Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

For various reasons, I was not going to read this book. But then my dad bought a copy, read it, and wanted me to read it to see what I thought of it.

First: To Kill a Mockingbird. I enjoyed the book immensely. It a favorite “school book” of my childhood (in other words, a book we were “forced” to read that I actually enjoyed). I did a presentation for Birmingham Schools on how to integrate elements of the movie version into lesson plans that encourage critical thinking. I did not want to read the “newly-discovered manuscript” lest my view of the original work become compromised. What I like about the original is that it stands on its own, and it’s concise the way classics are concise. It carries a strong theme, and the characterization and other plot elements work consistently toward that end. It’s concise, but one could read it again and again and discover new things.

As I began reading Go Set a Watchman, my opinion (on not having wanted to read it) did not change much. The novel seemed to meander a bit for me. I didn’t start getting interested until around page 75 (out of nearly 300), and it wasn’t until about page 125 that I actually sort of felt like reading it. Luckily, I was reading it in the two days before Christmas (so I could return it to my dad), so I was on a timeline to get it finished.

Part of the problem was point of view. The point of view seemed to change randomly at times. Just when I would start to settle into one perspective, the POV would seem to jump. I understand this is an artistic choice, but it was odd to me. Then there were lines that changed to first-person present tense—obviously to show what Jean Louise (Scout) was thinking, but the transitions were awkward, as they happened mid-paragraph. I suppose some books change to italics to denote a character’s internal thoughts. Maybe that would have helped allow me to read more quickly.

(In fact, talking to someone who had listened to the audio book version after having read the book noted something similar: when the actress read certain lines, it became apparent that they were internal thoughts.)

Despite my initial tepid reception, I did enjoy Lee’s language—great word choice, imagery, and figurative language. I enjoyed finding these gems scattered throughout. But then, a freedom theme and a theme of limited government appeared, and I finished the rest of the book in one afternoon.

The rest of this review will contain some spoilers, beginning with a quick synopsis.

(Spoilers follow)

The premise: The book takes place when Jean Louise Finch (Scout) is 26 years old. She has been living in New York City and returns to her Southern hometown of Maycomb (the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird). There, she discovers that her father is aging, and life is not what she remembered it.

Without giving too many spoilers, Jean Louise has to reconcile her life in New York City with the tension she discovers in her hometown—even among family—regarding Civil Rights and racism. Even her beloved Cal (Calpurnia, her childhood nanny) no longer treats her as a friend because of racial tensions. Specifically, she attends a community improvement meeting in which her father introduces a blatant racist to be the guest speaker. Jean Louise is further irked by the fact that her boyfriend—someone she’s seriously considering marrying—is also at the meeting (as are most of the men she had grown up respecting).

I understand that this manuscript was rejected in favor of a rewritten story—what became To Kill a Mockingbird. I much prefer the original, though it was interesting to see how all the characters seem to mesh together with the perspective of the original in mind. I wonder if Harper Lee kept these characters’ futures in mind as she wrote the original—or if she scrapped some of what she had mentally planned in favor of a simpler, more clean message in the original classic. But this book did strike certain chords with me in terms of my love for freedom, limited government, and individual responsibility.

In some ways, parts of the complexity of the characters reminded me of something Ayn Rand would write (only much, much, much shorter!). For instance, when Jean Louise couldn’t reconcile all those people she saw at the racist meeting, I kept hearing Francisco’s voice from Atlas Shrugged say, “Check your premises.” Many of the people Jean Louise had trouble “getting” were patient with her, in some ways allowing her to figure out the discrepancies for herself. Here is Atticus Finch, practically a god to her, and he is attending a meeting led by a racist. What gives? It’s up to Jean Louise to figure it out.

While she’s working through her father’s fallibility, she learns that his racism (though it exists and is arguably a side-effect of the time period) was at first overstated, and he is trying to keep his version of government alive.

It was here—when the characters began talking about an overreach of government (the book was written in the 1950s) that the book truly captured my interest. Atticus (and others) emphasized that people should be responsible in voting and in acting—and that citizenship should in some ways be earned before being able to vote. I can’t help but agree: otherwise, what’s to stop people from voting their own benefits? Many characters had problems with the NAACP in the novel and the way it was using the federal government to strong-arm society into simply doing things without building the supporting structures needed to support a new way of life.

This is, naturally, a complicated issue, and Jean Louise does not see the solution as “clear-cut” the way her father does. She does have a problem with the way the federal government is dictating people’s lives, but she also sees the good in the Civil Rights laws that are being passed. I could not help but consider my own libertarian-leaning views that believe it’s better to leave people free to make their own decisions—change will thus happen naturally and in a free-market with no coercion or spite involved.

My absolute favorite passage, and what made the book worth reading for me, is the discussion that Jean Louise starts with her uncle on page 197. She is concerned about what appears to be rampant racism going on in her hometown, and her uncle (albeit, in a roundabout way at first) explains that the Civil War and the emerging resistance to Civil Rights is actually about identity—and he begins talking about how the government is starting to help those who are most dependent on it—essentially buying loyalty. Uncle Jack says, “I’m a healthy old man with a constitutional mistrust of paternalism and government in large doses..the only thing I’m afraid of about this country is that its government will someday become so monstrous that the smallest person in it will be trampled underfoot” (198). I shivered, thinking of things like the NSA and the TSA and wondering what recourse we would actually have in our broken system if the government actually did want to act against its citizens.

Later, Jean Louise and her father discuss the Supreme Court case and Jean Louise’s perception of the importance of the Tenth Amendment (the one limiting the powers of the federal government and relegating them to the states and the people). Here, Jean Louise turns into the Scout I remember from To Kill a Mockingbird returns, speaking to my heart:

“I don’t know much about government and economics… but I do know that the Federal Government to me, to one small citizen, is mostly dreary hallways and waiting around. The more we have, the longer we wait and the tireder we get.. instead of going about [fixing the system] through Congress and the state legislature like we should, when we tried to do right we just made it easier for them to set up more hallways and more waiting.” (240).

Atticus responds with the fiery vigor I expected of him the whole time: “You mean because the Court said it we must take it? No ma’am. I don’t see it that way. If you think I for one citizen am going to take it lying down, you’re quite wrong. As you say, Jean Louise, there’s only one thing higher than the Court in this country, and that’s the Constitution.” (241).

And there is the crux of the paradox. Jean Louise understands that racial equality is a great cause, but she is bothered by the fact that the federal government is overreaching its powers and imposing its will on the people. And in the name of a legitimately great cause, the people have fed the monster that becomes the government. Bureaucracy has a habit of outgrowing itself (in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck called it a “monster” that man could no longer control), and during the time of Civil Rights in the South, Harper Lee visits the issue of balancing limited government and moral rights.

In the end, this is why Jean Louise is asked to stay in Maycomb rather than return to New York. She is intelligent enough and conflicted enough to see the need for both equality and limited government—and understand the difficulty in balancing the two in a natural way that isn’t divisive.

In many ways, we seem still to be battling this issue. With countless pages of legislation that no one will ever read, you could be inadvertently breaking a law right now—right this minute—and not even know it. It’s probably true that said law has (or had, at one time) a morally-righteous purpose for being written. But that’s a moot point—when something is imposed on you, you’ll be more prone to resent it and resist it the same way the people of Maycomb resisted change during the time of Civil Rights.