I’ll start with a question.
Have you ever had your world rocked to its very foundation by a realization?
Then you can understand Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.
When I first heard that her manuscript was going to be published, I didn’t think much of it. However, as the opinions kept coming out concerning Atticus Finch, I started to feel a little more intrigued, not because I wanted to see how Lee portrays his racism, but the reaction that Jean Louise (Scout) would have toward him.
Maybe I missed some of the opinions, actually, I know I did, but the opinions I found and read all focused on Atticus and the comparison to the portrayal of him in To Kill a Mockingbird. Reading them, I had a realization. To Kill a Mockingbird is not about him. It never was. The book is about a little girl in the South, her worldview, and how those around her influence that view.
My intrigue led me to order a copy of Watchman, and just to be sure I remembered all that happens in To Kill a Mockingbird, I decided to dust off my copy and read it again. As luck would have it, the UPS man delivered Watchman to my house just as I was finishing up the last chapters of Mockingbird. I let it sit out on the porch in its box until I was done reading Mockingbird, and as soon as I read the last word, I went to the porch, picked up the box, opened it, and started reading Watchman. I did not look back past the title page.
It took me a little over eight hours to read through the 278 pages, taking a break to rest my eyes here and there and to eat some supper. When I finished it, I just sat in my papasan chair, with my feet up on the footstool in front of me, laid the book on my chest, closed my eyes, took a long, deep breath, and quietly said, “this is a masterpiece.”
It isn’t often I read a piece of fiction that gets down and dirty and displays the rawness that comes with passion-filled emotion. This one does. It is unpolished, unlike Mockingbird and, no doubt, the many revisions it took to get to Mockingbird, it is raw, and it is blunt. This, among others, in my humble opinion, is why the publishers and editors that first saw this manuscript in the late 50s did not want to publish Watchman. Think of the raw passion and emotion racing through the South in 1957. Then think of the polish of Mockingbird and how it eases into the subject of race without pointing out the difference between the racism that occurs in the legal system and that which occurs everywhere else, especially in the South of the mid-twentieth century.
Also, the language doesn’t follow the same rules that were followed in Mockingbird. Mockingbird is written in the first person, totally through Scout’s eyes. Watchman is written in the third person, but in lots of instances goes directly to the first person, through Scout’s eyes, in the narration, transitioning in the middle of paragraphs without any quotation marks or indention that would typically denote a change in perspective. That took a little getting used to, and I thought it a little weird, but as I got used to it and could really empathize with Scout’s and Lee’s train of thought, it worked.
It works beautifully as a portrayal of the human mind that is filled with emotion and passion, particularly when it comes to a realization that reaches to one’s very moral foundation and conscience. Think about it, when you are confronted with something that goes against a particular moral you have, emotions get high, even if you don’t show it. Your pulse quickens. The room gets a little warmer, and you might even sweat a little while you maintain some level of composure. Then your mind begins to race and to reason and to find the justification of your moral and how to defend your moral against that which has just confronted it.
You know that feeling well, don’t you?
Your mind scatters, going every which way, and it takes either an incredible amount of self-discipline or a jolt of some kind to bring you back down to earth. Lee gives us that same feeling through language.
It is speculated that both Watchman and Mockingbird are autobiographical sketches based on Lee’s life. I don’t know, maybe they are and maybe they aren’t. What I do know is that Watchman is filled with emotion. Lee pours her heart out on those pages. She gives the reader an insight into the intensity of human emotion and passion that I cannot remember seeing so strongly in anything else I’ve read.
Jean Louise’s realization rocks her core just as it rocks the cores of those who adore Atticus Finch and see him as something more than human. He is her father and her hero and her foundation. We get only a small glimpse of their relationship, but that glimpse gives us a lot.
“Equal rights for all; special privileges for none.” That phrase comes up in both books, just as a few things do, such as the description and history of Maycomb. This phrase forms the core of Scout’s social morality, and as said, she’s “color blind…always have been, you always will be…You see only people.”
She learned the phrase from her father, just as most everything else that stuck with her through life and made her the woman she grew to be. As said, Atticus, to her, is more than human. He’s her dad. He is her “Atticus.” She thought she lined her morality up right next to his, just like his, but as her uncle tells her, “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”
Those words. I still get goose pimples as I read them and type them out here. The words would not carry the weight they do if Lee had not written To Kill a Mockingbird. Without Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman would not be what it is. It is a masterful portrayal of human emotion AND reconciliation. I have not seen that word, or anything resembling the same meaning, in any review or opinion written concerning this book, and that is a shame.