Book Review: Go Set A Watchman

If you had spent your high school years in America, it’s safe to assume that you were assigned to read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. We were told by our 11th-grade English teachers that To Kill A Mockingbird is an American classic that captured the zeitgeist of pre-Civil-Right-era America and compelled its reader to never judge a man by the color of his skin. Atticus Finch, the father of the lead character, Scout, was portrayed as an honorable, dutiful lawyer who earned the admiration of general public. In fact, many lawyers claim that their career aspirations were nourished by the inspirational example of Atticus Finch. Atticus Finch has been lionized as the epitome of integrity, steadfast principles, and sense of humanity.

However, despite the acclaim bestowed on the character of Atticus Finch, his critics were few but certainly vocal. While his colleagues expressed their admiration for Atticus, law professor and legal ethicist Monroe Freedman questioned the fictional character’s status as a role model for the legal profession. Freedman argued that while Atticus was willing to defend a Black defendant against a racially-charged accusation, he still worked within the system of institutionalized racism and sexism. Freedman further argued that Atticus was dishonest, prejudiced, misogynistic and did nothing to challenge the status quo of 1930’s Maycomb, Alabama. For example, he ate at segregated restaurants, and regarded the local chapter of the KKK to be “a political organization more than anything else”. His male chauvinism was on full display when, during his closing arguments to the jury during trial, he dismissed then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt as a “distaff side of the executive branch in Washington”. Furthermore, while encouraging his son to pursue law, he did not extend that same motivation to his daughter, who was under the impression that she “will be some gentleman’s lady”.

Needless to say, Freedman’s views were met with furious backlash, with one legal scholar, Timothy Hall, retorting that “Monroe really wants is for Atticus to be working on the front lines for the NAACP in the 1930s, and, if he’s not, he’s disqualified from being any kind of hero; Monroe has this vision of lawyer as prophet. Atticus has a vision of lawyer not only as prophet but as parish priest”.

In 2011, a typed manuscript was found during an appraisal for Harper Lee’s assets in Monroeville, Lee’s hometown in Alabama. Upon the discovery, it was revealed that Harper Lee originally wrote this manuscript for her debut novel, which she had titled Go Set a Watchman. After being rejected for publication, Lee’s publisher suggested that she construct a new story based on the childhoods of the lead character. This new story would be published as the critically-acclaimed To Kill A Mockingbird. 

For over fifty years, before its discovery, the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, had been gathering dust in a safe-deposit box in Monroeville, concealed from the general public. However, Lee’s enthusiastic fans were priveledged to access this mysterious manuscript when it was published in 2015 by HarperCollins.

Go Set a Watchman follows a grown-up Scout, who had since shed her childhood pet name in favor of her official birth name, Jean-Louise Finch. Living in New York City, she returns to her hometown of Maycomb for a two-week visit. During the time of her visit, the groundbreaking Brown V Board of Education decision was passed by the US Supreme Court, declaring segregation illegal. This latest ruling is not viewed favorably by the townspeople of Maycomb. As the novel progresses, Jean-Louise starts to view her beloved hometown in a radically different light, discovering that her childhood was not as idyllic as she had originally perceived.

As a child, Jean-Louise had tremendously adored her father, Atticus. Unlike most parents, Atticus was not one who thought that his children should “be seen and not heard”. He had a very open relationship with them, treating them as his equals and encouraging them to speak their minds. Being a widower, Atticus was Jean-Louise’s sole parental influence. The way he conducted himself had inspired her values and sense of character

Jean-Louise had always pictured her father as a stalwart advocate for racial equality. She had admirably remembered him defending a Black defendant, as recalled in detail in Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird. She remembered his pleas for empathy, stressing that “you can never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk in it”. That statement in itself had shaped Jean Louise’s entire ethos.

Unfortunately, Jean-Louise was forced to grapple with the unbearable truth. Her father was not the progressive icon she pictured him to be. To her horror, Jean-Louise discovered that not only did Atticus have prejudicial views, but that he was a member of the Citizen’s Council, a white supremacist organization that sought to counter racial integration and intimidate civil rights activists. Atticus’ rationalized his views by claiming that the Supreme Court decision was inherently unconstitutional, being a deliberate imposition of federal intervention into state jurisdiction. He furthermore opined that Blacks were not civilized enough, thus, they weren’t ready for full civil rights.

In response to her father’s controversial remarks, Jean-Louise stood aghast and flabbergasted. The man she revered as a hero–a crusader for justice and equality, was no different from any other bigot in 1950’s Alabama.

Go Set A Watchman could not have been released in a more fitting time. The 2010’s has become the decade when everyone became “woke”. We’re become all too aware of the inconvenient truths buried underneath the rug. We’ve learned that Christopher Columbus, celebrated in that charming rhyme “In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, was a unabashed psychopath who kidnapped Taino tribesmen, brought them to Spain and sold them into slavery.  We’ve learned that Thomas Edison was a selfish business tycoon who forced film producers out of Menlo Park. We’ve learned that Mohandas Gandhi was a racist who frequently struck his wife. We’ve even learned that Bill Cosby, long beloved as “America’s Dad”, was secretly a serial rapist.

We’ve become disillusioned by the horrific actions of our long-venerated heroes. It seems that we have no one to admire. No one whose example we can emulate. We’ve left disenchanted, distraught, betrayed and more cynical than ever before.

Undoubted, this was exactly how Jean-Louise felt when she learned the truth about her father and his views. However, by the conclusion of the novel, Jean-Louise is not left with a disdainful outlook on her family, her town or the world at large. In fact, interestingly enough, the story ends on a positive note. By acknowledging her father’s sordid views, Jean-Louise forces herself to reexamine her relationship with her father. As a child, she has looked to her father as a saint. However, since discovering his views on race, Jean-Louise is able to perceive him as he always was: a man. A man tarnished with insecurities and many, many faults. But a man, nonetheless.

By acknowledging her father as just a man, Jean-Louise was able to make the final leap towards adulthood. She was no longer a naive child, living within the shadows of her admirable father. She was her own person. An independent woman who held views that contradicted her father’s.

Go Set A Watchman proposes that disillusionment enables one to carve out a path towards individuality. When we start acknowledging our “heroes” to be flawed humans, we liberate ourselves from the that web of hagiographic obsequiousness. We grow in touch with our own principles and our own values, allowing us to cultivate our own sense of self.