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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Go Set A Watchman

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Novel written and rejected before Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I first read the iconic American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird as a high school sophomore.  I wholeheartedly took to the book, and if memory serves, I immediately reread it and have done so a few more times over the years.  With all this in mind, I approached Harper Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman.  As my loyal readers know, I assiduously avoid reviews of books on my TBR pile, but tidbits reached me before publication, and I began to question whether I possibly wanted to risk spoiling my image of Lee, Scout, Atticus, and Maycomb County, Alabama.  In the end, I decided to take the risk.

The novel left me with more questions than I could handle.  Did Harper Lee sugarcoat Atticus, clearly a stand in for her father A.C. Lee?  Did the earlier novel exaggerate Atticus’ true character to something horrific?  How did Lee, as Scout, fit into the narrative?  The prose of Watchman is something of a shadow of the great writing in Mockingbird.  Did the publisher reject it for that reason?  Or for the portrayal of Atticus?  More importantly, why did Harper Lee agree to the publication of this novel as she approaches the end of her life?  Was she setting the record straight?  Or, as some have suggested, was she the victim of someone who saw a pot of gold under the cover of the novel?

Scout, now 26, lives and works in New York.  She comes south for an annual visit with her father and Calpurnia and all her high school friends.  In one scene, the friends gather in the Finch living room, and Scout listens in amazement to the conversation.  She despises her friends, their lifestyle, their attitude toward African-Americans and the recently passed Civil Rights Acts of the 60s.  Yet, curiously, she does not challenge any of her friends.  Rather she muses, if she marries Henry, her father’s law partner and a childhood friend, her life will slide into step with all her friends.

In a scene reminiscent of the young Scout in Mockingbird, she sneaks off to the courthouse and takes a seat in the balcony and watches her father introduce a speaker at a meeting of the White Citizens Council.  Her father is president with Henry seated beside him.

The racism of Mockingbird and the terrible tragedy of Tom Robinson still bring tears to my eyes.  I don’t need the piling on of Atticus to press home the point.  In Watchman, Scout refers to a criminal case involving a black man that Atticus only took on, because he knew he could win.  Who is the real A.C. Lee?  Who is the real Atticus Finch?  Who is the real Scout?  The real Harper Lee?

I did read one review from an African-American journalist, who applauded the novels expose of racism in the 60s.  I know we must never, ever forget the horrors of slavery.  But I feel certain that back then some people did decry the Jim Crow laws.  So, isn’t it better to have Atticus a kindly man?  A devoted father?  A man seeking justice regardless of the color of the defendant’s skin?  One shining spot of light during those terrible times?

I am not going to quote from Harper Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman.  I think anyone who loves Atticus, Scout, and Jem who hates racism can decide whether or not to go down this path.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!