Set a Watchman: A Novel" by Harper Lee; Harper (278
would be a mistake to read Harper Lee’s "Go Set a
Watchman" as a sequel to her 1960 Pulitzer
Prize-winning "To Kill a Mockingbird."
it takes place a generation after the earlier book,
involving a visit from Scout Finch — now 26 and using
her given name, Jean Louise — to her hometown of
Maycomb, Ala., from New York, where she has gone to
live. Yes, Maycomb has changed: Scout’s older brother,
Jem, we learn in the opening chapter, is dead, victim of
a congenitally disordered heart, and her father, Atticus,
has not only grown old but also darker and more
are references to a trial from the past, during which
Atticus defended a black man against charges of raping a
white woman: "Consent was easier to prove,"
Lee writes, "than under normal conditions — the
defendant had only one arm."
a description recalls Tom Robinson, whose trial for a
similar offense is at the center of "To Kill a
Mockingbird." "His left arm was fully twelve
inches shorter than his right," the author explains
in that novel, "and hung dead at his side. It ended
in a small shriveled hand."
yet, those two trials come to very different outcomes;
Tom was memorably convicted in "To Kill a
Mockingbird," even with no evidence against him,
whereas in "Go Set a Watchman," Atticus
"accomplished what was never before or afterwards
done in Maycomb County: He won acquittal for a colored
boy on a rape charge."
just one of many points of divergence or overlap between
the novels, which are related in a complicated way.
to numerous accounts, "Go Set a Watchman" is
the earliest version of the manuscript that became
"To Kill a Mockingbird," acquired by
Lippincott in 1957 and subjected, under the guidance of
editor Tay Hohoff, to what Smithsonian Magazine once
called "a title-on-down revision." What does
this mean for us as readers? That we can’t help but
engage with "Go Set a Watchman" through a
filter of comparison.
introduces us to Maycomb, its history and
inconsistencies, as if we have never been here before.
We learn, in a passage virtually identical to one in
"To Kill a Mockingbird," of the town’s
origin as county seat, after a tavern keeper named
Sinkfield "made the surveyors drunk one evening,
induced them to bring forward their maps and charts, lop
off a little here, add a bit there, and adjust the
center of the county to meet his requirements."
encounter Atticus’ even-handedness: his insistence on
"always (trying) to put himself in his client’s
shoes." In "Go Set a Watchman," however,
this is not a marker of his moral dependability but
rather of his moral corruption.
Yes — for this is not the Atticus of "To Kill a
Mockingbird." In "Go Set a Watchman," he
has turned a treacherous corner, aligning with the
citizen’s council and the Ku Klux Klan.
think about this," he tells his daughter.
"What would happen if all the Negroes in the South
were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you,
there’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your
state governments run by people who don’t know how to
run ’em? ... We’re outnumbered, you know."
is the conflict of the novel, Jean Louise’s struggle
to come to some accommodation with a father who is not
who she believed he was.
the first part of the book, Lee builds the tension,
drawing us in slowly, revealing the Maycomb her
protagonist thought she knew. We visit Finch’s
Landing, experience flashbacks to her childhood with Jem
and Dill (although not Boo Radley) and meet her
on-again, off-again boyfriend, Henry Clinton.
pace can be, at times, meandering, but the focus appears
to sharpen with her discovery, among her father’s
reading materials, of a racist tract called "The
Black Plague." "The one human being she had
ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed
her," Lee writes, "the only man she had ever
known to whom she could point and say with expert
knowledge, ‘He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a
gentlemen,’ had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and
a vivid setup, and it indicates the promise Hohoff
recognized in this draft nearly 60 years ago. Promise,
however, remains the operative word, for "Go Set a
Watchman" is an apprentice effort, and it falls
apart in the second half.
its potential for drama, Lee develops her story through
long dialogue sequences that read less like conversation
than competing arguments. There is little sense of
urgency, and key aspects of the narrative — Jean
Louise’s naïvete, for one thing, her inability to see
Maycomb for what it is — are left largely unresolved.
I’m hesitant to level such a criticism, it’s
because, although "Go Set a Watchman" comes
marketed as an autonomous novel, it is most interesting
as a literary artifact.
did Lee take the frame of this fiction and collapse it
to create "To Kill a Mockingbird," finding a
narrative fluency only hinted at within this draft? How
did she refine her language, her scene construction,
discover a way to enlarge what are here little more than
political and social commonplaces, to expose a universal
of the answers, "Go Set a Watchman" shows
where she began. It is a starker book than "To Kill
a Mockingbird," more reactive to its moment; a
common theme involves what its characters regard as the
overreach of the U.S. Supreme Court, which at the time
Lee was writing had recently ruled on school
desegregation in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.
interesting, however, is the glimpse it offers of Jean
Louise as an adult, her desire to stake out a territory
of her own.
is difficult, knowing the history of both this novel and
its author, not to read those longings as belonging to
Lee herself, the reasons for her own long New York
exile, her silence in the wake of "To Kill a
Mockingbird." That too raises questions we can
never answer about why "Go Set a Watchman" is
being published now.
it changes — as it must — our sense of Atticus,
although that is complicated by this being not a
follow-up but instead an early version of the book. At
what point did Lee soften her portrayal? And what does
it mean to read this version of him now?
the end, it suggests a vivid set of contradictions, as
much between the author and the character as between the
character and himself.
is eternal apartness," Lee writes. "What had
she done that she must spend the rest of her years
reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips
to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am
their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this
is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t
care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail