“Go Set A Watchman”: My Review
by Chuck Fager — Originally posted July 2015
It is intriguing to me that, among the many reviews of Go Set A Watchman I have read in the past ten days, none mentioned Harper Lee/Jean Louise’s acerbic reflections in it on her experience as a New Yorker.
In the book, they come as Jean Louise careens toward a showdown with her father Atticus and her almost-fiance over her discovery of their racist attitudes and actions. Almost there, she is trapped in a Welcome “Home” kaffeeklatsch organized by her dominatrix aunt Alexandra.
Surrounded by her former peers, the painfully uncomfortable Jean Louise is peppered with questions about her life in late 1950s Gotham, which to most of them might as well be on Mars: how can she stand it? All those people, including “Negroes,” on the loose. The noise, the constant hubbub, the rudeness and ugly accents. Not to mention the fact that she’s (still, at 26!) single there, and working.
Jean Louise speaks up tepidly for her urban existence, but thinks to herself more candidly about its pluses and minuses.
In truth, she often resents the patronizing attitudes of many New Yorkers toward other, benighted regions, especially the South. She bridles at how so many of them, with the smug assurance of big-city liberals that hasn’t changed much in the half century since, feel they know all the answers for problems down there, even if their nostrums are no more than bien-pensant slogans, unsullied by actual knowledge or experience.
Yet she puts up with this annoyance because New York also offers her a compensation she has to have, and can’t hope to find in her hometown: anonymity, and the space created by the indifference of the mass, in which to continue forging her identity and destiny.
If this sounds pompous, the clumsiness of expression is mine, not Lee’s; but that was her quest. Later in the story, after the shattering confrontations with Atticus and ex-beau Henry, there seems no way forward for Jean Louise but to climb on the train and head back up north, alone. This reader was relieved she had somewhere to go for refuge, someplace where she could at least breathe, and be herself, even as a stranger in a sea of strangers.
In Manhattan she could bask in being ignored, free of family and community expectations, no longer dogged by the stigma of being the renegade runaway daughter who abandoned a “good family,” and get on with the long strange work of becoming a writer.
Some reviewers have disparaged the writing in these culminating sections, and maybe they are not Harper Lee’s best. Yet the episodes were still dramatic and credible to me, and this judgment is backed up by history: the coming of the civil rights struggles of the late 1950s and ‘60s broke up many a southern white family.
As “massive resistance” to desegregation mounted, even moderate dissent — and Jean Louise/Lee was no radical — was unacceptable in many towns, churches and households. Harper Lee was hardly the only white exile from her native Dixie in those days.
The book ends with Jean Louise having stretched her family connections to the breaking point, but perhaps not quite beyond it. One can close Watchman wondering whether, with even more turbulent years soon to come in Alabama, these connections could survive these additional repeated shocks. The book leaves us with no certainty. But there is, or at least may be, a bit of hope.
I read Watchman with reactions at two levels simultaneously. At one level, there were questions about how much the story reflected her own family struggles, and what she actually did to cope with them.
I’m almost sure the story is autobiographical in one respect: Lee was driven away from Monroeville, both by the pull of her personal quest, and by the push of deepening revulsion at what she saw in the southern white culture that had produced, shaped, and then betrayed her, and so many others.
Yet while she did go away, she couldn’t stay away. Evidently the ties did not fray completely. Such ambivalence is very common among Southerners, black as well as white.
Then in 1962 her father, Amasa Lee (the main model for Atticus Finch), died. This at least saved his daughter from having to deal with his reactions to the crescendo of crises that soon followed: George Wallace in the “schoolhouse door”; the fatal bombing of a Birmingham church; Selma’s “Bloody Sunday”; and more.
Lee is said to have maintained an apartment in New York City for many years, when when became able to afford it, but she also spent considerable periods of time back home in Monroeville, particularly during the winters. It seems clear she ultimately made her peace, or at least a stable truce, with the locals. Her connection with her lawyer sister Alice was strong til the end. There are also many reports of her ordinary way of life in Monroeville: breakfast at McDonalds, washing clothes at a laundromat, going to exercise classes. She returned to stay after a stroke in 2007.
On the other level, as the pages turned I also wondered if Lee agreed to have Watchman published as a kind of message to our day.
Bracketing the concerns about whether she really knew what she was doing (I think she did), I can imagine her learning with deepening dismay of the deteriorating state of the union in recent years. Landmarks of the civil rights movement rolled back; resegregation taking firm hold across the Deep South; the nonstop torrent of racist hatred aimed at an upstart black president; and the uprisings over police violence against blacks.
For that matter, what would she have made of the hellacious mess we’re in as 2019 rumbles toward 2020; where would she go now for respite and shelter?
Even with failing eyesight, would not Lee learn about all this? This time, moreover, the fallible Atticus is long gone; his story here is telling, but the problems are much deeper than one man’s failings.
In this context, if Lee read (or had read to her) the recovered manuscript of Watchman, might she have been struck by its peculiar resonance and timeliness? Makes sense to me — and to about a million more reader/buyers in the past week, with lots more to come.
To be sure, there is no reformist program in Watchman; Harper Lee was a writer, not an activist. Jean Louise denounces her father’s racism, but is not free from traces of it herself. It is not a spoiler to report that at the book’s close, the clashing perspectives embodied by the main characters remain in struggle. Which just happens to fit our plight today almost seamlessly.
Go Set A Watchman is hardly a perfect novel, as many think To Kill A Mockingbird (almost) is. Yet it appears to be a perfectly timed parable for the long hot American summer of 2015 and after, perhaps uniquely capable of aiding and abetting the national soul-searching about race and our history Americans may, at least tentatively, have finally begun.
For which I say Thank You, Nelle Harper Lee: you may be blind, deaf, and wheelchair bound. But by god, you (and Atticus) have managed to do it again.