Go Set a Watchman was written by Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Mockingbird, published in 1956, is one of those books which has made its way into collective discourse – those who haven’t read the book at school or seen the movie will likely know of Atticus Finch, the lawyer from Maycomb, Alabama who defended Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Mockingbird is written from the perspective of Atticus’ daughter Scout; Scout idolises her father, and stands up to the townsfolk intent on attacking Robinson. Scout is not the only one to idolise Atticus; he is a kind of cultural moral compass (at least in the UK and US), standing against his town on the basis that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” and that “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience”.
Go Set a Watchmen is again written from Scout’s perspective but this time she is in her twenties, lives in New York, goes by her formal name Jean-Louise, and is a young woman who trusts in her conscience and sees things from others’ point of view. As the story progresses, this trust is dissolved and the limits of this empathy are shown by events Jean-Louise cannot tolerate: her father is supportive of a local movement which opposed the actions of the NACCP. Her father is willing to oppress black people in favour of maintaining local customs.
As Jean-Louise discovers the limitations and logical difficulties of the set of values she clings to, she finds it harder to fight for what she has so far believed to be right. Her townspeople and her relatives continue regardless of her actions, explain her prejudices to her, and actively instil fear into her. She starts the novel assured and ends afraid, her ignorance revealed and her idol shattered. She is able to see the mechanisms behind the power she had taken for granted.
The story sparked difficult and interesting conversations in the group. Is Jean-Louise an example of privileged white youth who needs to be made aware, or is she a young woman being forcefully silenced? Is Hank a coward for being afraid of his town or is he fighting with a kind of courage? How much of Calpurnia’s treatment of Scout and Jem was down to love and how much a contractual obligation? We talked about obligation and the fear that goes with it, privilege and the assumption of righteousness that goes with it, oppression and the anger that goes with it. We spoke about how the power of To Kill a Mockingbird made the comments on power in Go Set a Watchman both potent and dangerous.
Finally we spoke about the story behind the publishing of Watchman. The book, which was released in 2015, was in fact written several years before Mockingbird. The book released two years ago was Harper Lee’s draft, which was edited to become her bestseller. This explains the patchy writing, which some of us found slow-moving and vague. It also raises questions – why was the book published in this form, shortly before the author’s death? Was the author coerced into agreeing for the book to be published? What were the motivations of the author’s lawyer, and of publisher HarperCollins (part of the Murdoch empire)? The agency of Harper Lee in this story added further ambiguities to our conversation about power.
Samantha, Waterloo Reading Group