Go Set a Watchman is the debut novel by a young southern writer named Harper Lee. Written and set in the middle-1950s, it tells the story of Jean Louise Finch, a woman in her mid-20s who returns to her sleepy little hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, after spending several years in wide-awake New York City.
Maycomb has not changed much, but Jean has. Though she seems unaware of it, her years beyond the small rural southern horizons surrounding—over the edge of the earth—have made her a modern woman, broadened her already big heart and mind and added fire to her high spirits. And because of this, she sees her town and its people anew.
The one she sees most anew is her beloved father, Atticus Finch, Maycomb’s most prominent lawyer and the moral touchstone in her life, the one she looks up to most of all, and a god. He’s always been the “watchman” of her conscience.
But the scales must fall (especially when he grow up). And fall they do like a house burning down when Jean Louise (known as “Scout,” her childhood nickname) suddenly—very suddenly—discovers a monster in the basement of her father’s life, a room she somehow missed during her golden years as a mischievous youngster in small town in the heart of Dixie Americana.
The monster in the basement is Atticus Finch’s racism. Not the redneck kind, all beer-bellies and shotguns on the track of a pickup truck, the antennae ornamented with Klan hoods, but the genteel, educated, eloquent sort, spouting pseudo-wisdom about how “. . . our Negro population is backward…”—nonsense never worth considering, but taken very seriously during the years leading up to the 1960s (and not only in the South, as my own dining room table memories in upstate New York remind me. No, the South was never that separate a country, was it?).
How Jean Finch faces and deals with her disillusion regarding her father while struggling with her love for him (and others) (while learning to become her own watchman) constitutes the core of this lumpy, bumpy novel.
Go Set a Watchman starts out nicely as Jean returns to Haycomb, dipping into it like an old swimming hole or a strolling a garden from long ago. The best parts by a country mile are Jean’s flashbacks to her Halcyon childhood in Maycomb: Rollicking episodes in which she frolics in and out of mischief with her brother Jem and best friend Dill, all under the watchful eye of Calpurnia, their black maid and real mother (their biological mother long since passed away). These are warm, funny lyrical memory vignettes that cast a charming poetic glow, winning portraits of the best side of rural life.
But when Atticus’s secret crashes like a meteor through the ceiling in the present, the narrative and drama turn both jagged and lumpy. Jean and everyone leap upon their soap boxes, hollering across the room at the top of their lungs. The rhetoric flies thick, fast, and all but incoherent. There’s a whole lotta smoke, a whole lotta noise, but not much fire.
Like perhaps many readers, I dislike political grandstanding in fiction—I still believe non-fiction and journalism to be better, more effective “message delivery systems.” But occasionally good writing can slide past my objections, provided the debating turns into something like real drama, where the characters and the context of what they believe, the world in which they believe, almost weaves and shimmers.
Not in this novel, though. The angry arguments between Jean and various other characters are like watching a bunch of incompetent swordsmen hack away at each other without ever landing a real blow. They stereotype each other and themselves.
Jean is shocked shocked to find her father and lifelong friends are racists, is unable to find the core of what they and she believe. The dialogue in these scenes is terrible, sounding ripped from overnight opinion columns and fulminous letters-to-the-editor. The question of what might make people racist and why they hang onto prejudice in the face of overwhelming evidence and moral sense—things that fiction is good at revealing--remains out of range.
The book feels inchoate as though Lee is too close to her subject to get perspective on it. The problem of loving people with terrible flaws is one of the great themes of fiction, but here it seems unresolved in the author’s soul and at the surface. The risky decision she makes would be understandable and admirable if it didn’t feel so slapped on, a sudden reversal out of lesser fiction.
Atticus Finch seems a pasteboard of attitudes plastered together. He's in no way a unified character. (For what I believe a more rounded portrait of the bigot as a human being and vice versa see All in the Family).
And so, Go Set a Watchman is like a lot of first novels I’ve read: lumpy and bumpy. But I still recall an old saying from long ago: Anyone can write a first novel. It’s the second that really counts.
I’ll bet that for Ms. Harper Lee, the second one will be the charm.
(Re edited 8/24/2015)
(Re edited 8/24/2015)
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield