Oh, how I did not want to read Go Set a Watchman.
I’ve followed this story since I first became aware there was a “new book by Harper Lee” to be published and have written here about that development, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/the-tale-around-the-tale-harper-lees-new-novel-go-set-a-watchman/. Additionally, I’ve written here about The Mockingbird Next Door, by Marja Mills, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/the-mockingbird-next-door-by-marja-mills/.
To summarize, I’m skeptical, despite publisher’s claims, that Harper Lee wanted this book to be published. The whole situation . . . Harper’s sister Alice, her lawyer and confidante, died in November of 2014. Shortly thereafter, Harper’s new attorney “found” the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman and after ascertaining that Harper Lee wanted it to be published, sent it on to her agent. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/03/books/harper-lee-go-set-a-watchman-may
In any event, so many people have pinned via Pinterest, googled, and commented on my earlier posts about Go Set A Watchman, I decided I needed to read it in honor of my readers’ interest. I really didn’t want to though.
Setting all that aside, which is very difficult for me to do, Go Set a Watchman is a very talky, nearly-preachy, seemingly early draft of a young woman on the cusp of figuring herself out. She’s fighting between her Southern upbringing and her New York-leanings during the early days of the Civil Rights movement and finding it difficult to reconcile the two.
She was accustomed now to having her family desert her one by one. Uncle Jack was the last straw and to hell with them all. Very well, she’d tell him. Tell him and go. She would not argue with him; that was useless. He always beat her: she’d never won an argument from him in her life and she did not propose to try now.
“Yes sir, I’m upset about something. That citizens’ counselin’ you’re doing. I think it’s disgusting and I’ll tell you that right now.”
Her father leaned back in his chair. He said, “Jean Louise, you’ve been reading nothing but New York papers. I’ve no doubt all you see is wild threats and bombings and such. The Macomb council’s not like the North Alabama and Tennessee kinds. Our council’s composed of and led by our own people. I bet you saw nearly every man in the county yesterday, and you knew nearly every man there.”
Jean-Louise’s father is, of course, Atticus Finch. Hero of To Kill a Mockingbird and nearly every even-slightly idealistic person who ever went to law school, including me. Atticus Finch’s defense of wrongfully-accused defendant Tom Robinson is the stuff of American legend, literary and film classic. But in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus seems like a different person to us. He is tarnished by his stated beliefs in the status quo, opposing civil rights. He has feet of clay.
And Atticus’s brother Uncle Jack and sister Alexandra play huge roles in Go Set a Watchman. Jack and Alexandra were, to me, far more familiar as parts of Nell Harper’s own family as explained in The Mockingbird Next Door than from my recollection of To Kill a Mockingbird. Neither Uncle Jack nor Alexandra ever enters the room without a lengthy and wordy message for Jean-Louise and the reader. Calpurnia is barely there and Jem, Dill, Miss Maudie and even Boo Radley are missing!
Even the trial of Tom Robinson, the subject of much of the substance of To Kill a Mockingbird, is given incredibly short shrift. Here’s the narrative of the trial from Go Set a Watchman, in full:
Atticus Finch rarely took a criminal case; he had no taste for criminal law. The only reason he took this one was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy to to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense. The boy had come to him by way of Calpurnia, told him his story, and had told him the truth. The truth was ugly.
Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Macomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl.
Atticus had two weighty advantages: although the white girl was fourteen years of age the defendant was not indicted for statutory rape, therefore Atticus could and did prove consent. Consent was varies to prove than under normal conditions. The defendant had only one arm. The other was chopped off in a sawmill accident.
Atticus pursed the case to its conclusion with every spark of his ability and with an instinctive dictate so bitter only his knowledge that he could live peacefully within himself was able to wash it away. After the verdict, he walked out of the courtroom in the middle of the day, walked home, and took a steaming bath.
After reading it, I’m more convinced than ever Harper Lee didn’t, or wouldn’t have (or shouldn’t have) wanted this book published. I’m going to try to put it away and forget about it; leave the impression of To Kill a Mockingbird beating strongly in my heart. But . . . you decide for yourself. As Uncle Jack tells Jean-Louise, “Every man’s island, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.”
The Soundtrack from Ray, released 2004, or any and all Ray Charles music
Jean-Louise — Jennifer Lawrence
Atticus — Tommy Lee Jones
Uncle Jack — Robert Duvall
Aunt Alexandra — Ellen Burstyn