Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

by Robert A. Parker

When this early novel appeared in 2015—describing the life of Scout Finch and her father Atticus two decades after their appearance in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird—reviewers jumped all over the work because of its portrait of Atticus. How could this lawyer who defended a black boy in the classic novel have later become a Southern demagogue who despises black people?

But I think they misread this earlier novel. For starters, the focus is not on Atticus. It is on his daughter. And I can understand why Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, advised against publishing this work at the time. Indeed, why she suggested that Lee turn to its flashbacks of Scout and Atticus of two decades earlier. Because she saw in those flashbacks a more heartwarming version of the South, one told by a child who adored her father and saw him acting in behalf of social justice. Of course, the editor also saw that in this work Lee otherwise had the skills of a true novelist. She could draw characters and scenes. She could create dialogue and human interaction and handle flashbacks. And, most important of all, she was prepared to tackle Southern society and the relationships between black people and white.

However, this editor also saw that Lee did not have here a real novel, certainly not the literary one her skills suggested she was capable of. But given that she did have a valid subject, the racial tension in the South, her editor suggested the warmer approach. That the novel’s flashbacks set in an earlier time still acknowledged the tension between the races, but might be more acceptable if explored from the viewpoint of an innocent child in more innocent times. Because a 1960s society surrounded by racial tensions would be unwilling to confront such tension if set near their own times.

Moreover, what the author had actually produced with this earlier work was a rather ordinary story. It is about a young girl of 26, now known as Jean Louise, as she returns from New York City to her home in Maycomb, Alabama, and discovers that she is uncomfortable with the world she encounters—and keeps asking herself why. Which, alas, the reader does as well. For the author spends the first 100 of 278 pages merely creating the Atticus family atmosphere and reminiscing about Jean’s past, but never introducing new dramatic developments to make the reader curious about the girl, her discomfort, or the old Maycomb that she sees with new eyes.

And then, confronted by post-war racial tension at a town meeting, our heroine is taken aback on witnessing white supremacists baldly preaching their beliefs. Indeed, the abrupt scene reminds one of similar generalities about family relationships and generational relationships that permeated Mockingbird. This author preached to us there as well.

At its heart, then, this early work is a message novel. And it has two messages—messages that the author has placed together rather than blended together. The first concerns Jean Louise, now 26, and the process of growing up as she returns home and reabsorbs the Southern culture. But after it evokes the girl’s innocent childhood, the novel fails to develop from within her newly discovered doubts about how she was raised—doubts that arise from the second message of the novel, the injustice behind post-war racial unrest and the social tension that follows. This hits home when Jean Louise not only sees blacks being treated unfairly, but is horrified that her father Atticus and her supposed fiancée Henry seem to support the town’s white supremacists.

Lee does try for editorial balance, offering the reader the response of Southerners to Jean Louise’s distress. Through Uncle Jack, she offers that the South doesn’t like having new laws and customs imposed on them by outsiders in Washington. While through the girl’s fiancée, Henry, she explains that to be a comfortable part of your local society, and to succeed in business, you need to support the laws and customs of your community.

The author’s major false step occurs, however, when Jean Louise has a no-holds barred argument with her father, accusing him of betraying her, of teaching her racial ideals he himself does not believe in. “You’re a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant,” she says. This is the dramatic climax of the novel, but it is too blatant. First, because Jean Louise’s point of view is stated too baldly. And, second, because it does not read like a natural argument between father and daughter. There is no human interaction between them; they are merely making political points.

Moreover, author Lee apparently felt unable to end her novel with this family tension. For Uncle Jack argues that “every man’s island, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.” And, he explains, Scout grew up identifying her conscience with that of a father whom she saw as perfect, not as a human being, not one merely acting “by the letter and by the spirit of the law.” In fact, Jack argues, the South now needs people like Jean Louise, people who can see through white supremacists’ fears that sharing facilities with blacks will result in the destruction of their white culture. And he is persuasive, leading Jean Louise to a closing meeting with her father.

If this novel’s end is calculated, it mirrors Lee’s calculating way of addressing racial issues. Which re-enforces my conviction that, on reading this manuscript, her editor, while recognizing that this author was addressing an important subject, also realized that there was not in 1960 an audience ready to confront her tension-filled portrait of the South. Whereas, the flashback to Jean Louise’s youth, her positive feelings then about her father—and Atticus’ own belief in the law and in justice—could prove a fruitful source of interest to contemporary readers.

One can understand why Lee did not publish this novel after the success of Mockingbird. It in no way reaches the level of that earlier novel. Should it have been published? I think not, except as a curiosity. For it reduces rather than enhances Lee’s literary reputation.

But what it also does, of course, is make the reader aware of the complex tensions that survived in Southern society. That many of its citizens were not willing to turn against the culture they inherited, and tried—with varying success, as black people insisted on their new-found rights—to remain a part of the world they belonged to. But this response becomes more a sociological rationale than a literary one. (January, 2018)