Still Setting the Watchman

The hoopla around the release of Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman is a welcome contraindication for the frequently bemoaned decline of the American novel-reading public. I have been reluctant to enter the fray with my own take on this highly-anticipated and then thoroughly vilified novel, but I changed my mind when a local book store offered to refund the purchase price of the book to readers who pre-ordered what they thought was a new novel by the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, because, it turned out instead, to be an early draft of TKaM. And while I'm inclined to agree with Joe Nocera of the New York Times that the release of Watchman, "constitutes one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing," I don't agree with many others that the book itself is unworthy.

So here are five reasons I still think Go Set a Watchman is important, worth reading and if not a great and enduring literary event, then at least a very interesting one.

1. Curiosity about the forbearer of a literary classic. The appearance of Go Set a Watchman is like finding love letters from your parents' courtship. You think you know about that relationship, but suddenly there is new information -- perhaps uncomfortable information. If your social justice teeth were cut on the burgeoning civil rights movement in the 1960s, and To Kill a Mockingbird came to you early and powerfully in your novel reading career, (and, say, you became a historical novelist yourself), there are literary, cultural and social/political aspects of Watchman that fascinate.

2. Regardless of whether the "new" Atticus Finch interests or disappoints, the opportunity to revisit him and all of Harper Lee's iconic literary characters in a different story and time is instructive of how she thought of them when she first conceived them and how the way she changed them in To Kill a Mockingbird matters. This review by Megan Lavey-Heaton addresses this.

3. We get to know a less tutored (some say less manipulated) voice of Harper Lee, an author who has fascinated the American public even as she withdrew from public scrutiny for decades. Surely she had a powerful and excellent editor in Tay Hohoff, but Watchman brings back enough of Lee's distinctive narrative voice, her sharp eye for cadence and detail, to effectively deliver this different gloss on the beloved story of a changing south.

4. Fiction writers are forever admonished to "Show. Don't tell." If Watchman suffers from too much telling, the excess provides a thorough, if anguished explanation for the weight of history and culture behind its post-WWII Southern voices. Reaching back to the Civil War and forward to the civil rights era, the refined near-mythical simplicity of the characters in Mockingbird gives way to more challenging and complicated characters in Watchman; characters that would have found far less acceptance in the late 1950s when this manuscript was first submitted to the publisher.

5. Uncle Jack - Without Go Set a Watchman, the student of Harper Lee, with her sharp-eyed if loving take on the struggle to bring the South of her youth to terms with its inherent injustices, would not have had the opportunity to know the expanded character of John Hall Finch.

It's true, as Osamudia James writes in the New York Times, that we have to say goodbye to the white savior myth of Atticus Finch. But let us say hello to his brother Jack. As Adam Gopnik declares in the New Yorker, Jack is "a "character" who combines odd scraps of nineteenth-century English literary and religious knowledge with a bachelor doctor's existence." From bemused chattiness to sudden violence, Jack delivers to his niece Jean Louise a torrent of metaphor, direction and outright invective to explain his brother's and his own bigotry in the context of their place in a treasured southern Agrarian history being undermined by contemporary politics and social change. In this way, Uncle Jack makes explicit for the reader, just as for grownup Scout, that while we reject Atticus' and Jack's paternalistic view of the world they've lived to, we'd do well to learn the value of their belief in honor, of commitment to the law, of the important legacy to which they (and she) are heirs, in order to navigate the future.

After discoursing at length about the Anglo-Saxon origins of the southern ethos ("The British may have been sons of bitches, but they were our sons of bitches." And, "we were an agricultural society with a handful of landowners and a multitude of tenants/slaves- little England in its heritage and social structure") Jack concludes, "The south is in its last agonizing birth pains. It's bringing forth something new and I'm not sure I like it. Men like me and my brother are obsolete." While Uncle Jack tries to make sense of his fading world, he feels forced, literally, to knock the sense into Jean Louise that the old order is obsolete, that it won't work any longer, but that the people she loves and admires are still there and not to be dismissed. Harper Lee's wrestling with these issues is raw in Watchman and Scout's devoted and erudite uncle is the mouthpiece for much that in 1960 was already politically incorrect.

I fancy that Uncle Jack is the watchman that Jean Louise Finch must set to tell her what he "seethe." He tells us as well, and in so doing brings new, if uncomfortable background to a beloved classic novel.