Reckoning with Prejudices
Harper Lee swept the literary world by storm when she made her debut with To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960. The winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, To Kill A Mockingbird has become an integral part of high school and middle school literature classes. It was a literary sensation that, with the passage of time, has become a classic of American literature. Its messages and insights still reverberate in the contemporary. Neither the passage of time nor the proliferation of similar works eroded the potency of the book’s message, especially with the escalation of violent acts towards persons of color. The coming-of-age story of Scout Finch has swept the literary world by storm it was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film. It sits on its own pedestal in the Pantheon of the greatest American literary masterpieces.
It was because of the sheer power of the book’s message that literary pundits and readers the world around have been clamoring for more of her prose. For years, they were crossing their fingers for new major work from the esteemed writer. But for over six decades, the gods of literature did not heed the call. When news arrived in early 2015 that Harper Lee was releasing new work, everyone was caught off guard. The drought has been too long that the news came in unexpectedly. The news of new work, nevertheless, was warmly received, both by those whose lives have been inspired by her first novel and by literary pundits. The anticipation for Go Set a Watchman reached a fever pitch that it has become the most pre-ordered book on Amazon since J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows which was released in 2007.
Marketed as the sequel to her first novel, the central action of Go Set a Watchman took place 20 years after the events detailed in To Kill a Mockingbird. With the passage of time, several events have taken place and shaped the lives of the characters we met in To Kill a Mockingbird. Its young heroine, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, once a spunky kid was now a woman of her own. She left her hometown of Maycomb to work in New York City, where she has also settled down. But still, her roots are fundamental to her existence. As such, she made it an annual tradition to go home and visit her aging father. The marks of the passage of time were ostensible on the once formidable Atticus Finch, a former lawyer, state legislator, and champion of the masses.
“On any other day she would have stood barefoot on the wet grass listening to the mockingbirds’ early service; she would have pondered over the meaninglessness of silent, austere beauty renewing itself with every sunrise and going ungazed at by half the world. She would have walked beneath yellow-ringed pines rising to a brilliant eastern sky, and her senses would have succumbed to the joy of the morning.”~ Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
The central events captured in Go Set a Watchman transpired during Scout’s annual retreat when she was 26 years old; it was the 1950s. Ditching her childhood nickname for her birth name, Jean Louise wasn’t expecting anything untoward to happen during her latest visit. Everything felt the same yet everything was different. The family home that was once teeming with activity has become hushed. Those who once populated the house are gone. Jean Louise’s older brother, Jeremy “Jem” Finch, has passed away a couple of years before from the same heart condition that claimed their mother. On the other hand, Calpurnia, their black housekeeper who was also a mother figure to the siblings, has retired. Following her retirement, Atticus’ sister Alexandria moved in to look after her brother.
Go Set a Watchman did gain a lot of attention, even prior to and after its publication. Pre-publication, the book stirred controversy around the decision to publish the book. It was alleged that Lee was coerced into releasing the novel. Already 89 years old by the time of the book’s release, Lee was suffering from different physical maladies exacerbated by dementia. More controversy ensued after it was learned that the book was the draft of an earlier work that was supposed to be published prior to the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, only to be rejected by publishers. These controversies, however, did little to dampen the enthusiasm for the book. Rather, they helped drive the increase in sales; this was on top of the fact that its predecessor was a classic of both American and World Literature.
The more eyebrow-raising element of the book, however, was situated within the story itself. Along with Jean Louise, the readers learn that Atticus was not the man we have always thought him to be. His forbearance belied an uglier reality. In Lee’s debut novel, we saw him as a domineering man who championed the causes of the oppressed and the marginalized, as depicted by his volunteering to handle the case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. This was despite the pressure and the backlash he received from the other side of the community. He successfully defended Robinson, turning him and the book into an icon of justice, and an inspiration for young men and women across the world who aspire to be lawyers; even Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo cited the book as her inspiration for pursuing a degree and practice in law.
Go Set a Watchman, however, pierces the veil that has disillusioned many a reader, including that of his own daughter. Growing up, Jean Louise has always viewed her father as the moral compass, the titular watchman, of her hometown; he was her hero. However, truth is stranger than fiction. Among his father’s papers was a pamphlet titled “The Black Plague.” This led Jean Louise to follow her father to a Citizens’ Council meeting where Atticus introduced a man who delivered a speech steeped in racism. Why was Atticus the one to introduce the man? What are the connections between his father and this man? These are just among the many questions that seize the readers’, and, consequently, Jean Louise’s mind.
“You’re color blind, Jean Louise. You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like. You’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You see only people.”~ Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
As more pieces of evidence of Atticus’ perceived hypocrisy started to surface, we are forced to confront our own images of him. Is he the man who we thought he was? His championing the case of Robinson, for instance, takes on a different meaning. Viewed from a different light, Atticus took on the case, not as a hero of the oppressed but mainly because it was assigned to him by the court. These eureka moments, captured in the “sequel” has naturally disparaged purists of To Kill a Mockingbird. Finding out your childhood hero was a villain all along has a sobering effect. It is for this reason that many a reader has considered Go Set a Watchman as a standalone book and not as a sequel to a highly-revered masterpiece. The sea of differences between the two books does lead to such a conclusion.
As a standalone story, Go Set a Watchman does have its own merits. While its predecessor was primarily a coming-of-age story, Go Set a Watchman was the story of a young woman’s own reckoning with not just her own father’s but an entire community’s racial prejudices. The novel vividly captured the racial tensions that have characterized the American Deep South, particularly in the 1950s. Racism was prevalent but the landscape was slowly shifting. Changes were sweeping the Deep South as integration was slowly being introduced. Barriers that once separated the whites from people of color (POCs) were, brick by brick, being torn apart. These are radical changes that none of the Deep South’s white denizens were too fond of.
The novel’s discourse on rase was predicated on two critical subjects. The first one involved the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Brown vs Board of Education. This was a seminal ruling as it was integral in ending racial segregation that was once prevalent in schools. Atticus opposed the idea of segregation, believing that it will open the door for uneducated POCs to control and destroy the government with their incompetence. The second one was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organization founded in 1909 with the mission of advancing justice for African Americans. Both Atticus and Jean Louise dislike the NAACP, believing that the federal government should not intervene in the affairs of the states.
While the novel introduced interesting ideas, some overlooked in To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel never quite reached its potential. Beyond the readers’ renewed understanding of Atticus, the novel was undermined by several slanders. We get to study Atticus through a third person’s perspective but we never get to see his interiors, his motivations. How we should feel about him was already dictated by the story. As such, he comes across as a flat character. Jean Louise was no different. She was obnoxious and selfish. The only advantage she had over her father was that she had slightly more progressive ideas. Nevertheless, her prejudices still showed. Father and daughter were products of their time.
“I’m only trying to make you see beyond men’s acts to their motives. A man can appear to be a part of something not-so-good on its face, but don’t take it upon yourself to judge him unless you know his motives as well. A man can be boiling inside, but he knows a mild answer works better than showing his rage. A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them. … Have you ever considered that men, especially men, must conform to the demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?”~ Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
The plot was also nonexistent and the writing was uneven. It meandered and was rarely straightforward. Many a time, the amateurish qualities novel surfaced as the story moved forward; it lacked the editor that tightened its predecessor. The elements that made To Kill a Mockingbird the classic it is today were glaringly missing in Go Set a Watchman. Starkly absent were the rich descriptions and the gift of dialog that made the former flourish. The humor was dry and missed its spot. Instead, we get a flat story with uneven writing and a lacking personality. The book’s saving grace, however, did come later in the story when Jean Louise confronted her father. But even the power of this scene was dulled by an ensuing confrontation that underscored the bigotry that permeated the story.
Go Set a Watchman was not the sequel everyone expected it to be, nor was it the Lee novel everyone yearned for. Beyond the controversies that hounded its publication, the book pierced everyone’s expectations and understanding of its predecessor. But beyond the sentimentality and the nostalgia, the novel, on its own, failed to impress on several levels. It does grapple with an important but sensitive subject but it simply skirts around it. The attitude of white superiority, which remains prevalent in the contemporary, was stamped all over the book but it was never fully addressed. It was lacking in several facets, from its plotting to its characterization. The man who loomed above the story remained a mystery. It was no To Kill a Mockingbird and its overall impact was ephemeral at best.
“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 imprtance the reflext, ‘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 decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.”~ Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
Characters (30%) – 14%
Plot (30%) – 12%
Writing (25%) – 12%
Overall Impact (15%) – 6%
I loved To Kill a Mockingbird. It has easily become one of my all-time favorite reads because of the complex subjects it has shed a light on. When news of a new book by Lee reached me, I was beyond ecstatic. I was looking forward to Go Set a Watchman but, unfortunately, I was unable to obtain a copy of the book until a couple of years after its release. It was also later on that I read about the controversies surrounding the book’s publication. Nonetheless, I delved in with an objective mind, or at least I tried to. To say I was appalled by Atticus’ personality was an understatement. With the contrasts with its predecessor, I surmised it was more logical to read and understand the book separate from To Kill a Mockingbird. Even then, I was underwhelmed by the book. The plot was thin and Atticus was a vile character although he was observed primarily through a third-person point of view; we never really get to know him or his motivations. Adult Jean Louise was an equally disappointing character. The writing was also disappointing. For sure, Go Set a Watchman is a forgettable book and is not necessary for the understanding of To Kill a Mockingbird. It might, however, aid in the understanding of the writer.
Author: Harper Lee
Publisher: William Heinemann
Publishing Date: 2015
Number of Pages: 278
Genre: Literary, Historical
Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch – ‘Scout’ – returns home from New York City to visit her ageing father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tension and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt.
Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humour and effortless precision – a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to a classic.
Because maybe there are always other futures. Other chances.
Light Perpetual is a story of the everyday, the miraculous and the everlasting. Ingenious and profound, full of warmth and beauty, it is a sweeping and intimate celebration of the gift of life.
About the Author
To learn more about the late Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Harper Lee, click here.
This is a great well thought out review, I read it a few years ago and hated it for nostalgic reasons and because there seemed to be absolutely no point to it, it dragged along and like you say didn’t really address the problem of white supremacy. It’s like she wanted to say something but didn’t know what.
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Thank you! I can’t also bring myself to like the book. Maybe there was a reason why Lee didn’t want the book to be published.
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