Review: Racial tensions come home to roost in Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Has Nelle Harper Lee lost her mind?

The state of Alabama doesn’t think so, and several friends have defended the 89-year-old author’s decision to release a sequel to her 1960 masterpiece, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Anticipation over “Go Set a Watchman” has sparked the biggest literary controversy of recent memory and wide speculation that a sound-minded Lee would never let an unfinished manuscript see the light of day.

Readers may agree after getting a peek at its politics. The “new” novel (which was written before “Mockingbird” and purportedly rediscovered in a bank vault late last year) continues and complicates the saga of the Finch family. Sentimental types will be alarmed to see Atticus Finch, perhaps the most adored father figure in American literature, cast in an unflattering light — one of many potential points of contention.

What’s funny is that “Watchman” turns out to be a novel of ideas deeply concerned with resistance to change and the perils of homecoming, themes that apply on lots of levels for this fascinating, inconsistent allegory.

The book begins with an adult Jean Louise Finch (aka Scout) traveling by train to visit her ailing father in Maycomb, Ala. Atticus is 72 and still practicing law, despite advancing arthritis.

Her brother Jem died two years earlier from a heart condition. Aunty Alexandra, maybe the only character who hasn’t changed since “Mockingbird,” pressures Jean Louise to move home and become her father’s caregiver. Sadly, our beloved Scout has grown into a cynical New Yorker with no interest in playing Prodigal Daughter.

She’s also something of a shrew. “Unsentimental to the point of callousness,” Jean Louise dreads the obligatory “Remember Old So-and-So” routine in Maycomb, which brings juicy tidbits of gossip about Dill (now living in Italy), Uncle Jack and countless other familiar characters. Boo Radley isn’t mentioned.

If these opening chapters sometimes feel plodding, it helps to recall that a quarter of “Mockingbird” passes before the Tom Robinson case emerges. A similar revelation happens at about the same point here with the discovery of a racist pamphlet in the Finch home.

Jean Louise bristles to find Maycomb more divided than ever; no small feat, considering the Finches once stood down a lynch mob. Locals are in an uproar over Brown v. the Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycott.

Soon enough, she’s sneaking into the “colored” balcony of the old courthouse to watch in horror as her father attends a racially charged town meeting. The distressing allegation that Atticus could be a closeted bigot throws Jean Louise — and the novel — into a tailspin.

This is where debate over “Watchman” gets sticky. The aged Lee may be hard of hearing and almost blind, but she surely isn’t dumb. Every page of her Pulitzer Prize-winning classic attests to the author’s passion for precision. It’s hard to imagine that same intellect handling the sequel to such a beloved work with carelessness. Yet long passages from “Mockingbird” appear with only slight alterations, and the new book contradicts its predecessor in a few key places. The most egregious example comes via a recollection of Atticus defending a one-armed client awfully similar to Tom Robinson. But this defendant was acquitted, a major reversal from “Mockingbird.”

There’s also the problem of Hank Clinton, Jean Louise’s “lifelong friend” who keeps proposing marriage. His reported history with the Finches raises questions: Hank never appears in the previous novel. The curious choice to publish “Watchman” without revisions makes these and other minor sticking points stand out in a narrative whose pacing and tone are already unsteady.

Despite the missteps, Lee’s knack for crisp, sardonic storytelling can’t be denied, especially in the flashbacks. A hilarious memory involving Jem and Dill re-enacting a Baptist revival reads like a bonus scene from the first novel. Another anecdote lovingly skewers Scout’s frumpy teenage years. Not many writers can manage such fluid movement between snarky asides on Sunday manners and wayward undergarments into discourse on discrimination and hypocrisy.

The balance between wit and rhetoric wavers in later chapters as the author indulges in endless discussions (borderline rants) on Southern politics. Uncle Jack refights the Civil War using old arguments about states’ rights. The timing of the monologue is haunting, knowing that the Confederate flag still makes headlines a half century later.

As for Atticus, his views on race prove more complex than Jean Louise might’ve guessed, which seems to be the ultimate point of the novel. The old man’s protracted justification of his position recalls the claim in “Mockingbird” that only Atticus “could make a rape case as dry as a sermon.”

There’s much to admire — and more to question — about “Go Set a Watchman.” Mystified fans may never understand the author’s rationale for releasing this unedited manuscript, but it does shed light on her mindset before the creation of the first book. “To Kill a Mockingbird” folds messages about loneliness and prejudice into an endearing coming-of-age story. “Watchman” takes a more ideological approach, attacking bigotry and small-town intransigence with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

In a 1961 interview, Lee told Life magazine, “I’m not like Thomas Wolfe. I can go home again.” Indeed, the elusive author spent the next 54 years in her Alabama hometown. When faced with a similar choice in “Watchman,” Lee’s fictional stand-in Jean Louise delivers a different prediction: “I mean this: every time I come home, I feel like I’m coming back to the world, and when I leave Maycomb it’s like leaving the world. It’s silly. I can’t explain it, and what makes it sillier is that I’d go stark raving living in Maycomb.”

Visit the links below for more of our coverage of "Go Set a Watchman" and Harper Lee:

» A visit to Monroeville, Harper Lee's hometown

» Click here to brush up on your knowledge of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'

» Take our quiz to see how well you know 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'

» Click here to check out our gallery of Harper Lee through the years.

» Read about 'Nelle's Story,' a Synchronicity Theatre production that brings Harper Lee's life to the stage.

» See our interview with Marja Mills, author of 'The Mockingbird Next Door,' a memoir of her friendship with Lee.

» Local libraries and bookstores plan 'Watchman' events

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