A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischA Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Harper Lee’s “new” book starts out wonderfully. Its young author had a sure touch and a light hand. It is entertaining, vivid, funny, dry. It begins to come apart a bit, but gains in intensity, about halfway through, when it hits its real subject: A person imbued with the highest ethical standards is faced by a radical immorality in her society, in which her family and friends are complicit.

Reviews that describe the Attticus of Watchman as having become a racist, or being revealed as a racist, by clinging to the idealized Atticus of Mockingbird may miss the point of Watchman. Atticus hasn’t changed. We saw him through his young daughter’s eyes as faultless. Now, seen by his grown daughter, we can see him as imperfect: a good man who, being fully committed to living, working, and having friends in an unjust society, makes the compromises and performs the hypocrisies required of its members. He’s a lawyer — not a judge — with a lawyer’s complex relationship to justice.

Watchman isn’t free of childishness — its author was still pretty young — but its goals are adult ones: to show how hard it may be for a daughter to see her father as a fellow human being, and how hard it is to rebel completely against the injustice of your own people. Merely to be less racist than most of the people around you can be quite an accomplishment. I think that by seeing Atticus as first saint, then demon, we refuse to let him be a man, and also refuse to hear what the author was trying to tell us about being a Southerner.g

So, the daughter returning home on a visit finds her father, her model of clear thinking and courageous honesty, is siding with the bigots; her boyfriend, her model of brotherly kindness, is siding with the bigots. What’s she to do?

The answer from outside is quick and easy: of course she rebels. She rises in wrath, denounces, disowns, and departs.

That’s what Scout (now Jean Louise, 26, on a two-weeks visit home from New York) almost does. It’s what I would have imagined her doing, and believed it absolutely necessary for her to do, before I married into a white Southern family and lived with them some years.

If you love and respect people who live in and obey the rules of such a society, and I loved my father and mother in law, and they deserved all my love and respect — if they love and respect you, as they did me — if you have family feeling or rational sense of decency, you do not and cannot arise in a halo of self-righteousness at every instance of race prejudice, denounce, disown, and depart. Depart where? You live there. These are your people. You are a member of this kind, upright, affectionate family. You live in this society with its tremendous, ingrained prejudices — racial, religious, and other.

You find how to evade showing approval of injustice, and how to avoid practising it, as well as you can. You meet the endless overt bigotry with silent non-acceptance, perhaps with a brief word or two reminding the bigot that not everyone shares, or admires, his opinons. Now and then, when Cousin Roy gets to ranting on about the niggers, and you’re about to leave the room because you’re feeling sick, your mother-in-law says very quietly, I don’t like such talk, Roy. And Roy shuts up.

Oh, it’s all so much more complicated than it looks like from outside, to people who don’t have to consider how love and loyalty constrain you, to people from Outside the South, where of course no such injustice is ever practiced, no such bigotry exists.

It may seem implausible that a person can, like Jean Louise, grow up without race prejudice in a society so profoundly racist as the small-town White South. It is in fact a miracle, but not an uncommon one. I can attest that my husband and two of his cousins, raised entirely in that society, grew up entirely without race prejudice. But unlike Jean Louise they were intensely aware of their anomaly, the complex discomfort of their position. They were all among the first in their families to go to college; they all sought and found a non-racially prejudiced community of people within Southern society, or else left the South altogether. What is implausible to me is not that Jean Louise is, as she says, “colorblind,” but that she’s somehow managed to blind herself all her life to her difference from her people.

The time is early in the Civil Rights movement; customary behaviors are becoming the object of discussion, deep-rooted injustices are being challenged. On her visit home, Jean Louise realises that her boyfriend and father are active in anti-NAACP organisations. She feels utterly betrayed. Her naivety may be incredible, but her denunciations are fine, her diatribes fierce. They soon get the wind taken out of them, however, by unshaken arguments from the boyfriend, an erratic uncle, and (most importantly) the beloved father, who, with a mixture of Christian meekness and lawyerly aplomb, permits her to say unforgivable things to him, while gently setting her straight about practical realities, the impossibility of immediate change, the importance of avoiding violence — all the persuasive and predictable justifications for moving very, very, very slowly towards righting the wrong.

Jean Louise has arisen and denounced, unsuccessfully. Does she depart?

We’re never told what she’s been doing in New York City. She never thinks about the place, any person there, or her work, whatever it is. A small town in Alabama is the entire cosmos of the novel. I think it must have been the cosmos of the author’s life. Jean Louise is going to go back North, but we don’t know whether to stay there or not. My guess is that what she was doing in New York was being a writer; and she’ll make a go of it, and come back South to stay. Not a very hard guess to make.

It appears that the New York editor who handled the book was uninterested in the human and moral situation the author was attempting to describe, or in helping her work through the over-simplifications and ineptitudes of that part of the book. Instead, she apparently persuaded Lee to enlarge on the very charming, nostalgic early parts of the book, when Jean Louise was Scout. Lee was encouraged to go back to childhood, and so to evade the problems of the book she wanted to write by writing, instead, a lovable fairytale.

I like to think of the book it might have been, had the editor had the vision to see what this incredibly daring first-novelist was trying to do and encouraged and aided her to do it more convincingly. But no doubt the editor was, commercially speaking, altogether right. That book would have found some admirers, but never would it have become a best-seller and a “classic.” It wouldn’t have pandered to self-reassuring images of White generosity risking all to save a grateful Black man.

Before Watchman was published, I was skeptical and unhappy — all the publicity made it sound like nothing but a clever lawyer and a greedy publisher in cahoots to exploit an old woman. Now, having read the book, I glimpse a different tragedy. Lee was a young writer on a roll, with several novels in mind to write after this one. She wrote none of them. Silence, lifelong. I wonder if the reason she never wrote again was because she knew her terrifyingly successful novel was untrue. In taking the easy way, in letting wishful thinking corrupt honest perception, she lost the self-credibility she, an honest woman, needed in order to write.

So I’m glad, now, that Watchman was published. It hasn’t done any harm to the old woman, and I hope it’s given her pleasure. And it redeems the young woman who wrote this book, who wanted to tell some truths about the Southern society that lies to itself so much. She went up North to tell the story, probably thinking she’d be free to tell it there. But she was coaxed or tempted into telling the simplistic, exculpatory lies about it that the North cherishes so much. The white North, that is. And a good part of the white South too, I guess.

Little white lies . . . North or South, they’re White lies. But not little ones.

Harper Lee was a good writer. She wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades.




A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman — 95 Comments

  1. I very much enjoyed Ms Le Guin’s comments and perspective. I think she is right on target about how these moral issues of social injustice can be very complicated in light of the intertwining of all of our family and community relationships. I would only add that Jean Louise may not have grown up free of racial prejudice. As one who was raised in the Deep South who left and then returned to be shocked by the racists attitudes, I can say that the journey away from home can be transformative. In my case, my own unnoticed racism was made clear to me by my move from one culture to another. If I had never left, I would never have been so shocked at the racism that became evident upon my return. I suspect something similar could have happened to Harper Lee/Jean Louise

  2. I am so very glad to read this review. I agree with it wholeheartedly. I, too, married into a southern family having been raised in a very non-prejudicial environment (by my own Atticus – like lawyer father), and totally understand how you can love someone but not some of their actions. And how you can quietly make your point. I also think that the editor/publisher knew that American readers were not really ready to confront their prejudices as Jean Louise was.

  3. P.S. I loved the book. There was a lot of the spirit of To Kill A Mockingbird in it.

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  6. Ms. Ursula Le Guin has perfectly expressed my personal impressions and feelings about Go Set A Watchman. I too lived in the South for a short while (Louisiana) in the mid 1980’s. While I was not attached, in ties or commitments, to a Southern white family, there was a constant, steady albeit subtle barrage of White benevolence over Black restrictiveness. This persistence invaded my professional and personal relationships. And I who had come uninvited to take a new position with three strikes (as a Northern white female) felt the gentle nudges-turned-sharp-jabs. Nudges to steer me to where the White girls ate lunch. Jabs from my Black coworkers that they couldn’t go into certain areas or establishments: “unwritten rules”, I was told.
    And so I left. There was a half-hearted attempt on my part to keep in communication with both Black and White friends. But when the moving van headed onto I-10 from Robert E. Lee Blvd., I think I knew deep down the doors were closing, ever so softly yet ever so firmly, behind me. Not a week goes by that I do not revisit those people and places and that time. Harper Lee’s first “new” novel opened up that Pandora’s box again. And I am grateful to her for doing so, even if it is almost fifty years later. Sometimes, hard questions take a long time to get asked, let alone answered.

  7. I disagree somewhat about “Go Set a Watchman” being a truer vision in all its aspects. In “To Kill a Mockingbird” Atticus defends a man of color falsely accused of rape; the man is convicted despite his best efforts. In “Go Set a Watchman” the man Atticus defends is acquitted of the charge of rape. Which seems more the fairy tale?

  8. Thanks so much, this article is invaluable. it makes me want to read both books once after the another. Someone should write a literary thesis on this with you as their inspiration.

    • Thanks, Sarah. How kind of you to say. As an English Major, I would love to write such a thesis. Running a business, however, takes up most of that requisite time. Sigh. And, yes, I plan to re-read TKAM, too.

  9. Maybe I missed but how did Jem die?
    For me a poignant part of the book is Jean Louise visits Calpurnia and asks,”did you hate us”.

    • John, yes. Jean Louise seeking out Calpurnia is a moving event, perhaps more so with the To Kill A Mockingbird background. We are told by Jean Louise that Jem died of a congenital heart incident much the same as their mother had. (Chapter 9, Page 115)

  10. Thank you for such a balanced review. I enjoyed reading it so much, especially your insight into the racial politics of the Southern States. My own experience of the southern USA is confined to holidays and business trips so I do not have the knowledge to judge, however I recognise the truth of your perceptions. While I was growing up in Southern Scotland, the prejudices (and sometimes injustices) related to religion – Catholic and Protestant. As you say, one has to live in a community and it is difficult to avoid being affected by the prejudices around you. I did wonder whether Harper Lee might have got a Pulitzer anyway had she continued to edit and polish GSAW rather than writing that completely different story.

  11. First, thank you for your review on this book. It was refreshing to read a review that has a positive point of view. To set a time frame I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in my junior year in high school. I am 70 years old at present time. Like Scout, it was several years later that I realized something from the past. I realized the privilege it was to have been a student in my literature class. As students we were taught the art of reading a book. To this day with all the technology I still hold a book in my hands, and turn each page with respect to the author. I remember when I asked if I could read “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. Of course, you can read it you just cannot give a book report on it. It was my privilege in time to have Dr. Brawley as my literature teacher, and my mentor into the world of books. Dr. Brawley was a black woman giving her gift of literature in high school.
    As Scout, you can truly understand what I learned years later.

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  14. Thank you for articulating so much truth about life in the South in the last half of the 20th century could be like for those with consciousness about racism. Even as a child of the 70s and 80s, I encountered the awkward racist comments of my relatives and white society and shuddered. I struggled to reconcile how good people could be so utterly prejudiced. It was why I had to leave the South after college. And only after being away, realizing how much racism can be found elsewhere, could I return, forgive and try to help change it in a more constructive way. Your theory about why Harper Lee never published again is entirely plausible to me. Entirely.

  15. I just heard Ursula Le Guin on NPR and then stumbled on this blog. I am nearly 81 and for the sake of my family and everyone else I know I try to stay au courant with technology and world affairs. More power to Ursula. Reading her opinion on “Go Set a Watchman” has convinced me to read it. Because I do well remember the Civil Rights Movement and am seeing how much is left to be done, I can see that this is an important book.

  16. I contemplated for a long time whether or not to read the new book by Harper Lee, and decided not to… because I didn’t want to be disappointed by a book not as good as Mockingbird. That changed after I read Mrs. Le Guin’s review.

    Just like Scout had a blindspot for her father, I had a blindspot (like so many others) about the story in the Mockingbird; I never considered its world an unrealistic one, probably because the story was told from Scout’s point of view and it was so convincingly real to her and to the readers.

    As a good teacher, Mrs. Le Guin educated me about the both books and helped me to relate these books to the world we live in. She pointed out to me, without saying so much in words; that in light of Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and all the latest news about racial tension in this country, we here in American can hardly find a better set of books to read, and re-read, and to discuss with our friends and colleagues.

    Thanks again, Mrs. Le Guin.


  17. I feel I must protest.
    I don’t disagree with what UKL has to say about ‘Go Set A Watchman’: with that I almost entirely agree. Nor do I disagree with what she says about the need, in living harmoniously with others, to balance personal ties against social obligations, and love against justice. Again, I completely agree, and am grateful to her for her clear articulation of that problem.
    But when I read what she has to say about ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, then, to use a rather melodramatic word, I am somewhat outraged.
    UKL accuses Harper Lee of the following offences:
    That she ‘was encouraged to go back to childhood, and evade the problems of the book she wanted to write by writing, instead, a loveable fairytale’;
    That ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ panders ‘to self-reassuring images of White generosity risking all to save a grateful Black man’;
    That Lee knew ‘her terrifyingly successful novel was untrue’;
    That she let ‘wishful thinking corrupt honest perception’;
    That she ‘was coaxed or tempted into telling…simplistic, exculpatory lies’;
    In other words, that Lee was a dupe, a fraud, and a liar. I have to say that I find all of these charges misplaced and unjust, and I can’t really believe that UKL means them seriously.
    I have tried to puzzle out, in the context of ‘Go Set A Watchman’, what the problems might be that Lee is supposed to have ‘evaded’ in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.
    I assume that the main ones might be:
    That people who espouse justice and fairness, but participate in and co-operate with systems that contain and perpetuate fundamental injustices, thereby lend those systems a false legitimacy, and help to sustain them.
    Further, that such people are actually insincere or self-serving.
    Further, that they are as bad as the avowed supporters of injustice, if not worse (because they should know better).
    The implicit suggestion seems to be that problems such as these, because they not exposed and dealt with explicitly in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, outweigh all the other problems that it does deal with, and therefore invalidate the entire novel.
    A little sober thought will cure us of this delusion.
    To me, as a non-American, the important problems that ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ does deal with head-on seem to be:
    That in every nook and cranny of the Southern United States at that time, every minute of every day, black people suffered institutionalised injustice.
    That most adult white people were to a greater or lesser degree complicit in that injustice.
    That the law is often inadequate in securing justice, especially to people who are socially disadvantaged.
    That a sound judicial system can be suborned by a corrupt political system or an unjust social system.
    That there are deeply nasty people like the Ewells in the world, who need to be lived with and dealt with.
    That there are people like the Cunninghams, who are fundamentally honest and decent, but can act cruelly and unjustly.
    That the best efforts of decent, intelligent people to achieve justice may end in failure.
    That from childhood we all have a desire to push away people whom we find different from us, and to demonise them.
    That children need both freedom and discipline, and achieving the right balance between them is not easy.
    That to preserve a civilised society we may have to undertake unpleasant and dangerous duties.
    That there is malice in the world, and we all need to find positive ways to resist and counteract it.
    This list is not exclusive or exhaustive – but I’m afraid that anyone who does not find these problems leaping out at them from the pages of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is not reading with proper attention. Of course, there are other problems: how to dismantle an unjust social system; how quickly and how thoroughly; how to deal with offenders and ‘collaborators’ (i.e. the kind of problems UKL deals with in the Werel/Yeowe stories). But even without those problems, the list is hardly trivial or unchallenging. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is not a one-issue novel.
    I am similarly puzzled by the charge that ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ panders ‘to self-reassuring images of White generosity risking all to save a grateful Black man’. As Miriam Zivkov points out, this is a novel in which a kind and virtuous black man, blatantly not guilty of a crime of which he is accused, is nevertheless found guilty by a legally constituted court governed by white men. And when he tries to escape that injustice, he is shot dead by white men – seventeen times – without a word of official criticism. He had been neither grateful nor ungrateful to the white man who tried to defend him and uphold justice. Atticus himself reports: “…I couldn’t in truth say that we had more than a good chance. I guess Tom was tired of white man’s chances, and preferred to take his own.’
    I can’t think how any white American, or any socially advantaged person elsewhere, might find this story ‘reassuring’. And I can’t think who, in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, Lee is supposed to be exculpating or letting off the hook.
    Sadly, I am disappointed by ‘Go Set A Watchman’ – not because it takes an uncomfortable direction, but because it doesn’t do that job well: Lee hadn’t yet learned how to get the best out of her magnificent talent. I think it was a mistake to publish it. I think it is an even bigger mistake for readers to take it as a critique of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and a reliable sequel (as UKL seems to do), instead of an unsatisfactory early draft. Even so, having read it, I am more impressed than ever by ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ – an immeasurably greater novel: artistically, intellectually, psychologically, morally; and, for me, one with a fairer claim than most to be considered ‘The Great American Novel’.

  18. I am relieved to read Ms. Le Guin’s comments. So many of her points crossed through my mind as well. I would love to sit around a table with Ms. Le Guin, Walidah Imarisha, and R. Gregory Nokes. I have been reading and following Oregon Humanities discussions (from afar down the Oregon Coast), and being a true born Oregonian proud of this State’s “progressive” reputation, now finding more truth about it’s racist policy from it’s inception and feeling the white shame as I learn. This was never taught to us in school- it was a self-deception at so many ethical and moral levels. I am interested in Ms. Imarisha’s approach to education through science fiction, and what that can do to shape a new vision and bring peoples together to solve our common problems.