A few days before the official publication date of Harper Lee’s much-anticipated Go Set a Watchman, the book reviewer for the New York Times let the cat out of the bag. According to her, the recently-discovered novel, supposedly written some time before Lee’s vastly popular To Kill a Mockingbird, revealed a terrible secret–American fiction’s most beloved plaster saint, Atticus Finch, had evolved in old age into a character that was egregiously different from the one in the original novel. In the reviewer’s opinion, Lee had turned her famous character upside down, manipulated him mercilessly into what the reviewer called a racist. No, Atticus Finch wasn’t made of plaster, the reviewer seemed to say, he was made of Play-Doh, a substance that, in the hands of an unscrupulous maker, could turn an innocent gob of rubber into something grotesque, could even turn a saint into a villain.
So far, most of the ink spilled on the discussion about Go Set a Watchman has turned on these points, and not on the book as a novel. The good news is that the Times’s reviewer greatly exaggerated Atticus’s complicity in resisting the progress of the civil rights revolution then upsetting Maycomb, the town in Alabama where he was the local embodiment of justice and decency. The bad news is that Lee’s desire to preach to the choir on the subject of race turns Watchman into a self-righteous manifesto, making dubious its claim to be a newly-discovered novel.
Watchman takes most of the characters from Mockingbird and puts them down again in the same town some twenty years later. Scout, who was the first-person narrator and tomboy par excellence in the original book is now Jean Louise Finch, twenty-six years old, living and working in New York, a budding sophisticate under the influence of institutions like The New School for Social Research and The Art Student’s League. Jem, her older brother, has died years earlier, dropped dead one day without warning, and Calpurnia, the Finch’s long-time cook and housekeeper, has gone, too, having left after Jem’s death and been replaced by Atticus’s sister, Alexandra.
New to the cast of characters is Henry Clinton, Jean Louise’s suitor from high school, now Atticus’s amanuensis who’s being groomed to inherit his law practice, and still determined to woo Jean Louise into a marriage about which she blows hot and cool. More provocative, and more vital to the “plot,” is the addition of Atticus’s heretofore unknown brother, a doctor and self-taught expert on Victorian literature, Dr. John Hale Finch, known by the family as Jack. He’s trundled out of nowhere to add vigor to the story and ultimately to provide the wisdom that lends the novel its greatest eloquence as well as its closing note of grace.
Jean Louise has returned to Maycomb on one of her irregular visits, intending mainly to lend assistance to her aunt in caring for Atticus, now in his 80’s and afflicted with debilitating arthritis. He can’t use a knife and fork, can’t button his shirts; shaving with a straight razor is out of the question. But his mind is still lively, leaping with ideas and stratagems, still faithful to the law, the mistress to whom he has always considered himself the obedient servant.
Plunged back into her father’s world, surrounded by childhood memories, Jean Louise finds herself alternately attracted and repelled by what she now sees as that world’s smallness, its limits, its xenophobia. She’s a New Yorker now, a grown woman shaped by the broader minds of a city. Her thoughts about her old home town and her new one, her revelations and revulsions, are told in ricochets between the present and the past, revealing a character who still relishes the role of provocateur, figuratively overturning the tea cups at her aunt’s genteel socials.
On her second day in Maycomb, Jean Louise makes a startling discovery—she finds a white supremacist pamphlet in her father’s office and tracks him down to confront him about it. At the county courthouse, the same courthouse where Atticus, in his finest hour, once defended a black man against false accusations of rape, she finds Atticus and Henry Clinton at a meeting of the Maycomb White Citizens Council. She’s sickened by the discovery, by what she sees and hears, literally vomiting up her insides, overwhelmed by what she’s suddenly learned about the two men in her life to whom she’s closest.
From that point to the end of the book, Harper Lee presents the reader with a series of dialogues between Jean Louise and, respectively, Atticus, his brother Dr. Jack, and her fiancée Henry Clinton. These dialogues are central to the message and lessons of Go Set a Watchman and are presented as conversations, carefully argued and always in complete sentences—Aristotelian in logic, often confrontational in manner, shedding as much heat as light. Jean Louise’s voice in these conversations is that of the new Southern liberal, embarrassed by her region’s past, and eager to place herself at the leading edge of this new revolution.
But Jean Louise overplays her hand. She means to come across as pugnacious and iconoclastic. Instead, she comes across as a high horse know-it-all, a moral snob who condescends to those who don’t see the world as she does. She saves her most virulent condemnation for her father, rejecting him, her fiancé, and her uncle as unworthy of her love or trust, branding them as cowards and hypocrites. On the spot, she’s ready to flee Maycomb and return to the embrace of her new home in the North.
In the end, though, it’s Dr. Jack’s intervention that literally slaps her back to earth and reason. Not every reader will find Dr. Finch’s Freudian analysis of Jean Louise’s relationship with her father convincing, but it’s a lively example of dialectical discourse and shows Lee’s ability to think creatively about the complex affections that can exist between a father and his daughter, both complex themselves. Atticus has taught Jean Louise to be a thinking reed and she hates him for it. Like Cassius, she thinks too much, is always hungry for some kind of truth, especially the kinds that arouse too much passion.
By the terms of twenty-first-century political correctness (and the opinions of New York Times book reviewers) Atticus’s self-justification of his own actions may ring hollow, an echo they’ve heard from states’ rights politicians in the South searching for ways to maintain the status quo when it comes to accommodating the increasingly loud pleas for justice of their black brethren. But his defense also reveals a man of peace and sweet reason, a man who looks to the law for moral and social guidance, who has built his house on bedrock and who keeps his conscience there.
Go Set a Watchman has its moments of eloquence, even brilliance, but its shape and rhythm are made awkward by the choice to use subject matter that seems more like a writer salvaging disparate pieces of work they can’t abandon rather than part of a narrative whose claim to belonging in a story is self-evident. At times Lee’s dialogue crackles with authenticity, moving at the velocity of real speech. Too often in this book it’s dragged down with the freight of politics. The novel as a social manifesto is always a failure, no matter what truth it pushes. Subtlety and nuance are required ingredients for novels; they’re usually fatal to the ideologue holding forth an inflexible view from his soapbox.
Harper Lee has left Atticus Finch looking a little lonely at the end of this book. The man who once defended so many in courts of law seems to be in need of defense himself.