- Facing Hard Realities
288 Pages; Print, $27.99
Perhaps Harper Lee knew the end was near when she released Go Set A Watchman last summer. She had remained mostly silent after publishing one of the most celebrated novels in US history fifty-five years before. For years, fans wondered about her silence. Some questioned why she never wrote again, and some went so far as to speculate that her Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) was not her own but instead belonged to her friend Truman Capote. In reality, nobody knew why someone who had written such an influential and important novel had chosen to set down her pen.
When rumors began to circulate that Lee was planning to release another novel, fans had mixed reactions. Some waited eagerly to read the work and compare it to To Kill A Mockingbird, but others lamented that she was releasing the work so late in life. By that point she was known to suffer from dementia, and skeptics assumed that her caretaker was publishing the novel for her own monetary gain. Once released, however, the novel itself seemed to answer some of the questions surrounding Lee’s choices.
Debate continues as to whether Go Set a Watchman was a first draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird or a different novel altogether, but what is clear is that this work was what she originally presented to her editor in 1960. Whether a first draft or a different project, Watchman would certainly have made the editor squirm in light of the civil rights movement raging at the time. It presents a grown Jean Louise Finch who is returning to her southern home to visit her father and her boyfriend, who readers will likely be disappointed to learn is not Dill. Under pressure to commit to her relationship, settle down, and return home to live the life of a small town southern lawyer’s wife, Jean Louise feels conflicted.
Jean Louise returns to a Maycomb in turmoil in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling outlawing of school segregation in Brown v the Board of Education. The people she had grown up around, including her aunt, her friends, her father, and her boyfriend, are angry at the ruling and she initially expresses unhappiness with what she describes as the court’s overreaching into the realm of states’s rights. Through the course of the novel, however, it becomes clear that Atticus and most of their neighbors are upset not just with the legalities of the ruling but with the racial implications as well. The man who seemed to many readers a perfect example of racial egalitarianism in To Kill A Mockingbird offers some less-than-enlightened racial commentary in Go Set A Watchman, arguing for segregation and spouting ideas of racial inferiority.
As Lee wrote this novel in the 1950s, she confronted a poisoned racial atmosphere in which white backlash against civil rights gains fostered the emergence of extremist politicians like segregationist Governor George Wallace and brutal anti-integrationist sheriff Bull Connor. The paternalistic southern liberalism of Jean Louise’s (and, by extension, Harper’s) childhood was giving way to fear, anger, and resentment of alarming proportion as whites grew increasingly resentful of blacks’ demands for formal and legal equality. To Jean Louise’s (and the readers’) dismay, Atticus has joined the local White Citizens’ Council, a branch of the organization that fought civil rights efforts throughout the South. Her confrontation of Atticus leads to dialogue that makes the reader uncomfortable because it reveals a racist side of the man so long venerated as the very illustration of southern liberalism.
Go Set A Watchman is a brave novel that sheds light not only on the race relations of its own time but those of 2015 as well. Lee released it at a moment in US history that also saw the rise of a new civil rights movement: Black Lives Matter. This movement arose in response to a wave of vigilante and police killings of African Americans across the nation, from...