It’s done. I finished the book and neither my worst fears nor my greatest hopes were realized. This unearthed early work by Nelle Harper Lee, the book that predates her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, is not the worst book I’ve ever read nor is it by any means the best. But never have I read a book with such trepidation about how its very existence might damage the legacy of its more famous sibling.
There are no “spoilers” left to reveal. Unless you’ve been living in a deep, dark cave, you already know the back story of how this book came to publication. It was written before TKAM and was refused publication by an astute editor, Tay Hohoff, who somehow found the humanity in Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her father, the indomitable Atticus to suggest that Harper Lee revisit the characters. Harper Lee was charged with creating a new work in the voice of a child Scout as her lawyer father took on the trial of his life, the rape trial of a Black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused by a white woman, May Ella Ewell. The fact that Atticus loses his case in front of a jury of twelve white men is the turning point of the novel and creates one of the most memorable scenes in the movie based on the book, when Atticus makes a solitary walk from the courtroom and the African American gallery stands in a silent salute to honor the defeated warrior. “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise, your daddy is passing,” is the one scene we can all recall and recite.
In this earlier work, Atticus wins his case and is elevated to heroic status in his daughter’s eyes because of his unerring honor and morality throughout her childhood. In an act of parental unselfishness, Atticus recognizes that his daughter has bigger fish to fry than can be cooked in Maycomb, Alabama, and shoos her off to life in New York City where she learns the ways of Northerners and returns to Maycomb only once a year, for a two week vacation.
It is during one of these visits home that Jean Louise, on the verge of committing to her childhood crush, Henry Clinton, contemplates coming back home. Jem, her idolized older brother, is long dead of the same heart ailment that took their young mother from them. Dill Harris is off living his life in Europe. Atticus is crippled by arthritis and being cared for by his battleship-in-full-sail of a sister, Alexandra. Calpurnia, the devoted family mainstay of Jean Louise’s childhood, has retired to the part of town restricted to its black citizens where she deals with the foibles of her children and grandchildren. Uncle Jack, barely a presence in the first book, is the conscience and common sense of this book. Even Scout’s childhood home has been leveled and replaced by an ice cream shop run by one of the Cunninghams.
Jean Louise, forever fighting the customs of small town Southern living, suffers through Alexandra’s welcome home “coffee” and reflects on her childhood and adolescence in which she looked to her father for moral direction in a time of circumscribed social roles for white and black people and the Maycomb elite and their “white trash” neighbors from nearby Sarum. One of the more amusing flashbacks involves fourteen year old Scout attending a high school dance with Henry and losing her “falsies” during the dance. In a scene that seems reflective of Spartacus, every girl in the high school confesses to the discarded enhancements rather than let Scout suffer the ire of the narrow-minded school principal.
However, it is the here-and-now that is the centerpiece of this book, and that is the local reaction to the Civil Rights ruling of the Supreme Court. Jean Louise discovers that, rather than opposing the racism of the 1960s South, Atticus and Henry have joined the local Citizens’ Council and are united with the “trashier” elements of the town in their opposition to equal rights for Black citizens. In a heart-to-heart, Henry tries to convince Scout that he and Atticus have joined the Council only as infiltrators. However, Jean Louise confronts Atticus and finds that he, in fact, embraces many of the ideologies of the Council. That the man who fought for Tom Robinson and entrusted his children to a Black housekeeper, in fact, regards Black people as inferiors, childlike and incapable of donning the mantel of full citizenship.
It is a rude awakening for Jean Louise who is, literally, sick to her stomach and packs her bag to flee the reality of her morally flawed parent. However, her uncle shows her the reality of her situation: that Atticus has always been the person he is and that she has elevated him on an unrealistically lofty pedestal. He also reveals family secrets that are less startling than the reader expects.
What is missing in this book is the poetry of the earlier book. There are no quotable descriptions such as the beautiful line about the women of Maycomb who “were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum” in the late afternoon heat. The writing, in fact, is entirely earthbound. This is not a child’s fond memory of her late Depression childhood. It is not even Scout’s recollection of the racism and violence that surrounded Tom Robinson’s trial. It lacks the special appeal of the genre “coming of age” novel of which TKAM is one of the very best examples.
The Watchman story, itself, lacks flow. It is more episodic and the flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood and adolescence do not line up with the emotional pull of the earlier book. As has been indicated by other reviewers, the language in this book is the language of racism and, in the context of modern times and especially of recent racially biased events, it is difficult to read. The “n” word figures prominently and is as difficult to read in this context as one would expect. However, the language is used in an historically appropriate, if bitter and caustic, context. None of this alters the fact that the story, itself, fails. Clearly, this was the work of a less experienced writer with a less worthy tale to tell. Told, as it is, from a closer view, it loses the soft focus beauty of the earlier book. It is a story of race hatred that many of us watched on television, at the time, and knowing the truth of the fight makes Atticus and Henry decidedly unsympathetic characters.
Perhaps it is unfair to compare this book to an uncontested masterpiece but, by its very existence and because it is written by the same hand, the comparison is inevitable. Maybe Harper Lee, like another Southern woman, Margaret Mitchell, had only one great novel to write and this book was merely a blueprint for greatness.
Because of its origins and the huge amount of publicity surrounding its release, this is a book worth reading if only to make the reader conversant with its successes and failings. However, if you want to maintain your image of Atticus Finch as an heroic American icon, you must skip this book because your heart will most certainly be broken by the fallen idol he has become.
Have you read Go Set a Watchman: A Novel? Share your own thoughts and impressions of the book so that we can start an on-line discussion.