Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s second novel, published, finally, this past July, opens against the backdrop of Jean Louise’s annual homecoming to Maycomb, Alabama, which is struggling to come to terms with the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. Witty and headstrong, the beloved tomboy of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is now twenty-six and lives in New York where she has picked up blasphemous Yankee expressions (“for Christ’s sake!”) as well as NAACP stickers with which she nonchalantly seals her Christmas cards home. Yet, she confesses to Henry, her oldest friend and unofficial fiancé, “When you live in New York, you often have the feeling that New York’s not the world. I mean this: every time I come home, I feel like I’m coming back to the world, and when I leave Maycomb it’s like leaving the world.” Jean Louise, although often being at odds with her hometown since childhood, knows that the roots of her country go bone-deep. Her sense of belonging at home—her ideological refuge—however, ruptures when she finds that her ideas on race, privilege, and justice are not held the same way by Atticus, her father, moral compass, and the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Through Jean Louise’s eye-opening return, Lee adds a perspective both critical and sensitive to the American discussion on race relations, inequality, and what justice should look like in the face of discrepant privilege. Rather than offering any concrete solution, she gives voice to both racists and those for equal rights, greying the space between the two poles. The conversations between Jean Louise and her loved ones are worth the sometimes-rough read.
Do be warned: Go Set a Watchman is not To Kill a Mockingbird. Awkward prose, forced inner dialogue, rambling flashbacks, and excessive literary allusions keep this work an unpolished draft. But that’s exactly what this once-lost and now-found manuscript is. (According to HarperCollins, Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer, discovered Watchman less than a year ago.) Moreover, this novel is said to be the work from which Mockingbird was pulled and then refined. With this knowledge, readers should exercise a certain amount of generosity towards Watchman. Read it as if you were admiring Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures and you will recognize Lee’s brilliance and humor emerging through the raw material. Whether Jean Louise is contemplating the church choir of “repressed soloists” or listening to her uncle observe, “Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends,” the tone of Mockingbird shines through, offering at the same time delightful quips and piercing wisdom and preventing the reader from putting this novel down.
Perhaps Lee’s most admirable feat in Go Set a Watchman is the way she uses the particular to speak of the universal and, then, the universal to speak to the particular. Had Lee merely enlarged the detail of Jean Louise’s return home into a discussion on race and inequality or employed issues of justice and theories of government to examine her protagonist’s heart and shortsightedness, Watchman would be a good read. A double movement, though, gives this work its power. By the end of the novel, readers are compelled with Jean Louise to examine their own hearts and prejudices. In light of the current tensions and tragedies that have ripped through our country, Go Set a Watchman is startlingly relevant and “comes to us at exactly the right moment.” We need to read it now.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.