Go Set a Watchman, to use a tired description, is what it is: a sixty year-old first novel that its author, with guidance from a thoughtful editor, revised into a beloved classic of American literature.
I wrote about Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman, a couple of weeks ago and discussed the problematic history of its discovery and subsequent publication. At that time I wondered whether Lee was able to discern how her decision (upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court) might affect her literary legacy.
I’ve read the novel now and can offer two observations: 1) if one is to appreciate Watchman, one must approach it as what it is – a 60 year old work that might have been published as a work of its time; 2) had Watchman been published in 1957 when Lee first shopped it to publishers, it would have been reviewed as an uneven first novel by a young author who showed flashes of promise but as a work was ultimately a failure.
It certainly wouldn’t have sold over a million copies and elicited backlash like this.
The plot of Go Set a Watchman is simple enough and so we’ll dispense with it in a brief, slightly scathing, summary: the adult child of an Alabama lawyer who has always idolized her father as paragon of virtue and racial and human justice goes home from New York to spend her vacation in her Alabama hometown. Ostensibly this is to check on her dad who is in his seventies and suffers from arthritis, but she also will see the “love of her life,” so to speak, a young man who has risen from the “white trash” of her Alabama county to a position of prestige as the father’s law partner. On this visit home she discovers that her father and boyfriend are part of the widespread white reaction to the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. the Board of Education and the subsequent push for African American civil rights that came as a result of that landmark decision and belongs to the local “white citizens’ council.” These were composed of a range of (male) persons from the lowest to the highest classes of Southern citizenry and had the avowed aim of keeping “Negroes in their place.” She finds this behavior not simply countenanced but supported by her family which included her father’s brother and sister. In a series of confrontations with her father, boyfriend, uncle, and aunt, the young woman realizes that she is a Southerner (with the inherent double, perhaps triple mindedness that implies) and that her disagreements with her father, her other relatives, and her boyfriend are based upon not race but class and politics. Thus enlightened, she realizes that she is now truly grown up and can both accept her father’s paternalistic attitude towards blacks and that her boyfriend isn’t good enough for her. This is couched as “growing up” and seeing her father “as a man, not a god.”
If this sounds pretty weak and just a tad racist and classist to you, you’ve grasped the problems of Go Set a Watchman pretty well.
If one reads the novel, then, as the 60 year old work it actually is, one can see it as a historical document that reveals some truths about the South of the mid-fifties and about the mind set of many of even its best educated citizens. In that way the novel can be appreciated for what it is: a work that reveals as much incidentally – and accidentally – about the South at a particularly important moment in its history.
Reviewers in its time would have, I believe, roundly criticized some of the nonsensical polemic about states’ rights in the latter part of the novel as they would have noted the lessons in racism and classism that Jean Louise Finch “learns.” They would also, likely, have noted that the novel has some lovely moments, as this poignant description Lee offers of Jean Louise’s beloved father:
He was seventy-two last month, but Jean Louise always thought of him as hovering somewhere in his middle fifties – she could not remember him being any younger, and he seemed to grow no older.
There is also the powerful description of how Jean Louise conceives of Atticus Finch as the lodestar of her universe:
She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, “What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.
Such moments show that sense of delicate insight that pervades To Kill a Mockingbird. There aren’t enough of these, however, to offset the issues that make Go Set a Watchman a book that is, sadly, too much of its time to be anything more than a historical document.