Why Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, is more profound and important than her first
Even before its publication, Go Set a Watchman had become controversial, acquiring a whiff of conspiracy, inauthenticity, and foul play. It seemed unbelievable that Harper Lee would publish again after more than half a century of quiescence—and that too a novel written long ago and thematically near to her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1960, Mockingbird has become an American classic and standard reading in every American high school. It is revered for its poignant telling of a thoughtful and courageous white man who does his best to hold up the candle of racial justice in the Jim Crow South. How could anything new live up to that? Why would Lee imperil her own legacy?
Since the release of Watchman, many readers have indeed announced their heartbreak over the revelations and struggles contained within. This new story takes place in the same small Alabama town we came to know in Mockingbird, where the endearingly wild little Scout grew up learning from her father, Atticus Finch, to recognize the humanity of those who seemed different from herself. But it’s now twenty years later and we meet the young woman Scout has grown into. On a visit from New York to her hometown in the mid-50s, the twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch—who no longer goes by her childhood nickname—finds it transformed by time, the postwar economy, and the emergent Civil Rights movement. Much of the story centers around Jean Louise’s sense of unbelonging in the place where her roots remain yet deeply felt, and the cognitive dissonance she suffers as she discovers the people she most loved and trusted to be unapologetic racists:
Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? … Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me—these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me.
They are all trying to tell me in some weird, echoing way that it’s all on account of the Negroes… but it’s no more the Negroes than I can fly and God knows, I might fly out of the window any time, now.