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Review: Removed from immediacy of childhood, Go Set a Watchman less powerful than Mockingbird

Harper Lee

Michael Brown

Title
Go Set a Watchman
Author
Harper Lee
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Harper
Pages
278
Price
$34.99

No American novel has had a more seminal influence on our perception of racial injustice, and of the need to oppose it, than Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. First published in 1960, and set in the Great Depression in the early 1930s in the fictional Maycomb County in Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird created two of the most memorable characters in 20th-century literature: The child Jean Louise (nicknamed "Scout") Finch, who learns to question the racism in her white community in rural Alabama, and her father Atticus, the widower and lawyer who risks his life and that of his children to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Atticus, played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation of the novel that has sold more than 40 million copies around the world, including more than four million in Canada alone, is almost saintly in his courage as a father, lawyer, politician and crusader for justice.

So it's shocking, in Harper Lee's just-published second novel, Go Set a Watchman, to discover venomous words such as these in the mouth of Atticus Finch: "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?… What would happen if the Negroes in the South were given full civil rights?… Would you want your state governments run by people who don't know how to run 'em?… you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.…"

It has been assumed for decades that Mockingbird would be Lee's only book: An instant bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winner that has been translated into more than 40 languages. But the book we think of as her first turns out to be her second. When Lee submitted Go Set a Watchman in the 1950s, her editor advised her to set it aside and to write, instead, a novel about Scout Finch's childhood. And she did. Recently, the lawyer for Harper Lee (now 89 years old) discovered the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman. In a way, it helps to see Go Set a Watchman as an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird – a draft written before she figured out the story she really had to tell.

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Watchman offers many flashbacks to Scout's life as a young teenager in Maycomb County, and offers some lines that were actually used – word for word – in To Kill a Mockingbird. Still, Go Set a Watchman does ultimately tell a different story. Interestingly, Lee changed her mind about one essential plot point that appears in both novels. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch obtains a moral victory but a legal failure: In the courtroom, Tom Robinson is convicted of rape. But in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus defends Tom Robinson and manages to have him acquitted. In the decision to change this key turn of events in To Kill a Mockingbird, we see the growth of a writer's skill and sensitivity. Dramatically and morally, it is far more interesting to see Atticus Finch fail in court. The failure sets up Robinson's death, and offers a sharper indictment of racial injustice in America – the key element that excited readers in 1960 and excites them still today.

To Kill a Mockingbird has exerted an immeasurable influence on our notion of social activism, by dramatizing the loss of racial innocence during the Great Depression in the Deep South. Even in a world where a black voice cannot compete against a white voice in court, it is possible to find and insist on our own morality. This is the lesson of To Kill a Mockingbird, and helps to explain why – 55 years after it was first published – it continues to be a staple in American and Canadian classrooms.

Go Set a Watchman is set some 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, in the mid-1950s, in the same Maycomb County. Jean Louise Finch – now a university-educated, single, sexually liberated 26-year-old woman – comes home to visit her 72-year-old father Atticus, who is still working as a lawyer but suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and needing assistance at home. Here, readers encounter a world in flux, seen through the microcosm of Maycomb County. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is advocating for racial equality in America. The U.S. Supreme Court has just handed down (in 1954) its landmark school-desegregation ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education, which terrifies and infuriates the members of the white community – Atticus Finch included. In Maycomb County, most white people resent the Supreme Court and the black lawyers working for the NAACP for telling Southerners what to do and how to live. People fear interracial sex, communism and "uppity Negroes" who are demanding more civil rights.

Ultimately, Go Set a Watchman is about a daughter's return home and about the difficult process of coming to terms with a painful truth: Her own father – a person from whom she drew moral guidance – is deeply flawed. Now it is time for a reversal of roles: Daughter must lead father, and advocate for what is right.

The book takes its title from Isaiah 21:6: "For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth." In this line, the prophet Isaiah is predicting the fall of Babylon. Just as Babylon will fall in the Bible, perhaps Maycomb County – a place where black people live in poverty and are condemned to second-class citizenship and to jail for crimes they do not commit – will one day fall, too.

The writing does not come close to the narrative skill of To Kill a Mockingbird. But Go Set a Watchman was written by a writer who was still cutting her teeth. The artistic distance Lee travels between the two novels underlines her spectacular talent. You would be hard-pressed to name a 20th-century American novel that offers a richer and more intensely satisfying child's point of view than To Kill a Mockingbird. Two of the most astounding questions that Scout asks her father in To Kill a Mockingbird are "What's rape?" and "Do you defend niggers, Atticus?" Like Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird achieves a level of artistic genius by offering a child's point of view that is suffused with the wisdom and linguistic playfulness of an adult who is looking back on life.

But it is a pity that Go Set a Watchman was not published in the 1950s, when it would have shaken up readers, provoked even more calls for book bans (in the United States and Canada, people have frequently attempted to ban To Kill a Mockingbird or to have it removed from school classrooms because of its racist terminology, its references to rape, and its inherent challenge of authority and the rule of law), and accelerated public discussions of women's sexual freedom.

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Some of the novel's best moments take us back to Scout's adolescence in Maycomb County. In one storyline, she is told in a schoolyard that a girl can get pregnant if a boy sticks his tongue in her mouth. Unfortunately, a boy has just done so to Scout, and she spends the next nine months convinced that she will suddenly have a baby on Oct. 1. Scout has heard about the social shame met by unmarried girls who get pregnant, so on Sept. 30 she climbs the ladder of the town's water tower, planning to leap to her death.

In a scene that is both comic and disturbing, Scout attends her first school dance with her date Henry – who is her sometimes boyfriend in the current story in the 1950s – and is humiliated when her "falsies" slide out of place. She flees the dance, with Henry following her, and insists that he take her home. He refuses, and instead flings her bra – which by this point is falling off – out into the night. It lands on a school sign, where the school principal discovers it the next morning. The principal is determined to find and expel the culprit, but in an act of female solidarity – disappointingly organized by Atticus – all the girls in the school claim the bra as their own. Later, the reader encounters an adult Scout who is single and sexually confident. She appears to have had lovers in New York and considers the possibility of a sexual relationship with her boyfriend in Maycomb County. When she eventually decides not to sleep with Henry, it is because she discovers that Henry shares her father's racist proclivities: "I cannot get into bed with a man unless I'm in some state of accord with him," she thinks.

There is much to learn about the artistic and the editorial process in reading Go Set a Watchman. Why is Go Set a Watchman a good story but lacking in the genius of To Kill a Mockingbird? A novel about an adult who goes home and offers a number of flashbacks about her childhood is less dramatically immediate than a story that dives straight into the childhood itself. It is interesting to read about a young woman trying to decide whether to marry a man she does not passionately love, and running up against constant indications of racism in her hometown, but it is galvanizing and life-changing to read about a young girl who discovers for the first time the meaning of racism, and the need to combat it. Perhaps Harper Lee's editors understood this, and perhaps they calculated that though American readers might be ready for a book about racism in America (from a white perspective), they were not yet ready for a book about a young woman's sexual independence.

Go Set a Watchman will enrich our understanding of the early civil-rights era of Alabama. Although To Kill a Mockingbird's legacy is indisputable and is not likely to be altered by a new book published by an 89-year-old author, to modern readers both works can be found wanting in one key respect. With the minor exception of the character Calpurnia, the black cook who runs the household in To Kill a Mockingbird but has left the employ of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman, there is not a single three-dimensional, fully rendered black character in either book.

Harper Lee writes about racism in America without writing about blacks. Her characters are virtually all white. Her world is white. And it is through the experiences of white people that racism is addressed and dramatized. That is not a bad thing. Harper Lee has every right to write about the world as she has come to know and experience it. But, ultimately, Harper Lee's novels offer a limited perspective on what it means to be black in America.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a book that every young person should read to appreciate 20th-century American literature and to learn a thing or two about racism in the Deep South in the 1930s. Go Set a Watchman is likely to become a valuable footnote to that process, by giving us a glimpse into white people's horror in the face of the civil-rights movement in Alabama in the 1950s. But the world has moved on. Keep Harper Lee's novels on all bookshelves, but shove them over a notch to make room for other voices – black voices, Canadian voices, contemporary voices – who offer equally rich perspectives about racism and social injustice from the viewpoint of those who have experienced it.

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Lawrence Hill is the author of 10 books, including The Book of Negroes. His new novel, The Illegal , will be published on Sept. 8.

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