I had started writing this review before Harper Lee died on Feb. 19 at the age of 89. It’s impossible to review Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, except within the context of comparisons to her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. And it is impossible for Go Set a Watchman to live up to the standard of that colossal work.
That it doesn’t come close to matching its predecessor is a given. There’s a decent story arc in Go Set a Watchman. The writing is clunky at times and lengthy forays into backstory slow down the pacing. The themes of racism and loss of innocence are explored here, but not in nearly as powerful a way as in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The editor who reviewed this manuscript and advised Lee to set the story years earlier and tell it from the point of view of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as a child made a wise call. In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise returns to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City, where she lives, as a 26-year-old adult. It is set in the mid-1950s, shortly after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated schools as separate and unequal.
In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch is elderly, afflicted with arthritis and, most disturbing, is a racist. He attends meetings of a city council bent on keeping the NAACP lawyers from meddling in the affairs of Southern communities. I found this heartbreaking as, like many people, I always revered Atticus Finch as one of the most courageous characters in fiction.
When Jean Louise discovers that Atticus and her lover, Henry Clinton, are attending a council meeting, she sneaks into the balcony, the same vantage point from which she and Jem, her brother, witnessed the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise is incensed at the vitriolic racism she hears at the meeting from a speaker brought in to address the group. Later in the story, she confronts her father. His response is appalling: “Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life.”
Jean Louise responds by saying she doesn’t recognize her father in these views. “You deny them hope…You are telling them that Jesus loves them, but not that much.”
Atticus’s brother advises his niece to have understanding and empathy toward her community, which needs people like her to serve as their conscience as they struggle to preserve their way of life as the nation is evolving. Jean Louise is left with the conclusion that her family and her neighbors are flawed, imperfect people and she can either use moral persuasion to change them or leave them behind. This is the real message of this story and the moral dilemma we all face. It’s the flip side of the message of To Kill a Mockingbird. In this novel and her earlier work, Lee paints Atticus as someone who represents both our best selves and our demons.
To me, Go Set a Watchman is an important historical document that serves as a lengthy set of character sketches , but I would prefer to remember Atticus Finch as the towering figure in To Kill a Mockingbird.