A review of Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee
July 2015, ISBN-13: 978-0062409850

Go Set a Watchman is a disturbing, even tragic novel about the impact of the U.S. civil rights movement upon a white family in Alabama. It takes place sometime in the mid-1950s, after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in Brown versus the Board of Education, that found racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. This historic event is never spelled out specifically in the novel, nor are other milestones which are merely referred to, such as the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 and the acquittal by an all-white jury of the two men accused of the crime; and the Montgomery, Alabama boycott to end segregation on the city buses. As one of the characters in Watchman says, the American South was undergoing its “last agonizing birth pains”; the civil rights movement was going to bring about a “revolution.”

This backdrop, however, is not shown when the novel opens. Instead, we see twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch returning to Maycomb, Alabama, by train from New York City for her annual visit home. The passing countryside stirs her memories of local scandals and eccentricities and sets a tone for a nostalgic, humorous, pastoral novel. But author Harper Lee has a surprise for Jean Louise and the reader, and it is a nasty one.

Awaiting Jean Louise is her beloved seventy-three year old father, prominent lawyer and former legislator Atticus Finch, who has been her moral compass all her life. Other family members include her Uncle Jack, a retired physician, and her Aunt Alexandra, who has moved into Atticus’s house to help him cope with crippling rheumatoid arthritis. Jean Louise’s best friend and elder brother, Jem, four years her senior, died in his mid-twenties of a heart attack.

Also waiting for Jean Louise is her long-time suitor, her father’s law partner, thirty-year-old Henry (Hank) Clinton. Henry is a self-made man from humble origins. His alcoholic father came to an early accidental death and his mother ran a country store. Henry boarded in Maycomb to attend high school there and became buddies with Jem. Thanks to Atticus’s encouragement and the G.I. bill which paid for his education, he has risen to become a promising young man, voted Man of the Year by the Maycomb Kiwanis Club.

Starting with their meeting at the station, Henry and Jean Louise seem to be such comfortable old friends that the reader wonders why she hasn’t married him. Later we are told that while she “loves” him, she isn’t “in love” with him and is afraid that she may meet “the one” when it is too late. Talking with Henry about what a woman wants in a man, she says: “Every woman wants a strong man who knows her like a book, who is not only her lover but he who keepeth Israel.” The latter phrase, from a Psalm, continues: “He who keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” Jean Louise’s remark indicates that she is looking for a husband who is god-like, a moral force, (as she believes her father to be), and someone who will watch over her and any family they might have together.

Later, to Henry, she uses the phrase “living in sin in New York”, and speaks of men on Madison Avenue who have “turned the Other Woman into a psychiatrist’s couch, and at far less expense, too.” Implied here is that Jean Louise has some experience, as has ex-G.I. Henry, and that they are mature and sophisticated about it. Though Jean Louise may not be “in love” with Henry, in view of their long friendship and mutual understanding, they seem made for each other. The twists and turns of their relationship provide suspense.

Readers soon realize that coming home is not a total pleasure for Jean Louise. Aunt Alexandra criticizes her clothes and New York manners and announces a coffee party to be held in her honour so that she can reconnect with the “girls” who were her highschool mates. Aunt Alexandra also dismisses Henry as “white trash.” Churchgoing is a requirement; Jean Louise’s mind wanders through a sermon based on Isaiah 21:6, the text from which the novel gets its title: “For this has the Lord said unto me: Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees.” Neither the author nor Jean Louise explains the text, which is Isaiah’s prophecy that the Babylonian Empire, in which the Israelites are captive, will eventually fall. The watchman is to keep tabs on developments toward that fall, and declare and make known what he sees.

The uncomfortable aspects of Jean Louise’s old home intensify when, cleaning up the living room, she finds a racist pamphlet near Atticus’s chair. Aunt Alexandra says it is something he brought home from a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council. Another meeting is being held a the courthouse that afternoon, so Jean Louise walks downtown to see what is going on.

From the gallery of the courthouse, where she has seen her father defend people, both black and white, she sees Atticus and Henry at a table along with the county’s most prominent men, including the political boss, whom Atticus has “despised” for many years. They and others at the meeting are listening to a rabid racist speech by a segregationist who speaks of “mongrelization of the race”: “essential inferiority of the negro”. He works in some anti-semitism and even a slur against the progressive-minded former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Disgusted by his venomous racism, Jean Louise flees the courthouse and vomits.

“Her father’s presence at the table with a man who spewed filth from his mouth – did that make it less filthy? No. It condoned.” She realizes that she was “born colour blind”; that is, she is not a racist, a “visual defect” that sets her apart from her nearest and dearest and the majority of white Maycombers.

Back home she takes to her bed, devastated and exhausted, and revisits in a dream a scene from her early life. Calpurnia, the family’s African-American cook/housekeeper, was the only mother-figure Jean Louise had, since her own mother died when she was two. At eleven, when Jean Louise was upset over a misunderstanding about the facts of life, Calpurnia explained things and relieved her mind. This incident demonstrates that, for all Atticus’s devotion as a single parent, he failed his daughter in providing guidance in some areas of her life. When Jean Louise gets up, she resolves to sit out her two weeks at home in “polite detachment” and then go back up north forever.

The following day, learning that Calpurnia’s grandson has accidentally killed a man while driving drunk, and that Atticus and Henry plan to take his defence to keep the case out of hands of the civil rights-oriented lawyers of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), Jean Louise goes to visit Calpurnia, now retired and living with her son. The porch and house are crowded with leaders of the local black community who greet Jean Louise respectfully and make way for her to see Calpurnia. During their conversation, Calpurnia “wears her company manners”, no longer talking to Jean Louise as if they were close. When Jean Louise protests, “Why are you shutting me out?…What are you doing to me?” Calpurnia asks, “What are you all doing to us?” As Calpurnia sits staring at her with “no hint of compassion”, Jean Louise asks, “Do you hate us?” and Calpurnia shakes her head.

It is remarkable that Cal doesn’t hate, given the racist oppression to which she and her community have been subjected. She is the character in the novel who demonstrates the highest moral values. I would have liked to have seen her and other members of the African American community play bigger roles in this novel, but because the focus is on Jean Louise’s disillusionment with her father’s racism, African Americans are on the periphery. She returns to her father’s house, where her aunt tells her that “Nobody in Maycomb goes to see negroes any more… The NAACP’s come down here and filled ’em with poison.”

The powerful scene with Calpurnia is followed by another illuminating scene presented in a different style – the coffee party. There the young women of Maycomb spout the same racism that Jean Louise overheard at the Citizens’ Council meeting.

“If I married anybody from this town, these would be my friends and I couldn’t think of anything to say to them,” she reflects. Moving from cluster to cluster she catches fragments of conversation which, juxtaposed, are jarring, like T.S. Eliot’s poetry, and reflect her inner turmoil and also suggest that her world has gone crazy:

      “Mr. Talbert looked at me and said… he’d never learn to sit on the pot…of beans every Thursday night. That’s the one Yankee thing he picked up in the… War of the Roses? No, honey, I said Warren proposes… to the garbage collector…That was all I could do after she got through… the rye…”

Subsequently, Jean Louise abandons her polite detachment to confront first, Henry, then Atticus, about their participation in the Citizens’ Council. She learns from Henry that, years earlier, Atticus joined the local Ku Klux Klan, attending only one meeting, so as to know what local extremists were saying. Henry defends his own participation on the Citizens’ Council on the grounds that he has to fit in in Maycomb: “How can I be of any use to a town if it’s against me?” Jean Louise has always enjoyed great leeway of behaviour because of her upper class position as Atticus’s daughter, he says, but he, descended from “white trash”, cannot “deviate from the norm.”

Next comes her confrontation with her father, in which Atticus expresses views that are shocking to most readers. He claims that “negroes” are in their “childhood as a people”, and that full citizenship is a “privilege to be earned.” Jean Louise argues that the segregationist states have “missed the boat” in failing to do right by their African American populations, and that “the time has come when we’ve got to do right… Give ’em a chance.” She tells her father that she despises everything he stands for. “You’re a nice, sweet old gentleman,” she says, “but I’ll never believe a word you tell me again.”

Back home, she packs and is about to catch the next train back to New York, when there is a melodramatic intervention by a better father-figure, who reminds her that, as an adult, she no longer needs anyone other than herself as a moral compass. Eventually, Jean Louise demotes Atticus from the status of “god” and “welcomes him silently to the human race.”

The novel’s ending is troubling for two reasons. When you learn that your former hero/role-model holds despicable beliefs, should you “divorce” the individual, severing all ties? If not, if you take the forgiving attitude that we all have opinions and that we are all fallible human beings, do you risk your integrity and fall into the danger of being complicit with that person? I wished, at the end, Jean Louise would remember what she said midway in the novel: “In New York you are your own person.”

The ending is unsatisfactory, also, because it points to an unfulfilled life for Jean Louise. Her newer, better father-figure tells her that South needs more people like herself, showing their “colour blindness” by living an everyday life in their communities; in effect, becoming watchmen. Certainly, Maycomb is home to Jean Louise in a way that New York never was, but if she moves back she will become one of the single “perennial hopefuls” at the coffee party who “never made the grade”.

Moreover, the civil rights struggle has only just begun. Violent struggles are to take place in the Alabama cities of Selma and Birmingham. In 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King wrote his famous letter arguing that individuals have a moral duty to disobey unjust laws, it was from the Birmingham jail. Later that year, fire hoses and police dogs were used on African American demonstrators in Birmingham, and a church was bombed, killing three young girls. (See http://www.infoplease.com/civilrightstimeline1.html) Considering the magnitude of the violence to come, one wonders how much good Jean Louise’s presence in the South can do.

Reading articles and reviews of Go Set a Watchman, I gather that it, along with To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s famous Pulitzer Prize winning novel, were once part of one big manuscript, and that an editor told Ms. Lee that the childhood sections set in the 1930s along with Atticus’s defence of Tom Robinson, should be carved out from the larger manuscript to make a good book. When and how Watchman was written, or shaped into a novel, I do not know, as there is no “foreword” which might have provided this information.

To me, Go Set a Watchman is a worthwhile work, although I wish Ms. Lee had been more precise about the historical context and had made Jean Louise a little less naive. Stylistically, the novel is dated, but that makes it authentic to the place and time in which it is set. Given the shocking instances of racial violence in the United States this past year, it would seem that Go Set a Watchman is relevant to our times.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta is a Canadian who lives and writes in Ottawa. Her most recent novel, Most of All, is available on Amazon Kindle. For ten years she wrote a monthly book review column for Ottawa’s Forever Young magazine. Her book reviews have appeared in various publications including the Globe and Mail, Briarpatch and Canadian Materials.