I read Harper Lee’s iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time about ten years ago and immediately fell in love with it, as have so many before me. I discovered it was not about hunting, as I thought when I saw it on my parents’ shelves as a child, but was the quintessential story of childhood, told with warmth and humor, alongside a story of historical racial inequity and injustice. The novel quickly rose to my favorites of all time, and I experienced a genuine affection for both Scout, its six-year old narrator, and her dignified, loving lawyer father, Atticus, who defended a man against false charges, without regard for the color of his skin.
As most people know (unless you spent this summer on another planet), a new/old novel of Harper Lee’s was released in July this year, Go Set a Watchman. The story behind this book is that it was Lee’s first novel that she sent to her publisher, about a grown young woman named Jean Louise (childhood nickname Scout) who returns home from NYC to visit the small Alabama town in which she grew up. The publisher responded that what they liked most about it was the flashbacks of Jean Louise recalling her childhood and the times she spent with her brother, Jem, and friend, Dill. They asked her if she could write a different novel, based on the same characters but focused on the girl’s childhood instead. And, thus, To Kill a Mockingbird was written, that first novel was filed away somewhere, and the rest is history.
According to the publisher, that first novel was recently re-discovered in some old archives. When they realized what they had, they obtained permission from Harper Lee (who is now 89 and living in a nursing home), and finally, after all these years, published that first manuscript. Criticisms, controversies, and gossip have surrounded this book’s publication, and everyone involved in books and reading seems to have an opinion. As for me? I loved To Kill a Mockingbird and was thrilled to have something new (old) from Harper Lee to read. My husband gave it to me for my birthday this summer, and I enjoyed Go Set a Watchman, though it is quite different from Mockingbird in some ways (and wonderfully familiar in others).
As the novel opens, Jean Louise (aka Scout) is 26 years old and has been living in New York City, working to become a writer. She returns home to Maycomb County, as she has each of the past five years, for a visit. She is eager to see her beloved father, Atticus, her aunt, Alexandria, and her longtime friend, now-boyfriend, Henry Clinton, who meets her at the train station. Her old house is now the site of an ice cream parlor, but little else has changed in Maycomb County on the surface. The town seems to have stood still while the rest of the world moved on around it.
This novel is very much a coming-of-age story (although its main character is a bit older than is typical – perhaps think of it as a second coming-of-age) about learning to think for yourself and separating from your parents. After living in New York City in the 1950’s, Jean Louise has a very different outlook on life and the larger world than she did as a child whose only point of reference was her small Southern town. Although her affection for Atticus remains, you can begin to see signs of conflict between the two, as Jean Louise’s more modern and evolved points of view come up against those of the traditional South. The two debate issues, as they always have, but there is more of an edge to their arguments than there used to be. It’s the classic struggle of a child growing up and beginning to see that her parent is perhaps not the perfect ideal she’d always thought but a normal, flawed human being.
On this visit home, Jean Louise notices – perhaps for the first time – certain inequities in the way the races are treated and a stark contrast to the way things are in New York. Moreover, she notices differences in the whole social fabric of her town – obvious tensions where before, especially from her child’s perspective, there were none. A visit to her beloved Calpurnia, the black woman who cared for her and Jem and Atticus for decades, is especially disturbing to Jean Louise. She even conflicts with Henry, with whom she’d had an uncomplicated relationship until now.
Jean Louise peeks in on a town meeting, which Atticus is attending, that especially upsets her. Eventually, tensions come to a head and she finally confronts Atticus about his actions and her own thoughts and feelings. They have a lengthy, angry argument over civil rights, racial inequality, and state’s rights. When she was a child, things seemed to be simple and straightforward to her, but now it all seems to be shades of gray. In and among the tensions and arguments, however, are interspersed Jean Louise’s remembrances of her childhood: warm, funny scenes exactly like those in To Kill a Mockingbird.
I enjoyed this novel overall. Although To Kill a Mockingbird feels more polished (probably due to a lengthier editing process in which she was directly involved), it is a more idealistic and nostalgic novel. In contrast, Go Set a Watchman is a grittier, probably more realistic novel, filled with tension, but also more thoughtful and thought provoking. My one criticism is that it can veer slightly into the preachy, with lengthy speeches by both Jean Louise and Atticus. It is the kind of novel that you have to keep setting aside briefly and thinking about, mulling over the arguments of the two main characters.
It seems clear that Lee’s first novel was written in 1957 to provoke debate on civil rights and was very likely deemed too controversial by her publisher. Reading it now, in 2015, it is still controversial, though for different reasons. Overall, though, I found it to be an engaging, thoughtful story of both a young woman growing up and changing, as well as a nation and town’s struggle with changes. As you can tell from this lengthy review and the additional discussion below, this novel really made me think…and I like that in a book.
278 pages, HarperCollins
(no spoilers here if you have heard anything at all about Go Set a Watchman in the media – I only touch on the headlines in the media, not any specific plot points)
Much has been made about the difference in Atticus in this novel versus To Kill a Mockingbird – headlines screaming that he’s a racist, vitriolic rants about destroying a beloved literary hero, and criticisms that it’s not the same Atticus. But I think that most of those detractors have missed one very important point: this novel takes place twenty years later. The 1950’s were the beginning of a great social change in the United States, a change that Jean Louise would have seen in New York but which was slow to come to rural Alabama (and still would be, even ten years later).
Although this is a novel about a young woman growing up, becoming independent, and learning to separate from her father, it is also a novel about a specific time and place in history. As such, it describes the great changes coming to our nation, and the way that those changes were vehemently fought against, especially in the South. It shows the growing tensions between the races and the ardent battle – which carried on for decades – to preserve a way of life in the South.
As for Atticus himself, To Kill a Mockingbird never portrays him as being for racial equality – in fact, the concept of civil rights barely existed yet in the 1930’s, when the novel takes place, and certainly not in the Deep South. Yes, Atticus does defend a black man in the novel’s famous courtroom scene, but my perception was that that was more about standing up for injustice. Atticus saw an innocent man wrongly accused, and he defended him without regard for his skin color because for Atticus, justice and the law were paramount. Remember also, that all of To Kill a Mockingbird was told from the perspective of a young child, a child who worshipped her larger-than-life father.
I won’t spoil the details, but in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus and Jean Louise engage in an in-depth discussion about racial equality and civil rights. Things are different now in Maycomb in the 1950’s than they were twenty years earlier, as they were everywhere. Blacks were no longer keeping to themselves, living in their own section of town and having jobs where they mainly served whites in various capacities. Instead, they were integrating more into general society, asking for equal rights and demanding to be treated fairly. Many southerners saw this as a frightening change. In addition – and more importantly for Atticus – the Supreme Court had gotten involved and was making integration and desegregation federal issues. As you’ll see in this novel, Atticus is a staunch believer in states’ right and was against these federal incursions into what he saw as the domain of the states. Finally, in this novel, Atticus does explain to Jean Louise that his presence during the town meeting does not mean that he agreed with everything that was said by others.
So, is Atticus a racist in Go Set a Watchman? He may be from today’s perspective, but I don’t think it’s a simple question to answer for the time and place that the novel takes place and given his position on states’ rights. After reading the novel, I don’t believe that Lee intended to make him a villain here; I think she was trying to dig into the complexities in the issues, as evidenced by Atticus’ and Scout’s intense debate. I also think she was showing how the times were changing and the gaps between North and South and between the younger generation and the older. I believe she succeeds in showing that these were complex issues at the time, issues that young Jean Louise was struggling with, both internally and with her beloved father and hometown.
Those are my thoughts, and much has been written on these topics in the media. I would love to know what YOU think. If you’ve read Go Set a Watchman, tell me what your take on it was.