American Culture

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman: mythbusting or manipulation?

The soon to be released Harper Lee novel Go Set a Watchman will be an interesting experiment: a sequel that seeks to explode the mythology surrounding her only other work, the ubiquitously revered celebration of high-minded Southernness, To Kill a Mockingbird. How that will go down with the myriad Atticus Finch acolytes is what will make or break both the novel and perhaps Lee’s reputation as a writer….

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (image courtesy HarperCollins, NY Times)

By now anyone within reach of media of one stripe or another knows that Harper Lee, the long reclusive and now aged and fragile author of one of, if not the the most beloved of American novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, is now, at long last, bringing out a second novel, a work which is both a sequel to Mockingbird and, at least in the minds of early reviewers, a sort of rebuttal of that myth of Southern race relations.

It seems a daring act – but as history shows, Go Set a Watchman is not a “new” work. That raises questions about Lee’s motivation for publishing her novel (which is, it seems clear, the antecedent of Mockingbird). Is this the act of a woman coming to terms with her mortality and wanting to “set the record straight,” to coin a phrase? Or is this what some have claimed, a manipulation of an aged, fragile woman by cynical forces?

However, such questions, and the arguments they have fostered, seem, at best, pointless now. Go Set a Watchman will be released 07/14/2015. And Chapter 1 of the novel is already available from numerous sources for those seeking a preview. What remains, then, is to consider the work – which probably must be done both on its own merits and in terms of its relationship with its iconic descendant.

The first chapter of the novel allows one to make some determinations about what the tenor of Go Set a Watchman may be. Set some 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, we see a now 26 year old Scout Finch who is on her way home to Maycomb, Alabama, from her home in New York. As she moves south into the land of her childhood, Scout finds herself of mixed emotions: she, like all Southerners, feels a tremendous connection to the landscape and part of the opening chapter is taken up with her meditations on the beauty of the countryside she passes through; like (sadly) only some Southerners, she feels conflicted about the people she is on her way to meet. One is her romantic interest, Henry Clinton, a young lawyer who works with the other, more significant person Jean Louise Finch is on her way to see – her father, one of American literature’s most sainted figures, Atticus Finch.

Though Atticus is only talked about in Chapter 1 of Go Set a Watchman, and that in the most sympathetic and loving terms (now in his 70’s and suffering rheumatoid arthritis, he needs considerable care and his health issues are the main motivation for Scout’s trip home), we know from early reviews that in the larger novel the heroic and high-minded Atticus Finch is very much a man of the world and times he has lived through. He’s a social conservative and, at times, an active racist – as is his young protege and law partner – and the man Jean Louise Finch seems to be contemplating marrying – Henry Clinton. Jean Louise’s struggle to come to terms with her adored father’s feet of clay is the main focus of the novel. Her decisions concerning both her father – and the man she sees as her destined mate – form the plot of Go Set a Watchman.

The other, almost equally shocking revelation in Go Set a Watchman, that Chapter 1 reveals is that Jem, Scout’s beloved older brother and as central a character in Mockingbird as Atticus or Scout, is dead. Perhaps most shocking for readers is the brevity (perhaps borne of the character’s indescribable pain) of the announcement that the boy who survived Bob Ewell’s vicious attack has simply dropped dead:

Just about that time, Jean Louise’s brother dropped dead in his tracks one day, and after the nightmare of that was over, Atticus, who had always thought of leaving his practice to his son, looked around for another young man. It was natural for him to engage Henry, and in due course Henry became Atticus’s legman, his eyes, and his hands. Henry had always respected Atticus Finch; soon it melded to affection and Henry regarded him as a father.

One of American literature’s most beloved boys, a character as well known as Tom Sawyer or Holden Caulfield, is dismissed in fewer than 25 words. It is a breathtaking act and can only be understood (if still not easily accepted) when one remembers that at the time Lee wrote this depiction of Jem’s death that he was not that beloved character. Still, Jem Finch is now changed forever and his sad fate in the later novel may well color readers’ experience of him in ways that may be Heisenbergean.

The depiction of Atticus Finch as a typical Southern male of his times is perhaps the novel’s greatest revelation. It will be a saddening experience for many readers to see this side of a character who is enshrined in American literature as an icon of justice and civil rights. How readers will respond – and what this will mean for both the success of Go Set a Watchman and for Harper Lee’s literary legacy remains to be seen.

And that brings us back to the original questions: Is this Harper Lee’s attempt to de-mythologize Atticus Finch (a character based on her own father)? Or is this a cynical manipulation by Lee’s attorney and publishers to get one more payday out of the old girl before she joins the choir invisible?

Doesn’t matter now. The deed is done and American literature is forever changed. Whether for good or ill for author and her oeuvre we are to learn.

3 replies »

  1. I haven’t bought the book and not sure if I will. My understanding is “Go Set….” was actually written before “To Kill a….”. Apparently the publishers to whom she took “Go Set….” wanted a re-write or major editing. It was then she went back in time to Atticus as a younger man and wrote “To Kill a…” which was published.

    The simple fact that Atticus has become a KKK member in “Go Set…..”, while it may be disappointing to many, offers validation or at least comfort to racists that Atticus evolved (rather than devolved) because he realized the error of his young ways.

    Let’s see what the literary pundits have to say about it.