A Review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (by Bethany)


Please note: This review deals frankly with all parts of this novel, including its ending. If you want to avoid “spoilers,” you should not read this review.

I like To Kill a Mockingbird, but I don’t love it. It’s not the quasi-religious text to me that it is to some. I agree with critics who say that it operates in a world of sharply delineated good and evil and is therefore morally simplistic. At the same time, I agree with defenders who say that this duality is not a flaw of the novel but a consequence of the fact that its narrator is eight years old. The recent release of Go Set a Watchman, in which Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch is twenty-six, ought to be a litmus test of this idea – and holy crap, is it ever. This novel takes the Manichean worldview of its predecessor, kills it, and then dances on its grave. This novel is so morally relativistic that its moral relativism is its primary flaw (Well, that and its lack of a true plot. But more on that later).

This novel opens on Jean Louise’s return to her childhood home of Maycomb, Alabama. While I was reading the (unnecessarily extensive) backstory on Maycomb, I thought of what a “type” this opening scene is. So many southern novels are structured around these sorts of departures (almost always to New York) and reluctant returns. This scene has parallels in Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and in Carson McCullers, and after marveling for a moment that these authors are all women I realized that it’s in Faulkner too, in the form of Quentin Compson and his refrain, “I don’t hate the South. I don’t hate the South. I don’t hate the south.” It’s in PAT CONROY!!!! too, come to think of it – in The Prince of Tides and Beach Music – and in his literary grandfather, Thomas Wolfe.

In Maycomb, Henry Clinton meets Scout’s train. Henry is Scout’s brother Jem’s childhood friend, Atticus Finch’s law partner, and – if he has anything to say about the matter – Scout’s fiancé. After some snogging, Henry takes Scout home, where her Aunt Alexandra (who wears a corset! In 1954!) has moved in with Atticus, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Scout’s relationship with Aunt Alexandra has not changed a bit since Scout was eight, which is to say that she finds Alexandra maddening but loves to goad her on. The early chapters – while enjoyable enough – seem to exist only to review for the reader the principal characters, plot lines, and setting details of To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s even a lengthy flashback about Dill, who never appears and is only rarely mentioned elsewhere in this novel.

The plot meanders for a while – I have almost no bookmarks in the first half of this book; the second half is full of them. We learn many predicable things, including the fact that Scout does not enjoy Junior League-style women’s organizations and the fact that the house she grew up in has been torn down and an ice cream parlor has been built in its place, and we are treated to the deeply-clichéd story of Scout’s first period and subsequent pregnancy scare. Scout swims in the river with Henry, and – you’ll be shocked – Alexandra disapproves. Part of the background chatter of the first half of this novel is a lot of grumbling about “the Supreme Court,” and it doesn’t take a lot of American history to put the pieces together and recognize that the court case in question is Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Some of the backstory of the first several chapters is necessary here, because it is important for readers to know that while Scout grew up in a tolerant home where people of all races were respected, she also grew up in segregated schools. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout and Jem go to church with their housekeeper, Calpurnia; in Go Set a Watchman, Scout visits Calpurnia in “the Quarters” after her grandson is arrested for drunk driving and is infuriated to find that Calpurnia, who is well-spoken in To Kill a Mockingbird, has reverted to the heavily-accented of others in “the Quarters” and that she responds to Scout with the platitudes one speaks to a stranger. When Atticus agrees to defend Calpurnia’s grandson, I thought we were set up for Tom Robinson, Part Deux, and I was ready to throw the book at the wall. But I do give Harper Lee some credit – this case does not become central to the plot in any way. It was just an excuse to bring Scout back to “the Quarters,” to see them again with adult eyes.

This novel contains a number of rants, and the first time this novel forced me to sit up and pay attention was during a rant on – of all things – the Doxology. Apparently, in Maycomb, Methodists have one specific way of singing the Doxology: slowly and with measured emphasis given to each syllable, in a manner that makes Jean Louise comment that “if the Archbishop of Canterbury had materialized in full regalia, [she] would not have been in the least surprised” (94). However, when a new minister arrives, one who is “suspected of liberal tendencies” (95), the Doxology is played somewhat faster and everyone freaks out, and I had a brief but vivid epiphany to the effect that the Civil War and its ongoing aftermath is to the United States what the Protestant Reformation was to England.

Like I said, it was a brief epiphany. If Harper Lee had had the chance to really polish this novel into final form while she was at the height of her powers, this scene could have been quite wonderful. As it is, I can barely reconstruct the thread of my thoughts when I read this section originally, but I’ll try my best. Here goes: when the congregation is reeling over the slightly-faster Doxology, someone comments that “they’ll be having incense next,” which is why my mind traveled to the infinitesimal theological quibbles that characterized the Protestant Reformation. To the mix I added my outside knowledge about the fact that the American south was colonized almost entirely by English Protestants and has long been aggressively Protestant. Historically, one of the complaints Protestants have always made against Catholics is the fact that Catholics obey a distant, infallible authority; in England, it was a rebellion against the Pope, not any kind of theological conviction, that led to the break from the Catholic church. In the English Civil War, fought at the height of the Reformation, Cromwell and his followers equated the monarchy with the papacy; having already split from the latter (though at this time England’s long-term identity as a Protestant nation was far from assured), they fought to overthrow the power of the monarchy as well. They saw the monarchy as yet another example of one man exalted above all others. What I had never considered before, however, is that the American Civil War included a similar struggle. The Confederacy was not as extreme as Cromwell and his Roundheads in this sense, but ultimately the south was fighting for the rights of states to manage their own economic, political, and social systems without input from the president in Washington. Of course, the settlement of North America by the English (and by others) was a direct consequence of the English Civil War, and our Bill of Rights is written the way it is specifically because its framers remembered the abuses of both King George III (in their own lifetimes) and of previous kings and Cromwell himself (in the lifetimes of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers). We have the First Amendment that we have because the framers knew that freedom of speech, religion, and the press are far from assured under a monarchy, and while today’s discussions of the second amendment tend to be petty and vile, we have that amendment for a good reason, too – because no government should be allowed to run roughshod over its defenseless people. No one mentions the third amendment much these days, but if the government were still in the habit of forcing citizens to convert their private homes into country inns for a bunch of smelly soldiers, this amendment would be on the front page of every newspaper.

The Constitutional amendment that becomes forefront as this novel progresses is, of course, the tenth. The tenth amendment states that any powers not explicitly given to the federal government are by default reserved for the states. Later in the novel, Scout delivers several rants about the tenth amendment, and when her neighbors in Maycomb decry the Supreme Court, they cite the tenth amendment at every turn. And it’s true, of course, that the court violated the tenth amendment when it decreed that public schools must be integrated. Nowhere else in the Constitution are the racial demographics of schools specifically assigned to the oversight of the federal government; therefore, according to the tenth amendment, the federal government must cede control of this matter to the states. In this situation, the Supreme Court takes on the role of king, issuing proclamations from on high that must be universally obeyed. In some ways, the framers of the Constitution set their descendants up for failure in this sense. The Constitution is a federal document, meant to apply to all states equally. Its original 1791 Bill of Rights ends with the tenth amendment – with its own pressure-relief valve, in other words, meant to prevent the federal government from growing too powerful. At the same time, the Constitution establishes a system for drafting and ratifying new amendments, since its framers knew that the nation’s needs would change as the world changed. By including both the tenth amendment and the procedure for creating future amendments, the framers made the sorts of conflict in this novel (and elsewhere) inevitable.

(A side note: during many debates about same-sex marriage, I have wondered why people in favor of marriage equality do not often cite the Fourteenth Amendment – “no citizen may be denied equal protection under the law” – more often. I think I get it now. Those in favor of marriage equality don’t cite the Fourteenth Amendment because they know their opponents will counter with the Tenth; those opposed to marriage equality don’t cite the Tenth because they know their opponents will counter with the Fourteenth. Tricky, tricky. The Fourteenth Amendment has the advantage of being more recent – but I digress.)

All this is a long way of saying that Go Set a Watchman is more political and philosophical tract than novel, but that’s okay. The usual drawback of political tracts is general their unreadability, but Go Set a Watchman is highly readable, marked on every page with Lee’s light, ironic style. But let’s get back down to basics for a moment.

Midway through this novel, Scout discovers some offensive reading materials – a pamphlet called “The Black Plague” – in her father’s house after Atticus and Henry have left for a meeting. After she reads it and delivers a rant to Alexandra, Scout reads the back of the pamphlet and discovers that it was published by the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council – an organization that, until this moment, she had never heard of. Scout deduces that the meeting Atticus and Henry have just left for is a meeting of this very council, and Alexandra confirms this hunch. In a scene that mirrors – though not in a heavy-handed way – Scout’s observation of Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout drives to the meeting and observes it from a crowd in the back of the room, without Atticus’ and Henry’s knowledge.

There’s almost something “Young Goodman Brown”-ish about the scene that follows. Scout recognizes that all the men of Maycomb are present, even the two closest to her, and, to make matters worse, she sees her father stand and introduce someone named Grady O’Hanlon, who begins a racist rant that makes her sick. Harper Lee uses an interesting technique to abridge O’Hanlon’s rant somewhat: she includes only phrases, separated by ellipses – e.g. “It’s whether Christian civilization will continue to be or whether we will be slaves of the Communists… nigger lawyers… stomped on the Constitution… our Jewish friends… killed Jesus…” (110), and so forth. I’m assuming that this is Harper Lee’s way of acknowledging that in order to be truly frightening this man must be allowed to speak at length but not wanting to waste too much valuable paper and ink on truly letting him do so – though it’s also possible that she meant to come back and write O’Hanlon’s speech in full but never did so (I have heard that Go Set a Watchman is a first draft that she never revised, but I don’t know if that is true; if so, we should all write such first drafts). It’s also worth noting that Lee uses the same technique for the inane babble of the young Junior League mothers that Alexandra recruits to help convert Scout to their ways – this juxtaposition is just the understated comic touch that Lee likes to craft – so maybe this novel is less of a first draft than I’m giving it credit for.

From here the novel consists of two parts rant to one part flashbacks – all compelling, though I wouldn’t mind a little present-time dramatic action to fill in the gaps. Scout vomits, then “takes to her bed” (the irony is Lee’s). We follow her through cycles of denial and anger and self-blame – not exactly as written by Kübler-Ross but close enough – through silent rants like this one: “Why doesn’t their flash creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me – these same, these very people. So it’s me, not them. Something has happened to me” (167).

As the novel progresses, its moral terrain gets murkier and murkier. Scout leaves the citizen’s council meeting indignant, but the honest soul searching that she does next leads to some cringe-worthy places; for example, on the black people of her youth: “They were poor, they were diseased and dirty, some were lazy and shiftless, but never in my life was I given the idea that I should despise one, should fear one, should be discourteous to one, or think that I could mistreat one and get away with it. They as a people did not enter my world, nor did I enter theirs: when I went hunting I did not trespass on a Negro’s land, not because it was a Negro’s but because I was not supposed to trespass on anybody’s land. I was taught never to take advantage of someone who was less fortunate than myself, whether he be less fortunate in brains, wealth, or social position; it meant anybody, not just Negroes. I was given to understand that the reverse was to be despised. That is the way I was raised, by a black woman and a white man” (179). I struggle most of all with the pronouns in this passage. The substance is honest and decent, but the pronouns – the “theys” and the “ones” – those are the killers. Do you agree, or do I just have stronger feelings about pronouns than most people?

Do you remember Uncle Jack, who has a small but memorable role in To Kill a Mockingbird? Well, in Go Set a Watchman he’s a crotchety libertarian hoarder who retired from practicing medicine in order to be a recluse and study Victorian literature. Yes, really. If book blogs existed in 1954 he would definitely have had one. He’s more Boo Radley than Boo Radley, who isn’t mentioned in this novel – not even once. Scout goes to Uncle Jack for help with her make sense of what she’s witnessed, and he tells her that “all over the South your father and men like your father are fighting a sort of rearguard, delaying action to preserve a certain kind of philosophy that’s almost down the drain” (188). Jack also adds fuel to my earlier fire about the Protestant Reformation, telling Scout that “there are to this day in Maycomb County the living counterparts of every butt-headed Celt, Angle, and Saxon who ever drew breath” (190), making a point that the rural South has been driven by tribal thinking from the time it was settled by Europeans until the present day. The history lesson that follows is compelling but not at all coherent, and if I start quoting from it I may never stop. At one point, Scout tells Jack, “You sound like one of the minor prophets” (202). Before Scout departs, Jack tells her to come back “when [she] can’t stand it any longer, when [her] heart is in two” (202), and she promises him that she will.

Scout and Atticus have their great confrontation on a street corner outside the courthouse, which happens to be the exact spot on which Scout’s brother Jem died – an odd detail that seems superfluous. They discuss Brown vs. the Board of Education directly, with Scout admitting that her first reaction at hearing of the Supreme Court’s decision was to be furious at what she saw as a violation of (Lee’s words are “breezily canceling” [240]) the Tenth amendment, and Atticus describes black people as “backward” way too many times for my taste, though it is clear that he means it not as a pejorative but as a statement of a difficult truth, a consequence of the ravages of history. But then Atticus makes other statements that are harder to defend, like “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?” (245) and “Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?” (246) and “Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people… They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways…” (246), and as the pages pass it becomes harder and harder to defend anything that Atticus says. Have the intervening years between To Kill a Mockingbird and this novel made him a reactionary? Atticus had a cynical streak even back in that earlier novel – he sighed a lot and always seemed tired. And even here amid so many indefensible statements, he still shows a willingness to point out difficult truths, such as the fact that he (and, presumably, many other southern whites) feared the end of segregation not because they feared black people per se but because they knew that they were outnumbered by blacks (as the higher strata are always outnumbered by the lower strata in any kind of caste system) and feared a world in which blacks could vote. In both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, Atticus’ great virtues are honesty and patience. In this novel, he comes across as a bigot when he lays his own fears out on the table for his daughter to examine, and as a patient man himself he asks Scout to be patient too – he asks her to understand that he thinks that desegregation should happen very, very slowly. In other words, he preaches the same message against which Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Uncle Jack appears again after this confrontation and explains everything that Scout needs to know about Atticus – that by standing beside Grady O’Hanlon and letting him say his piece, Atticus also installed himself in a place where he can keep an eye on O’Hanlon and the rest of his ilk. “The law is what he lives by” (268), Jack says, adding that “the white supremacists fear reason, because they know cold reason beats them” (270). And he says more things – more grand, sweeping historical things – and then Scout leaves, perhaps for good, perhaps not. This novel is a little like Franny and Zooey in this sense – it’s orchestrated around various family members screaming at one another for a while, and then finding other family members to talk to about the screaming, and eventually one family member talks the other in off his/her figurative ledge, away from panic but directly into the path of sad, unwanted wisdom. Franny and Zooey convinces me – when Buddy calls Zooey pretending to be Seymour, I’m in tears. Go Set a Watchman doesn’t convince me as well. I find myself wishing that this novel had been published decades ago, when it was written, and that by the time I discovered it and read it, it had been processed and distilled into palatable form. I wish someone were here to tell me what it means.

So there you go. I promised myself I wasn’t going to spend serious time on the question of Atticus’ racism, but I couldn’t help myself, I guess. While I can’t say that Harper Lee meant me to take this thread quite as far as I’ve taken it, I am quite happy with the idea that the American Civil War and its aftermath – Reconstruction, the Jim Crow south, the Civil Rights Movement, and our recent (and, undoubtedly, future) failures to live in a way that is fair and equitable – are nothing but a series of final battles in the Protestant Reformation, when Europe fractured over the question of what constituted legitimate authority, and some of its pieces boarded ships and crossed the Atlantic and became us.

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2 Responses to A Review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (by Bethany)

  1. Maria Caswell says:

    Am I correct that this book was written first? And To Kill etc later? The tribal and Protestant reformation observations are pretty interesting. Tribal thinking is more around here than we know. It is easier to point to “less developed” societies and decry their tribalism, but it is alive and well here, disguised.

    • bedstrom says:

      Yes, that is her point, that tribal thinking still pervades. I read that this book was written in the early 50’s (TKAM was published in 60) and thought it was a misprint. I haven’t kept up with all the hoo-hah. This book feels like it was written second, but maybe it wasn’t.

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