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Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee.

November 19, 2015

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee. Harper (2015), Edition: 1, 288 pages.

4 stars

A controversial book by the author of To Kill a Mockingbird that I found to raise significant questions about race and gender.

Harper Lee’s newly published book was written in the 1950s. It had never before been published, and it has drawn extensive criticism. Admittedly, it is flawed book, but I found it to be profound and moving in ways that Mockingbird was not. We loved Lee’s iconic novel which told us that the problems of racism could be resolved by a courageous and honorable white man standing up to the bigots. Since it was published, we have learned that racism is stronger and more complex than that, but like Jean Louise in Watchman, we feel betrayed and angry when forced to face more complex realities. And like Jean Louise, we don’t see a clear path out of our dilemmas.

Given all I had heard, I didn’t intend to read Watchman. When the reading group chose it, I gave in and fought my way through the first third of the book. Then Jean Louise discovers that her father is not the perfect, god-like figure she had believed. Her world falls apart; she confronts him, and ultimately decides to return to her small Alabama town. Suddenly, I was caught up in the theme of betrayal and my own history of realizing that the values I had been taught were shams.

I never worshiped my father the way Jean Louise worshiped Atticus and my disillusionment was not as sudden and dramatic as hers. And I grew up in southeast Oklahoma, not Alabama. Still, I remember clearly that the first time I challenged my own father was over his racism. I was in high school, and he was on the local school board in 1954 when the Supreme Court handed down the desegregation decree. The board was deciding to build a new “colored school” so that “they” won’t try to integrate the “white” schools. The new school would be full of vocational facilities to teach “them” to be better maids and handymen. Their rationale was benevolent paternalism, just like Atticus’s, and like Jean Louise, I rejected the white supremacist assumptions on which it was based. Other than Sunday School, I don’t know where I got such a radical idea.

Once caught up in the sense of Jean Louise’s sense of betrayal, Lee’s book had real meaning for me. Reading it, I could understand the southerners’ anger at the Supreme Court, the government, and the NAACP, and their overall sense of betrayal by those they had trusted and respected to protect their power over those they believed to by inferior. I recognize a similar sense of betrayal today in the Tea Party and in Republican leaders who are trying to reinstate the power of white men over blacks and women. But Watchman shatters our belief in benevolent paternalism.   A few good individuals, like Atticus, can not save us.

Lee gives the narrative of the internal story of the whites, but her book raises more questions in the end than it resolves. That is not an entirely bad thing, but it leaves some of the tension in the book unresolved. I was left with a sense of disconnection to the social and moral questions that powered the book. As in so often in books about race, African Americans appear as appendages, flat figures that enable the white plot to proceed. At the very least, this account needs to be balanced by stories which flesh out the other side. And by a recognition that personal solutions, even if possible, are not enough. Racial healing requires that both sides play active roles.

For me, the issue of gender is as significant as that of race. Lee innovatively inserts a daughter into the traditional father-son Oedipal crisis.  But because Jean Louise is a daughter, not a son, her fight and reconciliation with her father does not supply a realistic ending to the book.  Personal solutions can’t work when social structures don’t offer space for alternatives.  To return to her father and hometown permanently and refuse to marry is no answer for her. If she had been a son, she could have studied law and inherited his place in the community. As the early part of the book makes clear, a woman like Jean Louise has no place in her hometown other than submission in marriage. But she is too bright and independent for that. What kind of a future does she have if she returns home? I could not see one for myself in those years, and I have spent the last 50 years trying to unlearn submission.

Harper Lee’s biography is clearly mirrored in Watchman, and Jean Louise’s problem was one she felt personally. Lee attended law school for a time, but never graduated. She went to New York where she was reunited with Truman Capote, the model for Dill in Watchman, “assisting” him in writing In Cold Blood.  While there, she wrote Watchman, which allegedly her book agent helped her rewrite into Mockingbird. She returned to her hometown and her family, doing only scattered writing for the rest of her life. Watchman resurfaced after the death of the sister who had managed her affairs and protected her. Whether or not Lee was duped into publishing the book is unclear.

Whatever the process of publication, I believe that Watchman is an important book that reflects the attitudes of its time and place with disturbing accuracy. These attitudes are all too present today and the sense of being betrayed and of betraying those we love has not gone away. As a society, we are still ambivalent about race and about women who are not submissive.

I highly recommend To Set a Watchman, especially to thoughtful readers who have not read it because of all the criticism.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Melba Gulick permalink
    November 19, 2015 10:27 am

    Thanks, Marilyn. Now I think I will have to read it after all. Chris Gulick

    • November 19, 2015 11:15 am

      That was Susan Pummill’s response. Would you like to borrow my copy?

      • November 19, 2015 10:30 pm

        I just loaned my copy to Susan to read by book group by Monday. I will pass it along to you then.

  2. Margaret Weirich permalink
    November 28, 2015 9:09 pm

    I definitely want to read it too. There is a copy in the church library too, available last Sunday when I almost checked it out.

  3. February 18, 2016 9:07 pm

    This is a wonderfully nuanced and insightful review Marilyn. I am one of many who were turned off by the other reviews and the controversy over this book, but if it comes my way I would be inclined to read it after reading your review. I think a big part of the negative reviews would have been the excessive expectations about how good the book would be, expectations which were easily dashed. But perhaps reading the book with an understanding from the beginning that it is flawed would allow the reader to engage with it on its terms and thus contemplate the issues it raises.

    Australian Aboriginal author, Bruce Pascoe, has recently raised the same issue that you do in this review, namely Aboriginal characters “just there as cardboard cutouts for the white actors to act against”. It is just another reason why we should read authors of diverse backgrounds.

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