Wednesday, July 15, 2015

ESR's Steve Angell reviews "Go Set a Watchman"

A Review of
Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (Harper Collins Publishers, 2015)
By Stephen W. Angell

Harper Lee's new book, "Go Set a Watchman" (the title is from Isaiah 21:6), is her second published novel.  Her first novel, the highly acclaimed “To Kill A Mockingbird,” was published in 1960, some fifty-five years earlier.  “Go Set a Watchman” is set in the same fictional Alabama town as its predecessor, and it presents the lives of its characters twenty years later. However, “Go Set a Watchman” was completed as a manuscript some years before “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee’s editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, a Quaker by upbringing and education, was most impressed by the flashback scenes in “Watchman” and convinced Lee to expand them into a novel focusing on the earlier period in the characters’ lives, the result being “Mockingbird.”  There was never any discussion at the time, or indeed during Hohoff’s lifetime, of publishing “Watchman” too.

From this historian's viewpoint, “Watchman” contains a penetrating and accurate portrait of the American South in the mid 1950s. It illuminates the important role of the Citizens' Councils (a more genteel version of the Ku Klux Klan) in the venomous segregationist backlash against the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision. It has a visceral immediacy in its portrayal of the white backlash to the Supreme Court (and to the Montgomery bus boycott of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.) that is not to be missed. Andrew Manis in "Southern Civil Religions inContext" has this to say about the Citizens' Councils: "The most extreme response of the white South [to Brown v. Board] ... was the rise and growth of the Citizens Councils. Founded in the summer of 1954 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, the Councils expanded into an areawide apparatus claiming 300,000 members. It propagated its message through a newspaper, regional television and radio shows, and large numbers of speakers..... The Citizens Councils contributed greatly to the South's growing alienation from the rest of the nation, ... [as] many Southerners came to refer to the 'government in Washington' as they would have spoken of a foreign power." (p. 24)

Lee's book also illuminates the fear that many white Southerners had about the NAACP. She implies rather strongly that one reason that racial moderates like (the fictional) Atticus Finch became Citizens Council members was because of their fear of the NAACP. In fact, her reference to the Montgomery Bus boycott is set in this context: Jean Louise (the grown-up Scout of "Mockingbird") says, "I thought that Montgomery crowd spent most of their meeting time in church praying." A local Maycomb, Alabama, resident, Hester, responds, "Oh my child don't you know that was just to get sympathy up in the East? That's the oldest trick known to mankind." Both as a form of inspiration and a cause of fear, historians of this period have often remarked on the close ties between religion and politics among both whites and blacks in the South. It is commonly said, for example, that in the mid-twentieth century South, the black church was the NAACP on its knees.

We know in retrospect that this novel, based on a manuscript completed in 1957, was looking forward over a series of events that became known to us as the Civil Rights Movement. Lee's characters have another name for these events that are unfolding, an apt and revealing one. They call it a second "Reconstruction." This refers to the time after the Civil War when an interracial group of legislators gained power through the electoral process in many Southern states and introduced many reforms, but which was violently ended by a campaign of assassinations and targeted violence by the Ku Klux Klan and other similar white supremacist forces against African Americans, especially politicians and teachers, and white Republican politicians. Jean Louise's uncle, Dr. Finch, says at one point, "I hope to God it'll be a comparatively bloodless Reconstruction this time." A few dozen people gave their lives for the fuller realization of freedom that came out of the Civil Rights Movement, or the Second Reconstruction: four young Baptist girls in Birmingham, Alabama; three civil rights workers in Mississippi; Medgar Evers; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and others. But most historians, including myself, think that there could have been a much higher level of violence, and we are very thankful that these momentous changes were not accompanied by a higher level of violence. So, one could say, that Dr. Finch's, and Harper Lee's, hopes were largely realized.

I highly recommend this book. In some respects, it may not be up to the literary standards of its blockbuster predecessor, "To Kill a Mockingbird." But I have been writing here about the historical dimensions of the work, and I'll let others comment on the comparative literary dimensions. There is a vividness, a complexity, of presentation in this work that can provide us with a good deal of insight into some very important times, roughly sixty years ago. That reason alone is enough reason to read this book. In this work, we get to see literary characters change their views in response to real events. We may not always admire the ways that they change; the narrator certainly does not admire much of the change she sees. But an interesting part of the novel occurs when one of the other characters stimulates the narrator to reflect on her own changes in the aftermath of the 1954 US Supreme Court decision. So she is not the constant pole around which others are shifting; we are all responding to the events, small or momentous, that we experience around us.

Stephen W. Angell is Earlham School of Religion's Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies. His most recent book, Early Quakers and their Theological Thought: 1647-1723, is available here


  1. As a conscious African American woman, I have always had major issues with To "Kill a Mockingbird" and, now, "Go Set a Watchman" for several reasons. It has always interested me how white authors choose to write about black people mostly as victims and seldom, if ever as liberators of or agents of their own freedom. Most white characters are stereotypical "white knight" saviors. The white supremacist thinking in most white authors if not presented as such become another tool to further oppress people of color and more specifically, African American in North America

    1. Thanks for these excellent points. In "Watchman," Tom Robinson (the innocent victim executed for a crime he did not commit in "Mockingbird") doesn't appear; there is, in briefest compass, a similar story of false accusation, but in "Watchman" Finch wins an acquittal verdict for his African American client. So, yes, both the stereotypes of black victim and white savior appear in "Watchman" and "Mockingbird." What makes "Watchman" more interesting than "Mockingbird", especially as a publishing event, is the problematizing of the white savior figure in Finch, and readers' reactions to that. The flaws in Atticus Finch are ever more evident, and even the narrator, his daughter, Jean Louise is revealed to share in these flaws. I am glad for this problematizing. One thing that is missing in both "Mockingbird" and "Watchman", as you quite rightly state, is any sense that black people can be agents of their own freedom. Let's also read novels by African American authors -- Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson.

  2. I am involved with an organization that presents a free, community outdoor cinema every Saturday night during the summer months. This year we choose to present "To Kill a Mockingbird," scheduled to coincide with the week "Go Set a Watchman" was released. We had over 400 people show up (our second largest crowd of the summer so far). The films start late at night and are projected on the side of a school building, so there is not a good opportunity to have a community discussion. However, we had a very lively conversation on our Facebook page that week - much more than usual. There were several strings and one dealt with people's disappointment with the characters of Scout and Atticus as they appear in "Watchman." A few individuals commented (paraphrasing here) that perhaps Harper Lee's greatest contribution to American literature is undermining the image of "noble White society" institutionalized by "Mockingbird" and its perpetual use in US classrooms.