by Beth Johnson
This review is a plea for an unfettered reading of the highly-hyped publication of the book which Harper Lee of Monroeville, Alabama wrote in the early 1950s and which her editor shelved in favour of a version portraying her character Jean-Louise as the young Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Go Set A Watchman should be read on its own merits – it boasts sparkling prose, mind-stretching ideas, and parallels to what is happening 60 years later in our world. It is a stark picture of how societies react when faced with change they are not ready to accept: circle the wagons and strengthen your identity with old symbols of power.
The author probes the issues and attitudes of her times toward race relations. It is interesting that no reviewer has seriously tackled her discussion of Southern traditions in the 1950s, the ambiguity of relations between white employers and black servants, the refusal to recognize that better education is the only thing that would shake the deep-seated belief that Negroes could never break out of the cycle of poverty and ignorance. Lee uses her Atticus, the enlightened Southern gentleman, to demonstrate just how ingrained racism is in Southern culture. That (somewhat benevolent and patronizing) racism erupts into an “us knows us” siege mentality in the South when the Supreme Court decisions between 1952 and 1954 (Brown vs the Board of Education) threaten to bring down the privilege and superiority of small Southern communities. As a member of the Southern elite, Harper Lee showed courage in exposing that heritage of exploitation for what it was.
At the same time, Go Set A Watchman serves as a coming-of- age story where Scout, now Jean-Louise, for the first time perceives her beloved parent as a product of his tradition and therefore also a bigot. Atticus proves to be more than the cardboard figure the reader and reviewer can shoot at when he encourages his daughter to be part of the new generation which will move the South beyond its past. Lee’s genius lies in be willing to portray her characters in full flesh and blood without romanticizing their faults.
Perhaps the real problem with reviewers who rail at Watchman as a flawed prequel/sequel is that two generations of readers have loved the book and movie versions of To Kill A Mockingbird as a monument to man’s ability to fight for the right values in ourselves and our world. The young Harper Lee saw more clearly just how murky and difficult social relations can be – and she didn’t hesitate to make that evident. This book was finally published in 2015, the week after the Confederate flag was struck from the Capitol of South Carolina. We still have a long way to go.