the first chapter, “dropped dead in his tracks” of a heart attack on the streets of Maycomb several years earlier.
The characters are interesting and amusing each in their own way, and indeed Ms. Lee knows her people inside and out and communicates that well on the page. Unfortunately, they’re encumbered with dialogue that, at times, moves with all the alacrity of a turtle sunning itself on a swamp log. The novel trots along brightly in its early pages, but turns heavy, logy, and sermonic in its latter half, right around the time Jean Louise discovers her father and fiancée attending a “citizens council” meeting which has been called to determine how to deal with “the NAACP problem.” The council’s membership is comprised of “ignorant, fear-ridden, red-faced, boorish, law-abiding, one hundred per cent red-blooded Anglo-Saxons, her fellow Americans—trash.” It is not the Ku Klux Klan, but it is close—only the thin barrier of a sheet divides them. Ms. Lee holds nothing back in her reportage of the dialogue at this gathering—including, and especially, the racist comments of guest speaker Mr. Grady O’Hanlon who renders his opinions of the “woolly-headed” members of society in such despicable terms that—well, I couldn’t bear to repeat them. Let’s leave it at this: “woolly-headed” is the gentlest of names spewed from his horrible mouth. Methodists and the easily-offended are advised to keep their distance from these pages.
The meeting marks a turning point in Jean Louise’s visit. The scales fall from her eyes and she sees her beloved, upstanding father as something worse than a racist: a hypocrite.
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.It is more than Jean Louise can bear. There is frequent vomiting in the succeeding pages.
The character of Atticus Finch is a complicated and seemingly-contradictory one: a life-long saint, in the eyes of Jean Louise, his armor is now tarnished and dented. The excuses for his racist views, as fed to him by Ms. Lee, may come across as feeble and grasping, but I suggest they make him all the more human. Who among us doesn’t have skin that looks one way, but blood that pumps another? Atticus may despise the ill-treatment of men, no matter the race, but he “goes along to get along.” Peer-pressure racism. This doesn’t sit well with his daughter. More vomiting ensues.
Go Set a Watchman slows to a crawl as Jean Louise seeks counsel from friends and relatives, trying to understand how the characters she’s come to revere could turn into monsters. “We have to do a lot of things we don’t want to do, Jean Louise,” Henry says, adding a few pages later: “I’m only trying to make you see beyond men’s acts to their motives. A man can appear to be a part of something not-so-good on its face, but don’t take it upon yourself to judge him unless you know his motives as well.”
Dissatisfied with platitudes, Jean Louise continues to go around town, reeling from one agony to another:
What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved? Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually through the years until now? Had it always been under her nose for her to see if she had only looked?
Part of Jean Louise’s problem lies in the fact that she is a traitor who has converted to the Northern way of life. With its loose living, its integration, and its boiled New England food, the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line has, in the eyes of good Maycombians, corrupted Jean Louise’s once-genteel soul. Jean Louise is now too uptight and uppity and if only she could learn to slow down and savor the good (segregated) life, she would have an easier time of it. “I am oppressed, Atticus,” she sighs. “Then go back to New York and be uninhibited,” is her father’s answer. Even Henry is baffled by Jean Louise’s inability to understand the Southern Way:
“You’ve got to make up your mind to one thing, Jean Louise. You’re gonna see change, you’re gonna see Maycomb change its face completely in our lifetime. Your trouble, now, you want to have your cake and eat it: you want to stop the clock, but you can’t. Sooner or later you’ll have to decide whether it’s Maycomb or New York.”Go Set a Watchman is, at heart, a novel of the Civil War; its combatants just wear different colored uniforms now.
Ms. Lee works hard to make this an Important Book. Her points—and there are many—are well-taken, but their power is dulled by long stretches of dialogue and thought-bubble asides from Jean Louise, who serves as our tour guide through this post-Reconstruction South. Her thoughts on race relations are provocative and arguments are tossed back and forth like speeches at a college debate club tournament. The message of tolerance is received, but it’s delivered with thunderclaps.
But before we reach that point, we’re treated to what is Ms. Lee’s strongest suit: her sense of comic timing. In Go Set a Watchman, she can toss off a barbed witticism with as much finesse as her Southern sister, Flannery O’Connor. Most of the humor centers on the peculiarities of the South, as seen through the reformed eyes of Jean Louise:
In Maycomb, one drank or did not drink. When one drank, one went behind the garage, turned up a pint, and drank it down; when one did not drink, one asked for set-ups at the E-Lite Shop under cover of darkness: a man having a couple of drinks before or after dinner in his home or with his neighbor was unheard of. That was Social Drinking. Those who Drank Socially were not quite out of the top drawer, and because no one in Maycomb considered himself out of any drawer but the top, there was no Social Drinking.Or take these lines from when the Finch entourage goes to church:
There’s nothing like a blood-curdling hymn to make you feel at home, thought Jean Louise. Any sense of isolation she may have had withered and died in the presence of some two hundred sinners earnestly requesting to be plunged beneath a red, redeeming flood.The other forte of the novel comes in the many flashbacks involving Jean Louise’s brother Jem and a strange little boy named Dill (given name: Charles Baker Harris). Ms. Lee has a keen eye for capturing the joys, the hurts, and the confusions of childhood. In these scenes, summer afternoons stretch endlessly and are only broken by lemonade on the porch, playacting adventures from Tom Swift or re-staging a visiting minister’s church revival. The lush sentimentality in these scenes is warm and pleasurable. The childhood memories of Jean Louise (“Scout” as she was known then) are oases of enjoyment in Go Set a Watchman. One almost wishes Ms. Lee would write an entire novel set in the 1930s version of Maycomb. Maybe in her next novel.