Book review: Go Set a Watchman
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee was published in 1960. It became an immediate success, and it is now considered an American literature classic.
In addition, the movie adaptation of this novel won three Academy Awards in 1963, including a best actor award for Gregory Peck. He portrayed Atticus Finch, a well respected attorney in the town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1940s.
Atticus was also a widowed father of two pre-teen aged children, one of whom was Jean Louise (also then known as “Scout”), who was about 10 years old at that time.
Harper Lee never published another book until “Go Set A Watchman” in 2015, which is the subject of this review. It is presently available in hard cover (278 pages) and electronically.
There has been controversy about this book, including the competence of Ms. Lee, who is now in her late 80s, to authorize its publication. It has even been suggested that she never agreed to its publication.
Perhaps the biggest controversy about the book is its perceived portrayal of Atticus as a possible racist.
“Watchman” takes place in the late 1950s when Scout (now known as Jean Louise) is 26 years old, living in New York City, and returning to Maycomb for a two week visit with Atticus, who is in his 70s. He is almost crippled with rheumatoid arthritis but, while his body is deteriorating, Atticus’ mind is still very sharp.
Jean Louise is not married, and she has liberal ideas as a New Yorker, particularly concerning racial issues and the infant civil rights movement.
Please keep in mind that the terms “African American” and “Black” were not generally used, if at all, in the 1950s and early 1960s. The kindest terms used then to describe African Americans were “Negro” or “Colored”, as in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
At the beginning of the book, Jean Louise appears very cynical about her life in New York and life in general in Maycomb. She is being courted by Henry Clinton, a native of Maycomb and a childhood friend of her now-deceased older brother. Henry is in his 30s, and he returned to Maycomb after serving in World War II. He went to law school on the GI Bill, and he is now working for and helping Atticus.
Henry’s family had very little money, and he is what might be considered a self-made man, who is aspiring for better things in life than he had growing up.
An ambition of Henry at the time of Jean Louise’s visit is to run for the State Legislature. Both he and Atticus feel that, to do this, Henry has to fit in with the thinking of the voters in his district, including their racial prejudice and narrow mindedness, irrespective of his personal feelings and beliefs.
Consequently, Henry and Atticus attend a Citizens’ Council meeting at the County Courthouse, where the guest speaker is a man who has devoted his adult life to preserving segregation in the South. Atticus is on the Board of Directors of this Citizens’ Council, and he is encouraging Henry to become active in it to assist his political campaign.
Unbeknownst to Atticus and Henry, Jean Louise was sitting in the balcony of the Courthouse during this meeting and heard the speeches favoring segregation. She cannot believe that her hero, Atticus, would act in this way.
She also remembers that Atticus, at the cost of losing many clients, once undertook the defense of a “Negro” man accused of raping a white woman, and he convinced the jury to return a not guilty verdict, which was almost unheard of at the time in the South (quite different from the “To Kill A Mockingbird” book and movie versions).
This revelation that Atticus is no longer her iconic hero sets the stage for many discussions, arguments and debates involving Jean Louise, Henry, Atticus and Atticus’ eccentric younger brother, Dr. John Finch.
The main issue in these discussions is whether the Tenth Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution should prevail at that time with respect to civil rights.
Also, there are many arguments in the book concerning the U. S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department and the NAACP prematurely pushing integration when the South and the “Negroes” were not ready for it.
The old saying “if not now, when” is a main topic of debate in much of the book.
Obviously, in retrospect, the Fourteenth Amendment prevailed in the U. S. Supreme Court, and was later buttressed with the passage in 1968 of the Civil Rights’ Act of 1964.
An interesting part of the book was how Atticus encouraged these discussions and arguments with Jean Louise. I think he was trying to show her first of all that he was not Gregory Peck perfect, that he was human, and that he made mistakes like everyone else.
It also shows the admiration that Atticus had for Jean Louise being able to hold her ground on what she believes to be right, even if it is against him.
By the way, the title of the book comes from Isaiah, Chapter 21, Verse 6, in the King James Bible:
“For thus the Lord said unto me, go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”
The passage refers to a lookout being sent from a banquet to give careful attention to what he sees, which, in Isaiah’s case, was to receive a report from the armies that had just destroyed Babylon, which had been treacherous to the people it had conquered. According to some interpretations of this verse, God sent Isaiah a vision showing that people who destroy others will also be destroyed. This does sound somewhat like an underlying metaphor in this book.
Most of the publicity surrounding “Go Set A Watchman” claims that it was written before “To Kill A Mockingbird”. However, in reading this book, and having read Mockingbird a number of years ago, I had the impression that Ms. Lee wrote but one book with many flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood.
I also felt that Ms. Lee’s publisher in 1960 liked these flashbacks and Scout at age 10 better than Jean Louise as a 26 year old. I say this because the few flashbacks I read in Watchman presented a more favorable impression, at least for me, of Scout than of Jean Louise.
Therefore, if you have read these two books, or do read either or both of them, I would very much appreciate receiving your thoughts and whether you feel Atticus was a racist. You can post your comments electronically at the end of this book review, or e mail them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.