GO SET A WATCHMAN: The novel, race, and Harper Lee’s legacy

Go Set A Watchman

This review contains minor spoilers for Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

Controversy has surrounded Go Set a Watchman since its announcement.  After starting, and never completing, at least two other books, Harper Lee maintained that she would never publish again.   Now at the age of 88, it was suddenly announced she would be releasing a new book, a sequel of sorts to her preeminent work.  But wait–it wasn’t a new book but the original rejected draft that eventually metamorphosed into the modern masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, newly discovered in a safety deposit box by her lawyer, Tonja Carter.  It was assumed by many that Lee, having suffered a stroke, memory problems, and being nearly blind and deaf, was being taken advantage of, and reading the book would be tantamount to supporting elder abuse.   Although it is awfully convenient that the book was announced shortly after the death of Lee’s long time protector and representative, sister Alice Lee, despite the fact that  there is evidence that the manuscript was discovered 3 years earlier,  the state of Alabama investigated the claims that Lee had been coerced and found them of no merit.  Perhaps if Lee were in full possession of her mental faculties, she would not have wanted the book published.  But if she says she wants it published now, we can only take the woman at her word.     

Then soon after the book’s release a new bombshell hit: heroic lawyer Atticus Finch, the moral compass of To Kill a Mockingbird, was revealed as a racist.  I was as horrified by this news as anyone, and reconsidered my stance on reading it.  I decided to try and keep the two books separate in my mind so as to not allow Watchman to taint Mockingbird, but I found that they fit together much more neatly than I could have imagined.  

The novel

To Kill a Mockingbird is an expertly crafted work of art, full of colorful, vivid language that distinctly evokes time, place, and character.  I read it for the first time for sophomore English in 1996, again in 2005, and again this year in preparation for Go Set a Watchman.  Each time I’ve reread it, I’ve been taken in anew by the novel.  So many books, upon rereading, never live up to the way they’ve been edified by my imagination, but Mockingbird remains just as captivating and beautiful each time.  Go Set a Watchman, one the other hand, is clearly an early draft.  It has moments of brilliance, and indeed some passages describing Maycomb, Aunt Alexandra, and other townspeople appear almost word for word in Mockingbird.  Given this, and several other inconsistencies such as Atticus actually winning his seminal rape case, I dismiss the conspiracy theories that Watchman was written after Mockingbird.  

Go Set a Watchman’s biggest weakness is that it simply isn’t developed well.  The basic plot revolves around Jean Louise (Scout)’s return to Maycomb from New York for her annual two week visit.  The time is the year after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision and Alabama is in an uproar.   Jean Louise is shocked and disturbed by the ugly and racist side being shown by people she loved and trusted, people who informed her moral education, most importantly, her father Atticus.  She also loses her relationship with Calpurnia, who no longer sees Jean Louise as the child she loved and partly raised, but as another white lady.  Lee tells but does not show the impact that Atticus had upon Scout.  The book does have a few flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, but most of them seem random, disjointed, and not relevant to the subject at hand.   The case where Atticus defended a black man accused of raping a white woman is alluded to but not discussed in detail.  This is not a problem for readers of To Kill a Mockingbird, but considering this book was the original and meant to stand on its own, it’s much harder to empathize with Jean Louise’s feelings of betrayal without developing Atticus’s character fully.

The final third of Watchman mainly consists of tedious conversations where various characters proclaim their political views.  Uncle Jack goes on a bizarre Ayn Randian rant about the government for reasons that are unclear.  Then Jean Louise has confrontations with Hank (a new character and love interest) and Atticus about their reasons for joining the Citizen’s Council, which is a pro-segregation group less violent than the Klan that seeks to subvert Brown v. Board and hold the Civil Rights movement at bay.   This section could definitely be stronger.  It’s clear that Lee is trying to work out her feelings on her respect and love for Southern culture and her dismay at its darker side, and it’s never completely resolved.



After I read about Atticus being a racist in Go Set a Watchman, I was convinced that there must have been some sort of profound shift in his characterization, that when Lee reworked the book into Mockingbird she must have completely rethought his character.  I reread To Kill a Mockingbird, paying careful attention to everything Atticus said and did, and I remained convinced that it couldn’t be the same Atticus.  Then I read Go Set a Watchman and it all clicked.  The Atticus of Go Set a Watchman is the same Atticus, and while the reader feels just as confused and angry as Scout, it’s clear upon close reading that Atticus never advocated for full racial equality.  

Atticus is still a man of principle, a man who abjures violence and believes that everyone deserves a fair trial.  And yet, just because he doesn’t believe that black people should be lynched or thrown in jail when they are obviously innocent, does not mean he thinks they should be held as equal.  Does Atticus think it is unfair that blacks can’t serve on juries?  He never mentions it.  Does he have any problem with the fact that blacks are kept separate from whites, forced to sit on the balcony and attend different schools?  Apparently not.  To his credit, he does not blanch at his children accompanying Calpurnia to the black church or sitting in the colored balcony at the courthouse, unlike his more propriety-minded sister.  At one point in Mockingbird, he tells his children, “Whenever a white man [cheats] a black man, no matter who he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash” and “There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.”  At first you could interpret these statements as anti-racist, but upon further reflection, they betray a more patronizing view of blacks as a less competent class who deserve special consideration because of this.  

Atticus’s paternalistic attitude toward black people is developed fully in Go Set a Watchman.  Atticus is not violent or hateful; he does not use the n word or act rudely to people of color.  But he is still racist at his core, believing that blacks are “in their childhood as people” and therefore can’t be trusted with the vote or other “responsibilities of citizenship.”  He believes blacks to be backward because they haven’t made enough progress in conforming to “white ways,” which are unquestioningly the only right ways.  Even Scout does not contradict this.  

We can accept that for a 1930s white southerner, Atticus was undeniably brave in defending a black man against the word of a white woman, earning the rancor of his neighbors, and at standing down a lynch mob.  He is above all, committed to honoring his responsibilities as a lawyer and upholding the law.  Atticus demonstrates how a person can rail against one type of racial injustice and stalwartly uphold another type, a lesson all the more poignant in the present day, when racism is more subtle, and masquerades as anything but.


Jean Louise herself also holds racist views, although her racism is less blatant than her father’s.  While she claims to be colorblind and refutes her father’s assertion that blacks should not have access to the same opportunities as whites, she was furious about the Brown v. Board of Education decision because it violates the 10th amendment, apparently not understanding that the 14th amendment is part of the Constitution and therefore supersedes the states’ rights granted by the 10th amendment.  She does argue that they ought to help blacks in order to thwart the NAACP’s foreign influence on local politics, but seems to agree with her father’s point that blacks are a backward people.  Finally in the most ironic scene, she tells her Uncle Jack that just because she supports equal rights doesn’t mean she’s going to go out and marry a black man or anything.  Jack concurs, saying that interracial relationships are a boogeyman invented by white supremacists and would never actually happen.  

I think to an extent, it’s unrealistic to expect pre-civil rights white southerners not to harbor some racist views because of the toxically racist environment they grew up in.  We should rightly recognize that these views are abhorrent, but it doesn’t mean having to dismiss the positive lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird wholesale.  However, much like the character of Jean Louise, readers have lost their innocence as to the true nature of white southern society, and perhaps we will never be able to see Mockingbird in the same light because we know that under the surface, even the white characters who support Tom Robinson are comfortable with their superior position in society and do not want to see that privilege eroded.  

The Legacy

Should you read Go Set a Watchman?  If you are a literature nerd, then the book provides interesting insight into Harper Lee as a person and the editorial process.  That editors managed to coax To Kill a Mockingbird out of this draft is nothing short of amazing.  While Watchman can deepen your understanding of Mockingbird and its characters, it will inevitably feel like a loss to have their flaws brought into clear view.  

Harper Lee is quoted as saying that she would never write another book because she didn’t want to be put through the “pressure and publicity,” and that she had said everything she wanted to say, and “will not say it again.”  It’s clear though, from reading Watchman that she did have more to say.  It’s a shame that she was never able to say it.  Go Set a Watchman is not a great book, but with more development, it might have been.  It’s a story that is more adult, complex, and less reducible to simple moral lessons.  To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming of age story about a little girl who learns of the potential for both profound good and deep evil within her own society.  Go Set a Watchman is a story about loss of innocence, of a woman coming to terms with loving her father and her town, and yet recognizing the vein of bigotry that runs through all of them.   It’s also about becoming an adult and forging her own separate identity apart from the father she idolized and modeled herself on.  Watchman lacks the comforting nostalgia and neatly tied plot of Mockingbird, but it raises important questions about southern society and how a person should navigate the pernicious aspects of their own culture.   

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