Book Review: In Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Atticus Finch Defends Jim CrowPosted: July 12, 2015
One of the few unambiguously heroic figures in American literature was originally conceived as a segregationist
Sam Sacks writes: Ever since the announcement in February that a second novel by Harper Lee had been found among her papers, untold numbers of readers have been counting the minutes until its publication. And why not? Ms. Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) is the most beloved novel in American history—more popular than even the Bible in numerous polls.
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But the anticipation has somewhat obscured the awkward details about “Go Set a Watchman,” as the novel is called (the title comes from the Book of Isaiah). Although it is set in the mid-1950s, around 20 years after “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it is not a sequel. Ms. Lee, who is now 89, wrote it first, submitted it to a publisher in 1957 and, on an editor’s advice, refashioned it into the book that’s now assigned in grade schools all over the country.
Properly speaking, “Go Set a Watchman” is a practice run for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and it existed before anybody could have known that small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch would become a symbol of the nation’s moral conscience. All this throat clearing is not meant to damp the enthusiasm of expectant readers but to introduce a friendly word of caution. “Go Set a Watchman” is a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion.
There’s little hint of darkness as the novel begins. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch, better known to us by her childhood nickname Scout, is returning to Maycomb, Ala., for a two-week vacation. For the past five years, Jean Louise has been living in New York City trying to make it as a painter. Her older brother Jem—I regret to report—has died of a heart attack. But her father, Atticus, is still hanging on. Seventy-two and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, he is cared for by his priggish, busybody sister Alexandra.
Then there’s a brand-new character, Henry Clinton. Henry is Atticus’s protégé at the law firm, and he has carried a torch for Jean Louise since high school. She is hardly off the train before he is again proposing marriage, which she coyly declines: “I want to be like Dr. Schweitzer and play until I’m thirty.” This is how the two talk, trading enough sassy banter to fill a Hepburn-Tracy movie.
“Go Set a Watchman” is told in the third person, but it stays close to Jean Louise’s perspective and contains the familiar pleasures of Ms. Lee’s writing—the easy, drawling rhythms, the flashes of insouciant humor, the love of anecdote. The most charming early passages concern Jean Louise’s irreverent but affectionate depictions of life in Maycomb, where “if you did not want much, there was plenty.” FDR’s New Deal brought the town its first paved street, Ms. Lee recounts, located by the schoolhouse and…(read more)
Mr. Sacks writes the fiction chronicle for the Weekend Journal.
- Why Everyone Is Freaking Out About the First Chapter of Harper Lee’s New Novel, Go Set a Watchman (SPOILER ALERT) (people.com)
- Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman Kills Off Major To Kill a Mockingbird Character (time.com)
- First Chapter of Go Set A Watchman Released (readerswritersjournal.com)
- Harper Lee’s new book, first chapter on Internet (dearkitty1.wordpress.com)
- Harper Lee To Publish Second Novel (dailycaller.com)
- The To Kill a Mockingbird Sequel’s First Printing Will Be 400 Times Bigger Than the Original (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- Agency Ends Probe Into Publication of New Novel ‘Go Set a Watchman’ by ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ Author Harper Lee (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- Lawsuit Divides Town that Inspired Classic Novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- MY TWITTER SUMMARY OF THE STATE OF DEBATE: So as I understand it, Atticus Finch is now the bad gu… (pjmedia.com)
- American Texts Disappearing From UK Reading Lists (dailycaller.com)