“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” – Isaiah 21:6
Like millions of others, To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book that reached out and grabbed me. Because of the bond I developed in 1979 in my 8th grade English class with this book, I never intended to read Go Set a Watchman. I believed that Harper Lee had never intended for it to be published and I did not want my love of To Kill a Mockingbird to be tarnished.
“The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box,” Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Listening to author Casey Cep on the South Bound podcast (Author Casey Cep on the Real-Life Murder Story that Harper Lee Tried to Write, September 17, 2019) during a long drive had me rethinking my position on reading Watchman. While she never met Lee, Cep did a lot of in depth research on Lee and spoke to a wide variety of people that interacted with her. Two comments by Cep about Lee really got me thinking. The first was, “there is a lot of unsettledness in her life.” And also, “There was something unresolved in her.” Something clicked and I wanted to read Watchman. I checked out the E version of the book from my library as soon as I arrived home.
After reading Watchman I think that Harper Lee intended for this work to be published because, though Atticus subtly told us who he was in Mockingbird, we chose not to see him as fallible. We made Atticus a god. I think that Lee became trapped by the idyllic myth that became a beloved, world wide best seller and a Oscar winning movie. Not being able to live authentically in order to uphold a myth would cause unsettledness, alcoholism, dual names (public Harper and private Nell,) and the need to live in New York City to be anonymous.
“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest JP court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal,” Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about racism, white privilege and the ugly edge of 2020 politics. Black Lives Matter, Make/Making America Great Again, protestors, police, to mask or not to mask and an upcoming election are all swirling in cauldron of history and anger that could erupt or overflow at any moment. This is where my thoughts were when I picked up Watchman and devoured it in two days.
As the story goes, Watchman was the first book submitted to the publisher in 1957 and it was rejected and the publisher instead had her work on another book focusing on the childhood of Scout, Jem and Dill with father Atticus and housekeeper Calpurnia providing care and structure.
Watchman begins with Jean Louise returning home from New York City for a visit in late 1954 or 1955. In May of 1954 the Supreme Court ended racial segregation in public schools, which shook the South and started 10th Amendment/states rights arguments again. Violence against and lynchings of Blacks surged in 1955 (Emmett Till is the most widely know) as voting registration drives were taking place and the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. The violence continued in 1956 as desegregation was opposed across the region. In 1957 the Little Rock Nine publicly bore the brunt of the desegregation ugliness. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 increased the federal protection of voting rights. Long story short, the white population, particularly in the South, was not willing to see a Black person as an equal.
Watchman is set during these upheaval where many, particularly the older generation, were fighting to hold onto life as they knew it to be. George Wallace was a public face of many, “ Segregation Now, Segregation Forever.”
“This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home,” Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
After Watchman was published there were many bad reviews of the book and anger that Atticus might be a racist. I think this is exactly what Harper Lee wanted. I think she wanted to expand the idyllic view she created by show a more complete picture of time and place. I think she wanted to write an honest book. Individuals are not all good nor, with a few exceptions, all bad. People are complex and evolving.
I am not giving more detail on the substance of Watchman because I read books blind and I want to extend that curtesy. I will also not share my theory of why Lee published Watchman when she did. If you have theories, please leave a comment.