BOOK REVIEW FRIDAY – GO SET A WATCHMAN BY HARPER LEE

The much anticipated novel arrived in the mail only days after its release. I eagerly began reading the continuation of Scout’s journey in Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

I’ve stayed away from reading other reviews before I wrote this one. I’ve heard the rumors about the betrayal some feel in the portrayal of one of the twentieth century’s most beloved heroes and father. Heroes fall a long distance off those pedestals created by an adoring public. And so Atticus Finch has taken one of the biggest falls into the abyss of humanness.

Even though I haven’t read the other reviews yet, I did check on Amazon to see how the book is doing. It beat records for pre-orders and is still No. 1 in some categories. It has received 1,641 reviews with an average 3.8 ranking (out of five).

I believe book reviews should be about the quality of the writing and story telling ability. If I disagree with a character’s viewpoint, then the author has done the job of making at least one reader feel something about the writing. Go Set a Watchman certainly achieves all those things. It’s a compelling story, filled with the quality writing expected from Harper Lee based on the literary genius of To Kill a Mockingbird. I found it fascinating to learn that Ms. Lee wrote this book first in the mid-fifties. Publishers rejected it, and one asked for her to change the character of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch to a child rather than the grown woman who comes home to Maycomb, Alabama, after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954.

Once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. That doesn’t happen to me very often these days. I couldn’t wait to meet the grown up Scout to learn how she grew out of her tomboy phase. Her adult character rang true to the beloved Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a marvel how Ms. Lee took what she originally created in the adult Scout and transformed her into the child. She’s adept at characterization. I loved Alexandra “Aunty” and Uncle John. Both characters provided foils and moral low and high points in the story. Atticus is mostly absent from the main part of the novel, and that added to the tension as some shocking details come to light and nearly send Scout back to New York City forever. I read as fast as I could so I could get to the part where Atticus declares true or false the accusations building in Scout’s mind against him.

Jean Louise is caught in the shades of gray areas of adulthood, with one foot back in the world of Scout and her brother Jem, and the other area where she faces the harsh realities of a culture not ready for change. She’s polarized, and most of the time, she feels as if she belongs no where, or even worse, that she doesn’t even exist at all. Her Uncle John plays the role of mediator between those worlds in this novel. He tells her at a crucial moment in her awakening, “You’ve walked into the middle of a revolution.”

There are some uneven points in the novel, but it could be a literary technique Ms. Lee chose. Two or three times there’s a subtle shift in point of view, but for the most part, the reader knows the story only from Scout’s point of view.

Atticus may have fallen off his white horse, but he gives his reasons, which are both shocking and parental. His views on race relations, and the whole African American race as a whole, jar with his other persona from years earlier. However, he wisely knows that for Scout to shift into full maturity, she must not view him as infallible.

Harper Lee has written a book of a time and era that existed in this country. Attitudes such as the ones portrayed in the novel still exist in pockets or have shifted to other groups. Arguments about states’ rights versus the federal government give this novel an eerily relevant and insightful view of the lengths folks might go to to protect the status quo. You could insert “gay” or “illegal immigrant” instead of the “Negro” of this novel to understand how timely her novel really is. She hasn’t written a racist book as some suggest, but she’s written a book about the history of an era in which some of the characters are racist. It’s who she’s portrayed as the racist that has upset folks.

She knocked down an icon in Atticus Finch, but perhaps it was time. An icon in the most original sense of the word means something that is idealized and then is destroyed before it is worshiped to the exclusion of all else. The icons of the past were literally smashed on the steps of cathedrals and annihilated so as not to become too powerful.

He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being. -John Finch to Jean Louise in Go Set A Watchman

While I’m not sure Atticus Finch needs to be destroyed completely, in the real world, he most likely would have held some of the beliefs espoused in Go Set a Watchman, with his privileged status of a southern gentleman who was born shortly after the Civil War.

Finally, just a personal aside. As she flashed back to her childhood,I kept waiting for a reference to Boo Radley. Nothing. So perhaps the character only came to her upon revision for the Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird.

I recommend reading this book for its outstanding literary content and its historical perspective. We need to remember our history because we sure are doing a terrific/horrific job of repeating it.

14 comments

  1. Thank you for this review. I have been curious why more people, although being quite aware which novel came first, don’t see Atticus as simply being more realized in TKAM. It seems to me in her early characterization of Atticus he wasn’t much different from many white men of that era and she decided to make the character a more heroic character at a time we sure needed one.

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    • Stephen, that’s true. Also we’re seeing the maturation of a child into a woman and when that happens the idealizations of youth fall away and tarnishes begin to appear. In this case, Atticus is a man of his race and place in the society of Macomb.

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      • P.C. in that regard GSAW does read like a follow up. Scout, like Harper Lee, leaves the small town of her upbringing, goes to the big city and returns Jean Louise, a woman who does see “tarnishes” in the armor of her father. It’s a highly likely scenario, especially in the South at that time period.

        I’m suggesting that Atticus’ character was simply a re-write, perhaps on viewing the positive changes in her own father. Harper Lee decided not to make him like the average man of his “race and place in the society” of that era. I was just suggesting that readers should consider that the man in TKAW was the character she ultimately wanted the world to see.

        This is all unusual as time has been reversed. It’s probable that GSAW was never published before now because it was indeed the beginning and not the end of Harper Lee’s formation of these characters. Lee’s publisher might have done the world a great service in requesting the re-write that eventually became one of the greatest novels in American literature. I’m glad we get enjoy more of Harper Lee’s great work and also I understand why it was not published for all these decades.

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      • Well, that’s certainly the most positive way to view both views of the man, and it may very well be the case. It is unusual to consider how it all evolved with the reversal of time. However, I believe that GSTW is also a masterpiece of a different sort. I’m only sorry this author of great American literature has only published these two books. In researching for my review, I discovered that she helped Truman Capote in his research for In Cold Blood. I think I knew about their friendship, but not that she worked very hard with him to create that work. Thanks so much for your thoughtful and stimulating comments, Stephen.

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  2. I’ve read as much as is available online about this novel’s background. I honestly think Harper Lee and her sister [who apparently was a great influence on Lee] simply didn’t want this book published in the aftermath of the success of TKAM, perhaps concerned it would tarnish the popular image of Atticus? But it also occurs to me that they felt the novel wasn’t quite as good, or polished. Lee spent close to two years revising and rewriting Mockingbird to it’s Pulitzer perfection. She did not attempt to rework Watchman and kept it from readers. She did not write another novel, or if she did, it was not submitted for publication. Why?

    I am troubled that Watchman was published now, while Lee is alive. After her sister protector Alice died not long ago, a new agent and publisher were very eager to cash in on Lee’s weakened resolve. The full story of the “re-discovery” of Watchman by them is disputed. She lives in a nursing facility, is deaf and suffers memory loss due to a stroke. Reportedly she’s easily influenced by anyone she trusts, or knows, so under the agent’s influence, she gave permission for publication after all this time. Was she browbeaten or manipulated by the agent and publisher? Lee still receives ample income for her care, from Mockingbird royalties, so has little need of additional money. The agent and publisher, however, stand to earn a great deal of money off the book. Lee’s heirs, whoever they are, will also benefit.

    Many have suggested that Watchman should have been published posthumously for academic purposes, but there may have been legalistic motivations to do it while Lee is alive, as it’s unknown who would inherit the rights. By “persuading” Lee to publish now, those uncertainties disappear. It’s a done deal.

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    • You make some valid points, Mimi. I’ve wondered about her mental state as well and that makes this a sorrowful tale more than anything else if done for some of the reasons you’ve suggested. However, I still maintain this is literature worth reading. It’s thought-provoking, a historical perspective that is still contemporary, and well written – though perhaps not as thoroughly edited as TKAM. Thanks for adding your important take on this novel.

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    • Well I can only hope Harper Lee released Watchman knowingly and with the hope it would be taken as a first draft of her first novel. TKAM was completed with years of re-writes and stands alone.

      I appreciate P.C. Zick maintaining it’s “literature worth reading.” It started with GSAW and evolved into TKAM, not the other way around. I find that in its self very interesting.

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  3. Well, I’m that woman who is saddened when our real heroes get knocked off their pedestals and the Atticus Finch controversy has had the same effect for me. On reading your post, I’ve somewhat changed my mind and that’s what a great blog post should do. You’ve made me think. I might even have to read this controversial book now. Thanks for a well thought out and well written point of view here, Patricia!

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