Review: ‘Go Set a Watchman’ by Harper Lee

By Max R. Weller

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

— Isaiah 21:6 KJV

I read this novel on Saturday, after buying it at King Soopers because it was discounted by 40%; still, sixteen dollars and change is a major investment for the Homeless Philosopher. It was worth every penny to me. The flashback in Chapter 5 to the 1930s childhood of Jem, Scout, and Dill — in which they stage their own version of a Baptist revival — had tears running down my cheeks, it was so funny. The character of Atticus had the same reaction.

“Watchman” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are separate novels which happen to share a cast of characters. So are “Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” so let there be an end to confusion on that score. Thus, “Watchman” is set in the 1950s, in the midst of growing turmoil over race relations. Remember, in real life President Eisenhower sent federal troops into Little Rock to enforce school integration and keep the racist Arkansas governor and his minions in check. In that context, Harper Lee can be forgiven for using somewhat overwrought dialogue in Jean Louise’s confrontation with her father and dethroned idol, Atticus, at the end of the book. In the heat of the moment, she calls him a “ringtailed son-of-a-bitch.” Atticus refuses to become angry in response, and instead allows his adult daughter to vent her emotions. I think a pivotal moment for Jean Louise, leading up to this, occurred when the retired Calpurnia made an unspoken yet unmistakable rejection of Scout, just two short years after the old Finch family retainer had deeply mourned the passing of Jem.

The story starts off slowly, with 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch returning home by train to Maycomb, AL from New York City, an annual pilgrimage for her since Atticus shoved her out of the nest (for her own good). She happens upon a more-or-less open meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, attended by almost every prominent white man including Atticus Finch and Jean Louise’s Maycomb boyfriend (an attorney working with Atticus in his law firm), and being held in the Courthouse.  Jean Louise eavesdrops on the proceedings from the same seat in the balcony where she’d witnessed Atticus defending a Negro man falsely accused of raping a white girl some twenty years earlier (NOTE: there are some important differences in facts about this case in its brief mention in “Watchman” as compared to its detailed treatment in “Mockingbird”). The Citizens’ Councils all over the South were attempting to stem the tide of full civil rights for Negroes, and Jean Louise herself makes reference to the specious constitutional argument about states’ rights based on the Tenth Amendment. Of course, it’s the Fourteenth Amendment, the one which guarantees due process and the equal protection of the laws, which directly bears on the civil rights of all citizens.

Someone in The New Yorker wrote that “Watchman” fails now because of its “didactic treatment of race” — whatever that is supposed to mean. No, this work fails only because the publisher lacked the moral courage to print an indictment of the paternalistic brand of racism practiced by mainstream white Southerners in the 1950s, FAILED TO PRINT IT AT THAT TIME, an audacious indictment written by a young woman born and bred in the South. We’ll never know, but I think it would have been a bombshell back then, and its author would certainly have been excoriated by many of her own people.

As to the slanders about others (including Truman Capote, the real-life Dill) having ghostwritten both “Watchman” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” it’s beyond ridiculous, and illustrates the fact that an effete literary establishment (and its hangers-on) has NEVER wanted to credit Harper Lee with possessing her abundance of talent. As to editing, extensively or not, a friend of mine wrote on my Facebook page, “EVERYONE needs an editor.” That much I accept.

I highly recommend this book to all those who can form their own judgment by reading it, without regard to any of the silliness surrounding its long-delayed publication.

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