Literature Commentary: Go Set a Watchman

14 Jul
Literature Commentary: Go Set a Watchman

Questions over the legitimacy of its publication aside, Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” recently sparked additional controversy: namely, the notion that Atticus Finch – the fictional character whose speeches inspired plenty of young people to go to law school – might’ve been a segregationist. I find literary controversies like this compelling – particularly given the immediate cultural relevance of the issues in play – and accordingly picked up a copy of “Watchman” this afternoon.

In a nutshell: it’s a much more thoughtful, sophisticated story than you’ve heard – even more so than its predecessor.

It’s now the 1950s, and Jean Louise (the narrator “Scout” of “Mockingbird”) returns to her hometown of Maycomb after an extended stint in New York. With the Civil Rights Movement on the horizon, tensions between white and African-American citizens are running high – to the point that a segregationist “council of concerned citizens” has been formed among the town’s leading men.

Worst of all, Atticus Finch – defender of innocents – has been sighted at their meetings.

The narrative of “Watchman” subsequently unfolds through a series of encounters between Jean Louise and figures from her past, each of whom are reacting in different ways to the sweeping cultural changes that surround them. While at times painful to read – though it never lapses into despair – “Watchman” is every inch a worthy sequel to its acclaimed forerunner (though viewers raised on the clear moral contours of “Mockingbird” may be put off by the conceptual thorniness of ‘Watchman”).

Throughout its short length, “Watchman” provides a compelling look at the ever-present conflict between Northern and Southern traditions in America, and in many respects feels surprisingly contemporary. Through her characters’ various arguments, Lee exposits the myriad narratives offered in defense of the South (states’ rights, preservation of a way of life, defense of home and family, cultural identity, resentment of dictates from the federal government on high) and ultimately finds them wanting. In answer, Lee suggests that “color blindness” is the most humanizing attitude one can adopt: in an era of increasingly widespread identity politics, it remains an open question whether her solution will prove to be lastingly salient.

On a more metahistorical level, “Watchman” depicts the collapse of the “white man’s burden” narrative, a state in which white attitudes toward African Americans were characterized by deprecatory paternalism (“of course you’re equal in abstract dignity, but not equal in actual value”). This position, while morally reprehensible in historical hindsight, isn’t actually inconsistent with Atticus’ heroic stand in “Mockingbird” (as seen through the eyes of a child narrator). Indeed, Jean Louise challenges him on this very point: at what point must lofty, idealized conceptions of justice give way to simple concern for one’s hurting neighbor? In exploring these themes, Lee probes the subtle implications of the declarations that led millions of readers to idolize Atticus: it’s disquieting, but in the most challenging of ways.

This is not a story of “disillusionment” per se, as some critics have alleged: at bottom, “Watchman” is a coming-of-age story about the ambiguities inherent in revisiting one’s past. All too often, as one grows to adulthood, the starkly drawn moral narratives of childhood give way to murkiness and nuance. Such is the tension which propels “Watchman” (and indeed, the story can only be genuinely appreciated when juxtaposed alongside its predecessor).

“Go Set a Watchman” isn’t as well-written as “Mockingbird,” and probably could’ve used a harsher editor. That being said, it’s also a much more thought-provoking story, and one that has prompted me to think critically about how I respond to those with whom I disagree on fundamental questions. No man is a perfect saint, Lee illustrates for her readers; all of us have our blind spots, a function of our shared human weakness.

In the end, “Watchman” is a worthy sequel indeed. Recommended.

Though better as a companion piece to “Mockingbird” than as a novel in its own right, “Watchman” is multilayered and moving.

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Posted by on July 14, 2015 in Historical


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