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Go Set A Watchman

by Harper Lee

How would you react to the news that an unpublished book by a favorite author had been found and was going to be released to the public soon? Would you be jubilant, perform a happy dance around the living room, then message family and friends with the joyful information? That’s what I did when the first announcements of the publication of the novel Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee were reported.

As many other readers have experienced, the book To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee stole my heart. I loved Scout and Atticus, and the setting of the story in the poor, Depression-ridden, rural South. I mourned over Tom Robinson’s fate and was profoundly relieved when Bob Ewell got his come-uppance at the hands of a most unlikely person. Mockingbird left a deep imprint and a desire for more of Harper Lee’s writing. Time and again, the question was raised among friends in book clubs: why were there no other offerings from such a wonderful writer? Therefore, when word came out that Go Set A Watchman was about to be published, it was time to throw a party! How marvelous that there was another book by Harper Lee!

Then rumors began to circulate that in Go Set A Watchman, Scout and Jem’s widowed father and the hero of To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus, was portrayed as a racial bigot. This was unsettling information, and it completely deflated my enthusiasm for the book. Could I give up my emotional attachment to the beloved, truly inspiring Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird?

Eventually though, curiosity won out. Some preliminary reading about the “new” novel led to the information that Watchman was written before Mockingbird. Evidently Lee offered Watchman to a publisher in the 1950’s, but it didn’t make the grade for publication. Also, before purchasing Watchman, I spent some time thinking about claims that publication of the book as a “new work” was a despicable untruth used as a marketing ploy by Rupert Murdoch who owns Harper-Collins, the publishing house promoting Watchman. There is also speculation that business people, or someone close to Harper Lee, manipulated the 89 year old Lee into publishing her novel. Lee, who is frail and recently had a stroke, had been known to say that after publishing To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, she never wanted to publish again. Did Lee suddenly have a change of heart after her sister and guardian, Alice, died last year? Did Harper Lee’s newly assigned guardian have anything to do with Lee’s renewed interest in publishing? In July 2015, Lee’s “new book” debuted and sold 1.1 million copies the first week (information from Harper-Collins 7/20/2015). Did I want to literally “buy into” the controversy surrounding Watchman?

Yes, and for a few different reasons. One reason was to see the fertile field from which Harper Lee produced To Kill A Mockingbird. Go Set A Watchman was written before Mockingbird, but the time-stamp for the book is approximately 20 years after Mockingbird. From various sources — the New York Times, Brilliant Books, and Wikipedia — it appears that Watchman was an early draft of a book that, upon its re-working by Lee, eventually became Mockingbird. Therefore in Watchman, the unmistakable voice, humor, Southern sensibilities, and characters of Mockingbird are present and accounted for. It is a treat to pick out parts of the anecdotes in Watchman that appear in Mockingbird in different forms. Lee’s use of poetry, scripture, and Southern idiom are also there in Watchman, moving like quicksilver throughout her novel. Harper Lee’s writing is a wonder to behold — and that is the second reason to read the book: it is an absolute joy to once again partake of the delightful talents of this splendid storyteller whose skills have been absent from the world for decades.

Here is an example of Harper Lee’s magic: in these paragraphs from Watchman, Jean Louise is recalling her childhood with her brother Jem and good friend Dill, as they try to enliven a hot, boring summer day.

“I know what,” said Dill. “Let’s have a revival.”

“The three looked at each other. There was merit in this. Dog days in Maycomb meant at least one revival, and one was in progress that week… Revival time was a time of war: war on sin, Coca-Cola, picture shows, hunting on Sunday; war on the increasing tendency of young women to paint themselves and smoke in public; war on drinking whiskey–in this connection at least 50 children per summer went to the altar and swore they would not drink, smoke, or curse until they were twenty-one; war on something so nebulous Jean Louise never could figure out what it was, except that there was nothing to swear concerning it; and war among the town’s ladies over who could set the best table for the evangelist.”

(As the kids “have a revival,” Jem plays the role of an evangelist.) Jem says:

“Have you been baptized?”

“No sir,” she (Scout) said.

“Well —” Jem dipped his hand into the black water of the fishpool and laid it on her head. “I baptize you —“

“Hey, wait a minute!” shouted Dill. “That’s not right!”

“I reckon it is,” said Jem. “Scout and me are Methodists.”

“Yeah, but we are having a Baptist revival. You’ve got to duck her. I think I’ll be baptized, too.” The ramifications of the ceremony were dawning on Dill, and he fought hard for the role. “I’m the one,” he insisted. “I’m the Baptist so I reckon I’m the one to be baptized.”

“Now listen here, Dill Pickle Harris, [Scout] said menacingly. “I haven’t done a blessed thing this whole morning. You’ve been the Amen Corner, you sang a solo, and you took up a collection. It’s my time now.”

Her fists were clenched, her left arm cocked, and her toes gripped the ground.

Dill backed away. “Now cut it out, Scout.”

“She’s right, Dill,” Jem said. “You can be my assistant.”

The third reason to read Watchman is that the story is valuable. A great struggle is being portrayed in the novel, and Lee allows us to see it from the inside — inside Jean Louise, within a white, privileged family, residing in a small town in the deep South. This perspective reveals the depth of the conflict at the beginning of desegregation in America. Jean Louise represents the future of the South. Atticus and the rest of the family represent the past. Their disagreement over desegregation looks like someone who is trying to put a car in reverse and forward at the same time. It can’t be done, of course. You have to decide which direction to go on a journey of change, and there will be those who do not like the decision, and will fight it. The reader has the benefit of knowing from today’s historical watchtower that the painful struggle which Jean Louise represents will be costly, but it will also be worthwhile. It will be a journey forward.

It is good to keep in mind that Go Set A Watchman is a rough draft of a novel. The story obviously needs work, and it was rejected for publication in the 1950’s for good reasons. But for all of its problems, Watchman is a worthwhile read, especially if you are a fan of Harper Lee.