My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Go Set a Watchman (2015) by Harper Lee is her second novel in 55 years, since her classic debut in 1960 of the Pulitzer winning To Kill a Mockingbird, and sadly Go Set a Watchman should not have been published. But publishing companies like HarperCollins need to make a quick buck in these woeful economic times; so why not use a well-known, instant best-selling name like Harper Lee?
From the way things look, Harper Lee just sold herself down the river of immorality—not immortality, as she had hoped—and with the publication of Go Set a Watchman, she proves she is not the genius readers had all hoped she would be.
No. Sadly, Harper Lee is a flawed human being and a lesser writer with a shocking moral vicissitude who owes her success to the editors who helped publish To Kill a Mockingbird by rejecting and then editing/excising out most of the chapters which now make up Go Set a Watchman. But let’s steer clear of Francis Bacon and his vicissitudes and focus on the literature.
The original editors in the late 1950s saw the travesty in the words and chapters later published a half-century later in the form of Go Set a Watchman. And these former editors who lived in an age of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and the like knew what they were doing. These editors of old cared more for art, the sacred word, than they did for the almighty dollar.
So, back then, these wise men of old cut the parts that readers now find in Go Set a Watchman, left the worthy parts which they would refurbish, rebuild and recreate with Harper Lee’s help into the infamous To Kill a Mockingbird. Back then, the editors saw the gold from the garbage, the wheat from the chaff, and they separated the two accordingly and wisely.
And since Harper Lee loves using old adages and musings from the Deep South, which she incorrectly and falsely attributes to Alabama as primarily originating from Maycomb as “Maycomb’s” sayings, let me add one more, and I can hear my Granddaddy saying it now from his grave: “You couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you?”
There has been much discussion about Go Set a Watchman and even the New Yorker calls it a “failed novel on race.” Maureen Corrigan of the NPR politely calls it a “mess that makes us reconsider a masterpiece” and a “failed sequel.” Corrigan also reminds us of that other famous Southern writer, who I deeply admire and who reminds readers that, “You can’t go home again.” I know what he means, and later so will you.
Let’s not stop there. Go Set a Watchman is not only a failed novel on race it is a failed novel, period. And Harper Lee should be ashamed of herself for allowing anything less than her best to be published.
But perhaps this is the best Harper Lee could ever do. After all, does a real writer write only two books in a span of a century?
The second book, Go Set a Watchman, was actually rejected by publishers and editors in the 1950s, and should have remained in oblivion as was originally decided by editors. And it’s not even a second book. It was the first, which could not pass muster then and still doesn’t today.
One example of the horrendous writing which pops its ugly head up every now and again is this sentence:
“With the same suddenness that a barbarous boy yanks the larva of an ant lion from its hole to leave it struggling in the sun, Jean Louise was snatched from her quiet realm and left alone to protect her sensitive epidermis as best she could, on a humid Sunday afternoon at precisely 2:28 P.M.” (p 100).
Now I have no doubt the original editors who read this manuscript and this particular metaphor in the 1950s looked at this sentence and drew a quick and sharp defining red line or a giant X across it. Or perhaps they were harsher than most readers and the editors wrote in the margins: “What the hell were you thinking?”
From this point on, reader be warned, the greatest failure of Go Set a Watchman is the degrading and often xenophobic content—which would never, never never never, be published by any lesser known writer these days—and then there is also the death of the beloved Atticus Finch, who teaches readers to love all and look upon each other with eyes of equality in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Now, Atticus doesn’t die a physical death, but he does become a horrible figure to Jean Louise and the silent audience Atticus gives to the KKK loving men of Maycomb kills the image of her most treasured and worshipped father from within, and in essence, Jean Louise kills her god. The whole book is wrapped up in this idea, and executes the idea poorly. There is no need for what follows in a scene found in Go Set a Watchman that mirrors the famous courthouse scene in To Kill a Mockingbird:
“Mr. O’Hanlon was born and bred in the South, went to school there, married a Southern lady, lived all his life there, and his main interest today was to uphold the Southern Way of Life and no niggers and no Supreme Court was going to tell him or anybody else what to do…a race as hammer-headed as…essential inferiority…kinky woolly heads…still in the trees…greasy smelly…marry your daughters…mongrelize the race…mongrelize…mongrelize…save the South…Black Monday…lower than cockroaches…God made the races…nobody knows why but He intended for ’em to stay apart…if He Hadn’t He’d’ve made us all one color…back to Africa…
“She heard her father’s voice, a tiny voice talking in the warm comfortable past. Gentleman, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.
“These top-water nigger preachers…like apes…mouths like Number 2 cans…twist the Gospel…the court prefers to listen to Communists…take ’em all out and shoot ’em for treason…
“And Mr. O’Hanlon’s humming harangue, a memory was rising to dispute him: the courtroom shifted imperceptibly, in it she looked down on the same heads…
“Atticus Finch rarely took a criminal case; he had no taste for criminal law. The only reason he took this one was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy go to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense. The boy had come to him by way of Calpurnia, told him his story, and had told him the truth. The truth was ugly.
“Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl…
“She walked down the steps and into the shade of a live oak. She put her arm out and leaned against the trunk. She looked at Maycomb, and her throat tightened: Maycomb was looking back at her.
“Go away, the old buildings said. There is no place for you here. You are not wanted. We have secrets” (p 108-111).
Readers, as does Jean Louise, later find out that one of the primary reasons Atticus Finch took that case which made To Kill a Mockingbird a legend was because as a white man he wanted to keep status quo, and in his own words in Go Set a Watchman he explains his true beliefs that had been hidden all these years:
“Her father picked up a pencil and tapped it on his desk. ‘Jean Louise,’ he said. ‘Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?’
“‘You’re queering the pitch on me, Atticus, so let’s keep the sociology out of it for a second. Of course I know that, but I heard something once. I heard a slogan and it stuck in my head. I heard “Equal rights for all; special privileges for none,” and to me it didn’t mean anything but what it said. It didn’t mean one card off the top of the stack for the white man and one off the bottom for the Negro, it—’
“‘Let’s look at it this way,’ said her father. ‘You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word “backward,” don’t you?’ (p 242)
The only thing backward is believing that another race is backward and inferior because of their color and behavior, and believing that you are better as a race, as a people, as a person because another race, another people, another person is different from you in their ways. But this sounds less like Jeffersonian democracy, as Atticus likes to think, and a lot more like Nazism.
And as more readers consider this issue, it becomes clear that in this day and age when more pressing concerns are taking precedence for “Equal Pay” or “Equal Rights” for the lower classes across the globe and, more specifically, the topless women in New York’s Time Square are being tested and challenged by the mainstream media, well, it becomes clear that major publishers, ran by the elitists lurking in the shadows—after all, who actually owns these companies?—and these obscured few who own publishing houses desire to publish this kind of anti-intellectual garbage spewing from Atticus Finch, who believes color truly divides people, and these elitists—who are the true minority, after all—desire to spread among the social classes a well-disguised propagandistic literature via a fictional world saturated in diseased thought and corrupted character.
“I’m seventy-two years old,” Atticus Finch, an old Southern-white man, says in Go Set a Watchman, “but I’m still open to suggestion…
“Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life” (p 246).
And the more this type of old-fashioned hate burns itself onto the page, the more Harper Lee makes it clear her message, if any, will become lost. The author could have connected this issue with deeper and more pressing issues, such as economic inequality or income inequality, that are spreading themselves like viruses around the world. But Harper Lee doesn’t. She is all about race. All about color.
And the more readers hear Atticus preach—which there is a lot of preaching going on in this novel, which breaks the first commandment of writing: “Thou shalt not preach to readers”—the more he preaches about race and Africa and color and the backward people, the more readers understand how miserably this novel performed to address a current social issue of today, rather than an issue that has been, for the most part, transcended by the educated masses.
As a “white” man (I really hate labels) from the United States, namely Texas, I was still able to grow up in the 1980s while having strong “black” men for role models, like Michael Jordan and Walter Payton. I saw, and still see, nothing wrong in this. These were men who stood for “True Greatness,” impeccable character and ability and perseverance in the face of social unfairness, and each day I aspire to such greatness. I could not hold my head up if I did anything less.
When I visited New Hampshire, some years ago after living and working in Asia for five years, as a Southerner I was astonished to see the level of sensitivity many white Northerners in America still hold for African-Americans and their race.
One cold January morning, after I failed to find any Earl Grey tea, my favorite, at breakfast, a young friend, a “black” woman, came to our workshop and brought me some Earl Grey from the hotel’s restaurant, and I jokingly asked, “Where did you find this? The black market?”
I heard gasps from the room, and all I kept thinking was this: “Haven’t you people grown up yet? Haven’t you matured? Haven’t you evolved beyond the fundamental? Don’t you even realize that a ‘black market’ in Asia is an illegal market?”
I immediately knew my friend did not take direct offense at my comments because she knew I meant no harm and certainly no racist intention, because like me she was from the South and she too had evolved beyond such silly connotations of color and meaning. I sensed that much at least. But now I ask myself: who has not evolved? How many?
You certainly can’t go home again. Home remains the same and you change and it all becomes something else entirely. Old Wolfe was right.
Even today, The Standard in Hong Kong released its front page headline in all caps, warning: “GLOBAL MELTDOWN,” and many analysts have started calling the financial crisis of August 23, 2015 as “Black Monday”:
“China’s stock market woes spread mayhem across the globe yesterday on a day quickly dubbed ‘Black Monday’” (Vol. 8, No 237).
And it is in these modern times when sophisticated and more evolved readers remember that “black” refers to the neutral color and not the color of a race. But I ask myself again: who still has not evolved? Transcended? How many?
Atticus, however, sounds like the wealthy elitist of today telling everyone, including the poor and poverty stricken, “You do not seem to understand that the Poor down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life.”
And Harper Lee just doesn’t quite make the leap from racial inequality to financial inequality, but one can dream—one hopes the author meant so. But to be honest, Harper Lee did not. She failed to make this intellectual leap in her anachronistic story published in modern times. Instead she decided to kill the pure and graceful reputation of the beloved Atticus Finch when Jean Louise confronts the truth within her father:
“I mean I grew up right in your house, and I never knew what was in your mind. I only heard what you said. You neglected to tell me that we were naturally better than the Negroes, bless their kinky heads, that they were able to go so far only, you neglected to tell me what Mr. O’Hanlon told me yesterday. That was you talking down there, but you let Mr. O’Hanlon say it. You’re a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant, Atticus…
“You are telling them that Jesus loves them, but not much. You are using frightful means to justify ends that you think are for the good of the most people. Your ends may well be right—I think I believe in the same ends—but you cannot use people as your pawns, Atticus. You cannot. Hitler and that crowd in Russia’ve done some lovely things for their lands, and they slaughtered tens of millions of people doing ’em…”
“Atticus smiled. ‘Hitler, eh?’
“You’re no better. You’re no damn better. You just try to kill their souls instead of their bodies. You just try to tell ’em, ‘Look, be good. Behave yourselves. If you’re good and mind us, we will give you nothing and take away what we’ve already given you’…
“You double-dealing, ring-tailed old son of a bitch! You just sit there and say ‘As you please’ when you’ve knocked me down and stomped on me and spat on me, you just sit there and say ‘As you please’ when everything I ever loved in this world’s—you just sit there and say ‘As you please’—you love me! You son of a bitch!” (p 247-253)
And how does Harper Lee reward this kind of talk from Jean Louise? Readers can plainly see the kind of people the Finch-men are when Atticus’s brother Dr. Finch meets Jean Louise as she tries to escape from Maycomb:
“She slammed down the trunk lid, snatched out the key, and straightened up to catch Dr. Finch’s savage backhand swipe full on the mouth.
“Her head jerked to the left and met his hand coming viciously back. She tumbled and groped for the car to balance herself. She saw her uncle’s face shimmering among the tiny dancing lights” (p 260).
And after the physical assault, the racist Dr. Finch jokes about the incident while Jean Louise nurses her jaw:
“Of course I’m going to have a drink, Zandra. I deserve one. I don’t go about hittin’ women every day, and I tell you if you’re not used to it, it takes it out of you” (p 262).
And shortly after this, readers are provided with the book’s title as Dr. Finch, the racist and the abuser, states coldly to Jean Louise as she nurses her wounds in the bathroom:
“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious” (p 265).
And yet this strange, but useful out-of-place advice comes from an old man who verbally and physically abuses young women for speaking out in defiance of racism and xenophobic beliefs. But many readers are not surprised by this pseudo-double talk from Southern white men who preach the goodness of hearts and all men out of their fat mouths while they slap the mouth of any who bring to light the truth behind their evil ways. It’s fine to do what you like, just don’t do anything that will upset the norm, the cherished system.
And this is when I often reflect on how close the words “Culture” and “Cult” truly are. A cult is a group of people, much like a culture, who cannot or are restricted to think for themselves. And any person who stands outside the cult, or a culture at times, is killed, destroyed and shamed, or excommunicated, left to die.
Yet when a woman or a man stands alone and says, “What you are doing is wrong!” the other silent majority, the cowardly people who remain idle in the crowd and nod their heads and mumble, “Yup, you’re right, but what can we do?” and these cowards turn and walk away, because their hearts are made from less honorable material.
And let’s be clear about this one notion: Corruption is fueled by silence and inaction. The same can be said about racism, but then again racism is a form of corruption, isn’t it?
Readers can forgive Harper Lee for all the preaching, coming from both sides of the fence. Readers can forgive her for the wasted opportunity to connect her story to bigger, more pressing issues in society, because novels are not required to make a social commentary. Readers can also forgive the author for not being as gifted as they truly thought she was, because they now know that the editors are the true architects behind To Kill a Mockingbird.
But I am not so sure readers will forgive Harper Lee for destroying and ruining one of the great and most beloved characters in all of American literature; a man who stood for equality and fairness, the treasured Atticus Finch who had once represented the best in the American psyche for the rest of humanity, a twisted old man who ends his legacy by becoming someone we never hoped to see: a product of his racist town, a product of his racist friends he often quietly sat listening to and never once denounced, and a product of his Southern cult—forgive me, I mean—Southern culture.
And this, among many reasons more, is why Go Set a Watchman is one of the worst books I’ve read all year, and probably the worst book I’ve read in the last five years, and this, furthermore, is why I do not recommend Harper Lee’s failed novel, Go Set a Watchman. The current editors at HarperCollins should have done what the original editors did 55 years ago: they should have left this part of the manuscript in the slush pile for good.
But let me add one more thing, in case Harper Lee or HarperCollins is reading:
You couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you?
No. She couldn’t. They couldn’t.
The cover of Go Set a Watchman, as the reader can plainly see, is captivating to the senses and beautiful to the eye. But as they say: You can’t judge a book by its cover.
Then again, I wish to God people didn’t judge a book by its cover, but they do. Yes. They do.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers