Understanding “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

I wrote the following words July 31, 2015, on Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Maureen Downey’s “Get Schooled” blog, regarding Southern writer Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” in comparison with her earlier work, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

My post follows:

I just completed reading Harper Lee’s recently published book, “Go Set a Watchman.”  She actually had written the book before she wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was set in the 1930s South and “Go Set a Watchman” was set in the 1950s South.  We see Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck’s character in the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird”) in his early 50s in “Mockingbird” and in his early 70s in “Go Set a Watchman.”

Atticus Finch was based on Harper Lee’s father, a widower.  The “facts” about Atticus’ character are seemingly different in the two books, and there has been some recent literary/social controversy about that.

However, it seems to me that it is up to the reader to put the “two” Atticuses in his or her mind without a problem. I had no difficulty in seeing Atticus Finch – in full.  By that I mean, through the eyes of his 7 year old daughter, “Scout,” in the 1930s South and, also, through the eyes of “Scout” at age 26, home to Alabama from NYC for a vacation with her father, his brother and his sister.

I believe that Americans needed to have read “To Kill A Mockingbird” when it first appeared on the American landscape in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a vital part of the evolution of our nation’s racial healing.  I, also, believe that “Go Set a Watchman” is needed to be read by people of all races, today, after they have read Lee’s first book, in order that they might understand those multi-layered dimensions in human beings, and in events, extant in the evolution of a nation, with greater depth and breadth.

Comments by another poster regarding “Go Set a Watchman” on Jay Bookman’s blog at the AJC, on January 7, 2017:

“You know looking back, I wonder if Harper Lee’s new book, based off of the characters of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, should’ve been a warning of things to come, (Ms. Lee died in 2016 – without leaving a lot of answers to a lot of questions about her “transition”).

Ms. Lee wrote one of the most definitive books of a generation – a book that talked about racial tensions / the south / and the effects of bigotry and intolerance in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Before she died, however, she did a 360 — she wrote a book about hatred and blind perceptions. Everyone was surprised – I remember my Book Club saying things like, ‘Did Harper have a stroke or something?’ And ‘Maybe she has early onset dementia’. But now, looking back, her book was that canary in the coal mine – a harbinger of the things to come.

The book ends very bleakly, with no hope or redemption. Now I’m wondering if she wrote a book, or intoned a message from an Oracle.

Review: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Gives Atticus Finch a Dark … (Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/11/books/review-harper-lees-go-set-a-watchman-gives-atticus-finch-a-dark-side.html?_r=0 }

Harper Lee’s ‘Watchman’ Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A … (Link: http://www.npr.org/2015/07/13/422545987/harper-lees-watchman-is-a-mess-that-makes-us-reconsider-a-masterpiece )

Harper Lee’s Failed Novel About Race – The New Yorker (Link: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/27/sweet-home-alabama )

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee review – a literary curiosity | Books … (Link: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/19/go-set-watchman-harper-lee-review-literary-curiosity )

It didn’t turn out o.k. The. Book. Didn’t.”

Mary Elizabeth Responds to that other poster’s remarks:

“Harper Lee actually wrote her last published book before she wrote ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ and her publisher editor recommended that she redo it from the perspective of ‘Scout’ as a child. That means that it was precursor to ‘Mockingbird’ which is an interesting exploration of the relativity of time and destiny.

I think my analysis of both of Harper Lee’s books and their relationship to each other and to the evolution of American society regarding race may be of interest to you. You may be surprised at my perceptions but please know that I am the same person I have always been on this blog. I have always been fierce and fearless in exploring thought.

Here is that analysis of mine done in 2015. I do not believe that seeing a person, such as Atticus (or Harper Lee’s father) in full, both as a man in his 40s or 50s with heroic compassion for black Americans as seen through the eyes of his child and later as a man in his 60s or 70s, with racist thought tinged with that compassion, makes one jaded enough to think that the world, and those in it, are without ‘redemption’ nor without ‘hope’ for a better world to come in our future.

In fact, I think that our ability to see the darker elements in our own natures juxtaposed simultaneously with the more enlightened elements in our own natures helps us not only to become more intellectually sophisticated and emotionally richer, but thinking with that paradoxical depth helps us to have compassion for all human beings, knowing well that ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,’ if not in our actions then certainly within our minds. (As Jesus said, ‘If a man commits adultery with another not his wife even in his mind, that is of equal sin as the act of adultery itself.’ ) None of us is lily white (no pun intended) morally because we are none of us angels on this Earth, but God, through his loving grace, forgives us in our sinful innocence of projecting all evil to the ‘other’ rather than to knowing that evil and good exist simultaneously in every human being born onto this Earth, including ourselves. Knowing that to be true might make this world actually more compassionate, not less so. THAT could have been the reason Harper Lee wanted her first novel published last – when the world was less innocent and more able to understand what I have just written.”


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One Response to Understanding “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

  1. Pingback: Whose Reality? | maryelizabethsings

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