Thoughts on Go Set a Watchman


Author, Harper Lee

I suppose there is a depth of understanding of the writer, Harper Lee, which can only come from being a true southerner: one who grew up observing the civil rights struggle of the Deep South. And as the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Daniel Ruth points out, it is a myth that Florida is not part of that Deep South culture as much as Alabama, Mississippi or anywhere along tobacco road. I grew up in Lakeland, FL., and let me assure you that all the racism in the mythical Maycomb, all the hypocrisy and apartheid were very much a part of that town’s culture during my childhood journey there.

Her writing genuinely captures that culture of tradition, fear and ignorance: a South so intricately tied to the old English aristocracy and unwilling to let go. And there were those, even amongst the elite, who like Jeanne Louis in the book, are so far ahead of their time in acceptance and support of needed change that they were like time travelers who went backward and got caught in the past. When you consider that Lee wrote both  her novels in the 1950’s, it is clear that she was one of those who must have felt so caught between the culture of her childhood and the truth: that culture of oppression was wrong and had to change.

I have read and listened to the nonsense about her destruction of the myth: the perfect male role modal. I am most grateful to Mary Badham, who played Scout in the movie, To Kill a Mockingbird: She responded to the criticism of the book’s portrayal of Atticus as a racist by pointing to the fact that “Mockingbird” is Scout’s view of her father while in her childhood, and the new novel is her adult perception and understanding: what do you know, Atticus Finch is a flawed human after all…just like the rest of us. Let’s get over it.

In his insightful essay on the subject titled “What Harper Lee Got Right” another great Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Gilbert King — the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America” – points out that the “elephant in the room” in Go Set a Watchman is Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers who successfully argued the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. They were upsetting the likes of Atticus Finch and other advocates of the status quo vs. government involvement in change. So the myth of a great white savior for black Americans is exposed.

Consider this from Gilbert King’s essay:

In Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee seems to be on the verge of  recognizing the contributions not of white saviors like the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, but of men like Thurgood Marshall, who often picked up where the Atticus Finches of America failed in court, saving the lives of innocent men. Jean Louise opines to her father that the South should have tried to work with blacks instead of running from the Brown decision and ultimately resenting the government. “I think we deserve everything we’ve gotten from the NAACP and more,” she tells him.

 Still, there have been “white saviors” who deserve credit and gratitude for their courage: such as Justice Hugo Black and Justice Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court. They wrote compelling opinions that helped change America for the better. And there were many others. But we have often failed to recognize and adequately document the work of those black Americans who stood so strong against the odds. Consider this additional excerpt from Gilbert King’s observations:

Living, breathing men like Hugo Black and Robert Jackson recognized that Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights lawyers and advocates were risking their lives in pursuit of constitutional equality. They also recognized that as justices on the nation’s highest court, there was no higher duty than to identify and act on the injustices that came before them.

In the heat of the Brown battle, a fatigued Marshall once remarked to an associate, “sometimes I get awfully tired of trying to save the white man’s soul.”

The battle was so daunting, Marshall needed all the white saviors he could find.

Thus, Mr. King pays tribute to both the white and black Americans who took us from the times described so accurately in “Watchman.” And Harper’s books are, in part, a study­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ of those so conflicted by tradition and truth: from the mob brought down by a tomboy called Scout, to a deeply troubled Jean Louis.

 Her writing drips with the voice of the South I grew up in. I hear it and feel it on every page. The symbolisms are moving and paint a picture of change and its challenges of conscience: she stands as the watchman in the balcony of the courtroom where she once observed the courage of her father; now seeing the truth of a mob mentality that even he is caught up in. She recalls sitting on the water tower looking down on Maycomb as a child and again watching over a hamlet full of southern charm and heartless hate and fear.

The book fails in some places; especially by today’s standards: such as when her uncle attacks Jean Louis by hitting her in the mouth and then suddenly returns from brute to the wise old sage who counsels her on how love and acceptance do not deprive one of individuality. But I’m being picky; it is a great read. It is not worthy as a sequel to “Mockingbird.” However, all comparisons are odious.

P.S. As an additional homage to the book, I’ve tried to overuse the colon just as she did. :>)