In the lead up to the anticipated release of Go Set a Watchman, and in response to early comments by reviewers, many people expressed fear and questioned whether the this work would lessen Harper Lee’s status as an influential author or even detract from To Kill A Mockingbird. Such fears and statements were unfounded. Standing alone, Go Set a Watchman will not measure up to the popularity or literary importance of To Kill A Mockingbird. As a follow-up to the Pulitzer Award winning novel however, Watchman successfully adds meaning and depth to Mockingbird. In so doing, it is, in the words of my sister, a scholar of literature, theology and psychology, “a worthy successor” to Lee’s seminal novel. An argument can be made that although a lesser novel, Watchman is a greater accomplishment given the fact that while landmark novels are fewand far between, successful sequels to landmark novels are almost unheard of. Even as it serves as the genesis from which the earlier novel grew, Watchman provides additional evidence to the deep cultural insight and powerful narrative skills of Nelle Harper Lee.
Set in 1954, 20 years following To Kill A Mockingbird, and in the midst of the immediate aftermath of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision, Go Set A Watchman is set in Maycomb Alabama as Jean Louise Finch travels home from New York for her annual two week vacation pilgrimage. As with previous trips, the youngest Finch is having difficulty reconciling her present life as Jean Louise, the single, New York, professional woman with her past life as Scout, the tomboy, daughter of Maycomb’s moral pillar Atticus Finch. Frustration is familiar to many who return to their hometown from the big city. In her case, Jean Louise is frustrated by the things that have not changed, expectations and pressures placed on her and women in general, as well as those things that have changed, the new way the “Doxology” is played at the Maycomb Methodist Church. (The title of the novel comes from Isaiah 21:6, the sermon text the Sunday Jean Louise attended. )
While those frustrations are bothersome, the changes that are truly disturbing to Jean Louise are those she sees in her father Atticus and her lifelong friend and likely fiancé, Henry Clinton. For Scout, and most of Maycomb, Atticus has long been the voice of calm and reason, and the model of Christian discipleship and care. Jean Louise is therefore shocked by her accidental discovery that Atticus, and Henry, had joined the Maycomb White Citizen’s Council, the local chapter of the notorious political machine that was actively working in virtually every southern city and town to keep Jim Crow laws and practices in force. The revelation that her father, and to a much lesser extent her oldest and closest friend would condone such an organization, and what it stood for, rocks Jean Louise to her core.
To Jean Louise Finch, Atticus was like the North Star, the absolute dependable beacon that would lead her in living a moral and Christian life. That her father would, by his silent presence, give credence to horrid racial hate speech and calls to action, and that her father had once attended a Klan rally forty years prior, threatened to destroy Jean Louise’s very identity.
For many readers and viewers of To Kill A Mockingbird who sat with Atticus and Scout in the home porch swing as he tenderly shared time and wisdom, and were also in the courthouse balcony with Scout, Jem, and Dill as he courageously fought for the life of Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch has been the standard bearer of righteousness and heroism and a model of citizenship and parenting. Upon the revelation in Watchman, we join Jean Louise in asking, what is he now?
Although shocking, and initially hard to process as one reads, Go Set a Watchman actually strengthens the heroism of Atticus. No longer is Atticus Finch a flawless, Michelangelo statue of virtue and integrity like which all should strive, but inevitably fail, to live up to. Like us, Atticus has clay feet. Like us, Atticus is human.
Through Watchman readers can see paternalism in his beliefs and rationalized, fear fueled hesitancy in his actions later in life. Yet, Atticus is still the courageous man from To Kill A Mockingbird who ignored those who whispered behind his back and stood up to the hateful mob who threatened him to his face. He is still the character who put himself in harm’s way and, for the sake of one man’s freedom and the triumph of justice, exposed his children to the world’s hate. He is still the role model who lived out the Sermon on the Mount call to suffer for righteousness. Reading Watchman, we no longer see Atticus Finch as a literary Melchizedek, the super human, inerrant, and indestructible figure in the Old Testament. Instead, we know him for what he was, a loving and faithful man susceptible to flaws, fear, and fault.
As strong, courageous, and righteous as he had been throughout his life, even Atticus Finch had stumbled. In the midst of painful, declining health and the dramatic social change in the wake of the Supreme Court order of desegregation Atticus had accepted the easier path of stay, or slow, the course over the harder road of change and transformation. In doing so, Atticus did what everyone does at some point in life, he gave into fear of the unknown rather than live righteously by faith in the unseen.
Through Go Set A Watchman, Nelle Harper Lee offers a parable that shows the importance of Isaiah’s teaching that was the source of the title. All people need a watchman who stands to guide and protect. While God uses faithful individuals and institutions to teach, reflect, and lead in the ways of righteousness, it is still incumbent to set Christ as the true Watchman against whose life example, with the continual prompting of the Holy Spirit, one measures personal and communal thought and actions. Only Christ can be the true Watchman by whom one sets their moral compass.
For those who are familiar with To Kill A Mockingbird, it will probably be impossible to read Go Set A Watchman without the characters and stories of Mockingbird playing in one’s background memory. For me two scenes from the earlier novel coincided most powerfully. The first was when Scout first met Boo Radley after he saved her and her brother Jem. After years of wondering about and accusing him of all sorts of imagined crimes and activities, she spoke her first words, “hey Boo.” And in so doing she saw him as he truly was and began a genuine relationship. Go Set A Watchman introduces us to the real Atticus and likewise allows us to open a true relationship.
The second scene was perhaps the most powerful moment in To Kill A Mockingbird. After Atticus has lost the trial of Tom Robinson, and upon the urging of the town’s African American pastor, Scout stood with her brother Gem and all the African Americans in the balcony of the courthouse out of respect as her father passed by. In the final page of the book, Jean Louise stands again as her faltering father passes by. Only this time she sees him not through the dim mirror of childhood, but face to face as an adult. What she sees is her father, humanly flawed, at times mistaken, yet still courageous, patient, and truly loving.