“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” Isiah 21:6 (King James Version)
“… Go, post a lookout and have him report what he sees. When he sees chariots with teams of horses, riders on donkeys or riders on camels, let him be fully alert.” Isiah 21:6-7 (New International Version)
“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.” Harper Lee
My friend MST in her roundup of 2015 wrote “The wooden spoon for most disappointing read of the year goes to Harper Lee for Go Set A Watchman.” Respectfully, I beg to disagree, the writing in Watchman is wonderful and the issues raised are of immediate importance to us all. To be fair, Michelle redeemed herself by providing a link to a stunning review by Ursula Le Guin who analyses the way Watchman illustrates the compromises a moral person makes to live in an unjust society. And of course we all are and we all do.
Harper Lee (1926-2016), who died only a few weeks ago, is famous as the reclusive writer of the iconic To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). The publication of the largely unexpected “sequel” Go Set a Watchman last year reveals that Harper Lee had originally intended a much wider work, of which Mockingbird was to be only a part. It seems she was persuaded by her editor to publish just the Upright-white-man-doing-good parable To Kill a Mockingbird and to hold back the much more morally ambiguous material which now makes up Go Set a Watchman. White people everywhere were uplifted by the image of themselves they were able to read into Mockingbird and over the last half century it has become one of America’s, and possibly the English speaking world’s, most loved books. It is probable Harper Lee felt oppressed by the immense popularity of her maiden work, and what she would have seen as the misreading of her intentions, in any case she wrote no more. And now, with the publication of Watchman, we can see what a great loss that was.
The version I ‘read’ is an audio book titled The Harper Lee Audio Collection with Go set a Watchman read by the pitch perfect Reece Witherspoon and To Kill a Mockingbird read by Sissy Spacek who, good as she is, is not unnaturally unable to reprise her unforgettable, 15 year old voice from the Terrence Malik movie Badlands (1973).
Watchman begins with Jean Louise Finch, the “Scout” of Mockingbird, now aged 26, returning by train from New York for her annual visit to (the fictional) Maycomb, Alabama. Jem, her older brother has died of the heart condition that killed their mother; Calpurnia, their black housekeeper has retired; and Atticus’ sister Alexander, with whom Jean Louise has a difficult relationship, has taken over; Atticus, her father, is ageing and frail but still maintains his legal practice with the assistance of Henry/Hank, originally the boy across the road, who thinks, and whom Jean Louise sometimes also thinks, will one day become Jean Louise’s husband. You can see by the way I am writing this that you are expected to be familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird, and indeed I am not sure how the book would read if you were not.
The book proceeds lazily over the course of Jean Louise’s two week holiday with flashbacks to her childhood, of which Mockingbird would originally have been one, and perhaps the most significant, tagging along after Jem. Here they are joined by Dill:
It was unnecessary to call Dill. The cabbages trembled in Miss Rachel’s garden, the back fence groaned, and Dill was with them. Dill was a curiosity because he was from Meridian, Mississippi, and was wise in the ways of the world. He spent every summer in Maycomb with his great-aunt, who lived next door to the Finches. He was a short, square-built, cotton headed individual with the face of an angel and the cunning of a stoat. He was a year older than she, but she was a head taller.
Go Set a Watchman is above all the story of Jean Louise growing up, overtly of the transition she is making from the tomboy who plays with Jem and Dill, to the barely adult city girl walking out for 2 weeks a year with Hank, to the Southern lady her aunt would like her to be; but actually of the transition she must make from the moral certainties of Mockingbird, and her utter reliance on the moral probity of her father, to a more nuanced understanding of the compromises her father is making to fit in with his white peers in this segregated, bigoted, Southern hick town.
During the night of her first day back, a Black man driving erratically, knocks down and kills a White man. The Black man turns out to be one of Calpurnia’s grandsons and Atticus volunteers to be his defence lawyer. Jean Louise goes to visit Calpurnia, but is shattered to find Calpurnia’s responses to her advances are formal and evasive:
Jean Louise said slowly, more to herself than Calpurnia: “As long as I lived I never remotely dreamed that anything like this could happen. And here it is. I cannot talk to the one human being who raised me from the time I was two years old … it is happening as I sit here and I cannot believe it. Talk to me, Cal. For God’s sake talk to me right. Don’t sit there like that!”
She looked into the old woman’s face and she knew it was hopeless. Calpurnia was watching her, and in Calpurnia’s eyes was no hint of compassion.
Jean Louis rose to go. “Tell me one thing, Cal,” she said, “just one thing before I go – please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?”
The old woman sat silent, bearing the burden of her years. Jean Louise waited.
Finally, Calpurnia shook her head.
(Spoiler alert, I suppose. I don’t see how any discussion of this book makes sense without discussing the ending). At home Jean Louise has found a pamphlet, ‘The Black Plague’ in her father’s papers. She attends a town meeting and sees her father and Hank seeming to agree with the bigot addressing them and discovers that Atticus has only taken Calpurnia’s grandson’s case to prevent lawyers from the NAACP from getting involved. She is disgusted – all her illusions about her father shattered – and decides to cut short her holiday. At this point I am shouting You Go Girl and barracking furiously, but unfortunately, from here the novel peters out. Jack, Jean Louise’s favourite uncle, slaps her face and gives her a lecture, Jean Louise decides to stay, and her father slimes in smiling and says he’s proud that she’s a woman now and able to compromise.
Go Set a Watchman has raised the issue of the posthumous (yes I know she was still alive) publication of inferior manuscripts. James Joyce’s Steven Hero has also been mentioned in this context. Since I have read and enjoyed both I can hardly agree. But in my own studies there is Miles Franklin’s On Dearborn Street for instance, which would hardly stand alone except as an example of a particular period in her work. So my position is that in our community, our sub-set of the Literature community, we are, we seem to be, interested not just in reading, not just in the Work, but in the whole Project of Literature (to quote, or misquote, Susan Sontag). We seek to devour both the novel and the process which led to its creation. We are addicted to Jane Austen juvenilia, and yes, we demand to see the ‘inferior’, rejected, unpublished manuscripts of all our favourite authors.
See also: Ursula K Le Guin, A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman (here)