Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

“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


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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)

 

 

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11 thoughts on “Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

    • Thanks, it (Watchman) had a powerful effect on me. As for “well thought out” I had to wait three weeks between listening to Reece Witherspoon’s reading and getting a copy of the book to quote from – so, plenty of time for thinking. I’m glad you think I made good use of it!

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  1. Well thankyou, I try to be persuasive and I genuinely loved the flow of Lee’s writing and of course Witherspoon’s Southern cadences. I think popular opinion had Harper Lee as a ‘one hit wonder’, and To Kill a Mockingbird therefore something of a fluke, but Watchman makes it clear she was an amazing talent, both as a writer and as a story teller, and it is a great shame that she felt unable to go on.

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    • Maybe now she’s dead they’ll find other things among her papers … though we have our own very talented Elizabeth Harrower who just stopped writing in the same way.
      I can’t understand it myself. I can’t imagine not writing at all, I always say that I don’t know what I think until I write it, and I reckon I’d lose the plot altogether if I couldn’t write.

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      • Yes, I never write down what I first thought, or at least, how I first thought it, and so have to read what I’ve written to see how it came out. I’ve taken to leaving drafts of these posts sitting for a day so I can be sure I’ve written what I wanted to say.

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  2. Hello – I’m new to your blog – I’ve come via ANZlitlovers blog when I saw you were going to review this book – it’s the first review I’ve seen and I’ve been busting to talk to someone about it. I also listened to the audio version and agree that Reece Witherspoon was wonderful – just the right tone, pace and accent. Like you I found the first 2 thirds or so absorbing and engaging but it faded for me too after The Black Plague pamphlet. I got a little lost with the uncle’s diatribe and thought both Jean-Louise and Atticus were not holding true to character. I really wonder how this book would have ended if it was written after Mockingbird and whether Harper Lee would have changed the ending if she had the choice (I don’t know if she did have a choice).

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    • Hi Sharkell, good to have you on board. I agree totally about inconsistency with the characters towards the end but I think Lee was trying to persuade us or justify to herself that growing up involves moral ambiguity. I guess given that I’ve got to 60 without engaging in the acts of revolutionary violence that seemed inevitable to me at 20, that’s something I should consider too. Le Guin thinks that Lee’s arguments would have been more nuanced as she grew as a writer, so that is something else that we lost.

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  3. I passed GSaW on to ex-Mrs Legend, a Mockingbird fan, who says (i can’t get her to post her own comments) that I am to tell MST she agrees with her that yes, it is “most disappointing”. In particular she finds Jean Louise’s complete about-face, from trusting and believing her father is anti-racist to believing he is pro-racist, after witnessing Hank and her father at the town meeting, to be totally unbelievable. She cannot imagine anyone in that situation not waiting for explanations, or even not believing there must be a rational explanation.
    Happily, we did have one small point of agreement and that is the similarity of Jean Louise’s voice to Sybylla’s (My Brilliant Career), not that I mentioned it in this review.

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