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. Thank you. I am a white Southerner (I went to Bleckley County High School, and Travis LeGuin and I were classmates). I hadn’t planned to read Watchman, but it sounds like I need to.

  2. This is by far the most interesting review I’ve read of Watchman. I haven’t read the book, but this is the only review that has actually made me want to. I can’t say if your take on it is correct, but it is so much more expansive than the general ‘ugh, racism’ response.
    I rarely respond to blog posts but your article moved me. Thanks for the insights.

    • Ursula K. Le Guin provides the best commentary on this troubling book, and I’ve read them all. Thank you.

  3. All of what you write about this first book of Lee’s is true, particularly our comforting White lies that are anything but little, whether we are from the north or the south, the east or the west.

  4. thank you for a beautiful review. That is very much how I felt about the book. Of course Atticus would have been like that – kind, generous, just, but constrained by his time and place. We love Manichean heroes and villains, literature is harder than that. A different tragedy indeed.
    I grew up in apartheid South Africa with parents attempting to avoid racial prejudice, as you did in the South. I was acquainted with numbers of Afrikaners who were much like Atticus..

  5. Thanks for this review. I just read Adam Gopnik’s review in the New Yorker. He seems to agree with some of what you’ve said.

    One thing that often bothers me is cultural criticism with out historical context. Many of the reviews of “Watchman” take this attitude.

    I cannot and will not defend racism of any kind. But, understanding where people were culturally and where they lived, is critical to grasping the deeper meaning of books like this.

    Gopnik discusses the Agrarian movement in the South. That has particular resonance for me. I studied literature under Andrew Lytle, a somewhat lesser know member of the southern Agrarian movement. I also wrote my Honors thesis on Allen Tate’s epic poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead”.

    Atticus Finch was a man of his time. A classic upper middle class white man who harbored opinions on race going back to his ancestors. This in no way kept him from fighting injustice against people, irrespective of their ethnicity.

    The racism of men like Atticus or Lytle or Tate was not the vicious type we know today.
    It was still racism. These men genuinely believed in their own superiority over black people and poor people. It was a silent (and, perhaps more dangerous) kind of racism. But, to a man (and, let’s face it, they were virtually all men), each believed himself to be honorable, civic minded, and very protective of those in the “lower orders”.

    They were, by no means, “bad” men but, strictly following the traditions of their forefathers. I’d be willing to bet that few, if any, raised Confederate flags over their homes or office.

    Contemporary people all too often judge those of the past by modern standards and values. This tends to be, at least, unfair.

    It’s always valuable to remember the now cliche but none the less accurate line of Bobby Burns “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”

    • I agree that Atticus and Uncle Jack are men of their time, good men, by their lights. But some of their remarks reveal that in the attitudes of these Southerners originally from the landowning class lie the seeds of Neoliberalism today (Tea Party ideas, as we call them). They don’t want the racial or class hierarchy changed.
      Uncle Jack says, ““Now at this very moment, Scout,” said her uncle, “a political philosophy foreign to it is being pressed on the South, and the South’s not ready for it—we’re finding ourselves in the same deep waters. “Look at the rest of the country. It’s long gone by the South in its thinking. . . . People’s attitudes toward the duties of government have changed. The have-nots have risen and have demanded and received their due—sometimes more than their due. The haves are restricted from getting more. You are protected from the winter winds of old age, not by yourself voluntarily, but by a government that says we do not trust you to provide for yourself, therefore we will make you save All kinds of strange little things that have become part and parcel of the country’s government. . . .Have you looked around you and seen a new class of people down here?”
      “Where are your tenant farmers? In factories. Where are your field hands? Same place. Have you ever noticed who are in those little white houses on the other side of town? Maycomb’s new class. The same boys and girls that went to school with you and grew up on tiny farms. Your own generation.”
      “These people are the apples of the Federal Government’s eye. It lends them money to build their houses, it gives them free education for serving in its armies, it provides for their old age and assures them of several weeks’ support if they lose their jobs—‘
      “Uncle Jack, you are a cynical old man.”
      “Cynical, hell. I’m a healthy old man with a constitutional mistrust of paternalism and government in large doses. Your father’s the same—“
      “[T]he only real duties of government were to prevent crime and preserve contracts, to which I will add one thing since I find myself reluctantly in the twentieth century: and to provide for the common defense.”
      “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, and then it wouldn’t be worth living in.

    • I very much appreciate this reply to Ms Le Guin’s blog. It speaks truth to me. It is the South I know as does this part of the blog, “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…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.”

      • I neglected to say I was responding to Richard York’s reply. Thank you Mr. York.

    • “they are all men” Well, no. They are NOT all men. Calpurnia is not a man, Aunt Alexandra (?) is not either. The beliefs and attitudes of the women are central to maintaining and fortifying the culture. From the sewing circle, the bridge game, the coffee klatch, the altar guild and the good church ladies, the home truths are taught by the women to the children. The men, who often think they are “all” that matters, are in many cases simply conveying their women’s rules and requirements into the marketplace. When you look at the newsreels of mobs screaming at tiny black children on their way to school, there are just as many women as men. In my family growing up, it was Mother who made the rules and set the tone. Daddy was the enforcer and the backup most days.

      One of the most moving, vivid and fearful aspects of this book is the woman’s perspective. It is the women with whom Scout has intimate connections. She understands their spoken and unspoken language, and she feels the connections even as they disagree. Ultimately the men in the book, the men she loves, are untouchable, impervious, and unreachable. Scout realizes that if she chooses Maycomb, it is within the sphere of the women she will live. The unfitness of that choice, its awkward, prickly and smothering atmosphere, makes it all the more wrenching that Harper Lee ultimately chose it.

      Not to forget Dill, Scout’s ambiguously gendered playmate, who is missing and presumed lost to her and to the south, and possibly to America. Dill plays the part of expatriate, the one who rejects, flees, and then can provide an outside view. But not in this book…and the Dill books never got written.

  6. You make me want to read the book, which I had not wanted to do before. But I think people who assume it is in some way a continuation of To Kill A Mockingbird miss the fact that Lee set this book aside and did not intend to publish it. Its Scout and Atticus are not necessarily the Scout and Atticus we’ve already seen—many writers change their characters wildly from the time they first write about them to the time they appear in print.

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  8. Well, yes and no. There are accommodations and there are teaching moments. And there are times you really have to stand on principal (and walk away on principal as well.)

    I married a southerner (well, West Virginian, but close enough in many of its attitudes) who said to his father on one trip down with our children ages 3,5,7 for a visit, “If you say any of this (“nigger” etc.) in front of my kids again, it’s the last time you’ll see them.” It was said quietly, but my husband never threatened unless he was going to follow through.

    I’m sure he didn’t change his father’s mind about race relations, but the threat was a real one. FJ never spoke that way in front of our kids again. Ever.

    I believe if you don’t speak out, you are complicit.

    Jane Yolen

    • Some of my relatives, Pittsburghers all, had racial and ethnic attitudes that still make me sick to think about it. I bit my tongue and died a little inside every time they made a comment about greedy, money-grubbing Jews or lazy, smelly blacks, and sometimes it got so bad I lashed out and said no, this is wrong, you shouldn’t say such things, they’re wrong and mean and ugly.

      So they stopped saying such things, at least around me. I know that in at least one case the relative continued to think such things, and I wasn’t surprised when this individual became a hardcore Fox News addict toward the end. I still loved them – they were my family, and very dear to me – but it hurt so much to hear them yield to bigotry that would have excluded my best friend and my roommate and my former husband’s family from full humanity.

      So what did I do? I rebelled. I rejected. And yes, I did move away. I moved to Boston after college, married an unsuitable man because marriage would make it impossible for my family to force me to move back to Pittsburgh, and settled in Western Massachusetts. I was so heartsick over the bigotry that I moved away and never moved back, and as much as part of me longs for the air and the foods and the harsh “r’s” and the smell of the rivers and little streams called “runs,” I will never live there again.

      I loved my family. I am what I am because of them. They loved me more than life itself and did everything they could so I’d have a good education and be healthy and strong.

      And when I was 22 years old I chose my Jewish best friend and my Catholic boyfriend over a group of dear, lovely, wonderful people who used “nigger” as a noun and “jew” as a verb and thought the Pope was an abomination.

      I would do the same thing today.

      Sometimes you have to say “no” to your family, even if you love them, and they love you.

      Lisa Evans

    • Thank you Jane. And, as little as I like your message, thank you as well, Ms. LeGuin. I honour your honesty, even as, as an AfricanAmerican woman, I despair.

      Ah, what a privilege it is to be able to contemplate whether you’ll decide take on your beloved family racists, or not.
      If you don’t, the worst you’ll suffer is discomfort at dinner.
      If you do, and do so again and again, folks who look like me may have a less poisonous, murderous society to contend with.

      But of course, everyones’ mileage in this life varies. So it goes.

        • You are right about rasism, but UKL did not diminsh it in her thoughtful review, she just was more honest about the reality of family ties than most of us are.

          Breaking bonds with your family is a terrible loss, especially when you are young and especially in the society in which family bonds are strong (which was the case of the American mid-20th century South, as far as I know). It is almost like losing your memory or cutting off your own hand – you give away something that was a part of your self. Painful enough, no need to build Pavlik Morozov sort of legend about such choices.

          Sometimes it may even take a lot of effort to avoid becoming a bank robber:


      • The people who talk about niggers in my extended family are the black and brown ones. But they don’t do it in front of me or my wife (who are white) because we won’t tolerate it from anybody.

  9. Many thanks for the most articulate, sensitive and thoughtful writing I’ve seen about “Go Set a Watchman” to-date. It astonishes me that people paid to review this book, including in the “quality” papers, lack the ability to offer this sort of coverage themselves.

  10. I appreciate your review, but there’s one point that seems to elude a lot of commentators. If this book was never revised after submission, then in many ways _To Kill a Mockingbird_ was its subsequent draft. It seems to me that to go back and revise _Go Set a Watchman_ as a sequel to that book would have–indeed–required that Jean-Louise adjusts to seeing her childhood view of her parent and society revised with new, adult perspective. But, the book would have probably had to be revised significantly, and the portrayal of Atticus Finch as it appears in that unfinished manuscript probably would have had to be revised in accordance with the earlier “revisions” of the published _Mockingbird_. Entire portions, events, characters, descriptions might have been deleted and certainly revised. Even more importantly, the new manuscript would have to accommodate the social and cultural changes already going on around Harper Lee–some even, perhaps, affected by the publication and reception of _Mockingbird_ (something that most writers don’t have to cope with to the same degree at least). I think that reception is an obvious challenge to her work, and I suspect she didn’t even understand some of the artistic challenges in taking on that earlier “prequel” in revising it, potentially, in a revised _Watchman_. I’ve known at least two writers who’ve so far been unable to finish new books, one a completely drafted sequel that was delayed too long to adjust to changes in society, after ten and more years, trying to cope with the success of earlier published books. Your speculation about Harper Lee couldn’t go on to write more is certainly plausible. I also wonder if, in attempting to rewrite that sequel, Lee might have found it impossible to return to her home in the south in her personal life. I’m wouldn’t say that _Mockingbird_ is no more than an exculpatory lie, however, it’s a beautiful dream that may have even helped some readers move towards “writing” their own sequels, their own _Watchman_. Eleanor Arnason told me once that her second novel, _To the Resurrection Station_, was about the kind of ideological change, or idea, that was necessary before social change can occur: how can we change our society without a vision of what it could be? Although I didn’t see that until she made her remark, I immediately understood the book in a way that I had not before. As for _Mockingbird_, whatever its failure, it’s my daughter’s favorite book, since she read it in about 4th grade, and I think at least it informed her understanding about some of the things that went on and have at least changed in part in our society, things that some of us almost forget at times.

  11. I’m so glad that I was sent to your blog on this book. It is so insightful – the most helpful treatment I’ve read on this subject. The difficulties of moving a society from one point to another are many, and we are naive to think otherwise. One need only look at the fiasco in Iraq to see what coming in on a high horse does to a society that is needing to grow and reform from the inside out – or perhaps how to keep a delicate detente in a religiously explosive situation. I am also reminded (I have worked for years in the church) about Paul’s nagivating the truth of the gospel – the equality of women, slaves, Gentiles, in a culture where this was either heretical or illegal. Looking back into his writings, some see him as misogynist or approving of slavery. Neither is true. He offered the next step and the ultimate goal while realizing the limits of his cultural time.

  12. I’m a book coward and avoided reading Go Set a Watchman because I was afraid it would ruin my hero worship for Harper Lee. But my 86-year-old mother, a former English teacher and Northerner who has always been outspoken and stood up to racism, whether in small-town New Jersey or Atlanta, where she’s lived for 40 years, pre-ordered it for her Kindle. Echoing this column, she pronounced it much more realistic and truthful and complex than To Kill a Mockingbird. “I’m glad I read it,” she told me.

  13. Dear Ursula,
    your review is the only one that has made sense of “Watchman”. For a moment it almost sounded like you were describing a more gentile version of Australia. Sadly though, the racism here is belligerent and whole heartedly embraced. It’s tiresome.
    Your interpretation of “Watchman” makes me want to read it. Until now, I didn’t care and put it down to people making a name for themselves on the coat tails of a promising writer who laid her pen down so many years ago.
    Thank you.

    P.S. I loved Tales of Earthsea! It’s one of the most enchanting series I have had the joy of reading. Thank you for writing it 🙂

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  15. Thank you, madame. I am a long time lover of To Kill a Mockinbird and read Watchman with trepidation. My reactions were much like yours, but you said them so much better. The only point I would raise is that children raised by black servants (and I was one of them) tended to have, at least during their childhoods, a different attitude towards race. I suppose most grew out of it. Scout did not seem to.

  16. I echo all of the other comments – what a perfect, nuanced, sensitive review. This post says all of the things I have been trying (inadequately) to say about this book. In reading Watchman, I was deeply saddened and angered about the Atticus we see through the adult Jean Louise’s eyes. However, I didn’t feel betrayed (as has apparently been the case for many of the reviewers); rather, I recognized the same sadness and anger I felt when I discovered that my own beloved grandfather was not the stalwart righter-of-wrongs I imagined him to be, but a racist and a homophobe. Watchman is an imperfect book, and the portrayal of Atticus is painful, but it is a portrayal that is deeply true.

    When we are children, we all want to be Scout. As adults, we are often more like the torn, wavering Jean Louise.

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  18. Thank you so very much for your thoughtful insights on Atticus in GSAW. I was uncomfortable about his views, but I ultimately saw him as a product of his generation—albeit a more enlightened being than most.

  19. >>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.>>

    One of my school friends linked to this; I confess I don’t always visit BVC blog when I ought to.

    I think this could very well be true. And it made me misty-eyed.

  20. Horse manure. This a pure profit move by Rupert Murdoch, taking advantage of an infirm old woman. You should be ashamed to be a part of it.

    • I agree with Mark that the publication of this is problematic. Harper Lee is an old woman who possibly been taken advantage of.

    • The provenance of a work of art doesn’t matter. Medicis and Borgias commissioned great paintings and statues from geniuses because they wanted to show off their wealth and power. Now they are dust and the works endure.

      My congratulations to Ms. LeGuin on bringing an adult and nuanced perspective to a discussion that, from what I’ve read, too often centers on people’s disappointment that a literary character idolized in childhood (both their own and Scout’s) turns out to be clay-footed.

      And she raises an interesting aspect: if that sales-minded New York editor hadn’t convinced Harper Lee to write a kid’s fantasy instead of an adult’s realistic ethical struggle, would Go Set a Watchman have been a flop? And would Lee have written something better the next time? And better again with the third and the fourth and the fifth novels?

      We’ll never know. But it would make a good story.

  21. Thank you for your insights on “Watchman,” I appreciate your clarifying the intersectional and regional elements Lee discussed.

  22. Great review. I went straight from Mockingbird to Watchman to find a feel for the real cadence of Harper Lee. Mockingbird was a polished gem and Watchman rough and uncut. Having been raised in Alabama from 1950-1964, Watchman cut to the bone.

  23. I can definitely agree with a lot of your review. I grew up & reside in Southwest Virginia, 15 minutes away from Va. Tech, about an hour from N.C. & Tennessee. My hometown has a population of 400 tops, so I definitely know the ups & downs of growing up in a small area where racism is unfortunately popular. It is hard to depart, & more so harder to denounce in silence.
    I don’t, however, believe Harper Lee lived a lifetime of silence. This is based on a great deal of research on her. Over her lifetime, she worked closely with another author, & in fact, done major researching for a great deal of his novels. My take on Harper Lee is she chose to stay behind the scenes after “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published, & also, her asking that none of “Go Set a Watchman” be changed by the editor, other than grammatical errors, shows she has a strong voice.
    After reading the book, in my opinion, all the reviews announcing “Atticus is a racist,” are highly exaggerated. The Atticus from “Mockingbird” truly isn’t much different in “Watchman.” It’s “Scout that is different. Atticus in both novels is wise, & patient when letting Scout/Jean Louise figure out things in her own time.
    She had many questions as a child about why her father was representing a black man accused of raping a white woman, especially since a case like that during that time was unlikely to beat. Atticus answers with what seem like riddles, then throughout, Scout has to “get the picture.”
    I think “To Kill a Mockingbird” absolutely had to be published first. If “Watchman” was published first, readers would already dislike Atticus so much, he’d be hard to redeem in “Mockingbitd.”
    I also think during the civil rights movements, a book about a lawyer who didn’t agree with all civil rights would have infuriated readers. Now, in hindsight, readers can focus on that era, as well as relate issues from then to a lot of issues today.
    Another thing, Atticus never uses the “N” word in his dialogue in either book. He explains he let a man speak, though the speech was filled with hate & ignorance, because “the man ask to speak.”
    Ignorance & hate, racism, etc. is disgusting to many of us. However, “freedom of speech” is a right all Americans share. Atticus as a lawyer, let’s an ignorant man speak, because it was his right.
    I was more shocked that her uncle hit her, in what was described as very hard. Shocked Calpurnia grouped Scout with all other white people, which in itself is racism. Shocked her brother, Jem, who played an important role in “Mockingbird” was abruptly killed off by whatever heart problems their mother had.
    I’ll rap this up, & see now I need to find time to write my review on my own blog, I apologize.
    I suppose I expected Atticus to be leading KKK parades through Maycomb, when in fact, it’s stated in the book that he attended 1 meeting & he done so to gather knowledge of whom he was dealing with. The men, the cowards, hiding behind sheets. It’s always infuriated me that grown men can feel so strongly about something & justify by any means while hiding their faces from peers. A cowards way out.
    Thank you for your wonderful review & while I don’t agree with some, your post definitely has me thinking. I believe the best writers achieve that in the end.
    http://www.donettas.blog spot.com

  24. So releasing this vulgar, rambling manuscript that’s hurtful to Black Americans was therapy for “the old woman.”

    Well, that’s certainly an original take.

    I don’t have the time to go into all the contradictions in this review. Ms. LeGuin, while delighting in giving the establishment another good kick in the nuts, ends up defending a book she would have found unconscionable otherwise.

  25. I think the criticism of “Mockingbird” as a lie isn’t quite right. How many young people have taken the best of that book to heart? I would imagine millions (literally) more than would have even with a fully artistically realized “Go Set A Watchman”.

    I believe as a society much of the United States wants things meant for young people (books, comics, movies, music, etc) to fully withstand nuanced, informed, adult scrutiny. Many people then feel betrayed when things meant for their young selves aren’t up to the job of carrying their adult sensibilities. This strikes me as silly.

  26. For such a great writer, this review shows little understanding of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or at reads like you haven’t read it in a while. With the exception of the banal ‘child grows up to view her parents as less than perfect’ storyline, which was still very muddled in this early draft, you completely miss how every other theme presented in ‘Watchman’ is far more developed and assured in ‘Mockingbird’. From disillusionment (“Watchman” Jean Louise, “Mockingbird” Jem), the fight against injustice and intolerance (“Watchman” Jean Louise, “Mockingbird” Atticus) and to say Atticus didn’t change between the two drafts is completely incorrect. In ‘Watchman’, the key point of argument between Jean Louise and Atticus isn’t that Segregation needs to happen slower, they both agree on that, it’s the argument that the negroes are inherently unequal. It could be argued that Atticus didn’t really have those views in ‘Watchman’ but was merely trying to push Jean Louise to come to those conclusions herself (the flashback to the ‘falsies’ incident supports that, so does the subsequent argument from Uncle Jack about Atticus forcing her to destroy her idols) but in “Mockingbird” he makes a more developed version of the same argument she makes to him as the central part of Toms defence! “some Negroes lie, some don’t, just like every man” etc. You are completely wrong on that point. Jem becomes the disillusioned character and Atticus becomes the hero. Although they certainly share characteristics, pragamatism, authority etc the character does fundamentally change as the motivations for the book changed. Lee changed the story to be an example of what to do as opposed to being just an almost juvenile protest of what people are doing.

    • Thanks Bill for mansplaining this to Mrs Le Guin, who I am sure, does not know how to read a book properly.

      • What does that mean, “mans planing”? I’m unfamiliar with the term or it’s origins.

        • “mansplaining” refers to a man explaining something to a woman that she already knows, often better than he does.

          • Why make this about gender when the OP did not?
            Why not just look at it as one reader having a differing opinion from Ms. Le Guin?

  27. I do not find it in the least coincidental that this book comes out at the exact –and latest– time we are all seeing that our entire country is as racist and violently lethal as it has always been. It is, in fact, karmically synchronous that this happens now. The child’s ‘fairy tale’ gives way to the adult ‘reality’ of the world and this culture. Damning….

  28. Listened to Watchman on audiobook last weekend.

    My take was that it was sad and tragic that Atticus held racist views, and still considered himself a good man. His racism wasn’t the violent, active type of the KKK or lynch mobs, but the patronizing and infantilization of blacks that let him see himself as a “good father” to Negroes.

    The tragedy is that he was a good father to Scout because he gave her the freedom to act and question, to become adult, that he could not grant to black people. It was that freedom that enabled Scout to become the “colorblind” Jean Louise. Scout became a better person because of Atticus’ better attributes, but Atticus himself could not overcome his own worse attributes or upbringing. (Tho’ if I remember a few allusions correctly, it seemed Atticus was able to become a better person than his own father or grandfather had been.)

    I also couldn’t help wondering if this version of GSAW was the same version originally submitted to publishers, pre-Mockingbird. There were sections that read as if they were responding to some of the commentary Mockingbird received after its publication. I wonder if Harper Lee might have -attempted- a rewrite of Watchman, and abandoned it, but that some of those revisions were left in the published version?

    (One particularly jarring, though misleading, example was Jean Louise’s use of “What would Atticus do?” That jarred me because “What Would Atticus Do?” is one of the commoner spin-offs of the “What Would Jesus Do?” fad I remembered as starting in the 1990’s. BUT…Wikipedia tells me “What Would Jesus Do?” was actually popularized in an 1896 novel, In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon. It was RE-popularized in the 1990’s when Sheldon’s great-grandson and a collaborator published a contemporized re-telling of the 1896 novel, which in turn inspired the widespread “WWJD?” rubber-bracelets I remembered from the 1990’s. So not an anachronism after all.)

    (Boy, I hope nobody’s invested their life savings into “What Would Atticus Do?” bracelets, because after Watchman, sales of those are going to be so-o-o-o tanked….)

  29. Thank you for this sensible post.

    One of the things that the critics of Watchman seem to have missed is that last section, in which Jean Louise is told that the reason she’s so angry is that she’s let Atticus be her conscience – and she should not have.

    Atticus’ position in Watchman is that of the Southern moderate in 1954: we need another century to elevate Those People. (The answer then and now is that they’d had eighty years, and not done much elevation.) This is wholly compatible with trying for justice within the system, in 1935, when it could have been offered; in 1954, Atticus is prepared to lessen his client’s chances, such as they are, to foil the NAACP.

    I have not yet seen much comment on the major addition to Mockingbird: Boo Radley, who went into his house because he didn’t want to come outside. He, I now think, is Harper Lee’s final word.

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  32. I have been thinking about this essay all day, and about your experiences with your much-loved in-laws and how they flavor your reading of Harper Lee’s first novel’s early draft (because I think that’s what it is.) I was in a similar situation, albeit I’m assuming decades after yours, when I first met my then-fiance’s Holocaust survivor family, then in their early seventies, and they spoke disparagingly of African-Americans.
    These were people I loved and respected, who had both, in their teens, been in mulitple labor camps and then Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz in one case with a death march in between, and Auschwitz in the other. Both had lost multiple close family members to the Nazis, Stalin, and local brutality.

    They spoke with bitterness about “those blacks,” blaming their daughter’s drug addition on someone else’s color, because the dealers were mostly people of color.

    I chose to speak out to them, to say that they, of all people, who had lost so much–one had 400 family members die in the Shoah–that they could not prejudge others as evil because of the group to which they belonged. When they explained about the dealers, I pointed out that their own son had introduced their daughter to illicit drugs; while he was fine and left it behind, she never could. They them began to speak of other black people that they knew who were good people, but said that still, “those lazy, dirty black people.”

    I repeated my point, and no resolution came, but afterwards, although I feared I had offended and hurt these first members of the family of the man I hoped to marry, I was glad I had done so. I think we are obligated to speak out, and to try to do so in the way that will be most likely to be heard, which is to say, gently, and while listening to the other person’s perspective. Although one has since died, and is much missed, the other is alive, and we maintain a warm and loving relationship.
    On the other hand, I very much agree that Go Set A Watchman, this first draft of a first novel, is a far braver book. I would love to see it rewritten, even now, by Harper Lee, perhaps starting or putting the flashback about the falsies into the opening section, creating a more active method for Jean Louise to discover that her father and fiance are working with the public face of racial hatred, the Citizen’s Council, and then further developing the four main argumentative conversations, (Hank, Aunt Alexandra, Uncle and Atticus.) Rereading To Kill A Mockingbird with a fresh post-Watchman eye, there are plenty of places where the Jean Louise of that novel flicks her laser eye past women’s roles, casual bigotry, and painful racial interactions, but they are overwhelmed by the glorious, rich, molasses sweetness of an honest evocation of a challenging childhood.
    And yes, it’s clear that Harper Lee was guided by those she felt more experienced to to choose the safer, more pleasing version of events. And yes, I would imagine that this contributed to her inability to write another novel, despite hard efforts on at least two separate occasions.
    On the other hand, Ms. Lee suffered profound losses, both as a child, (with a mentally ill mother who was, by all accounts, much like the hated Aunt Alexandra–“like Everest, she was cold and she was there–” who ignored her fierce, funny, tomboy daughter except when finding her lacking. Both mother and Ms. Lee’s adored older brother, the novel’s Jem, had died by the time both books were written, her brother dropping suddenly from a cerebral hemorage.
    Ms. Lee showed extraordinary verve to be able to catapult out of a strong, southern orbit in a time when the youngest daughter was pre-determined to care for parents in their old age. Her older sister had taken over parenting and parent-caring duties for nearly twenty years by the time To Kill A Mockingbird was published. Alice was ready to turn those responsibilities over to another daughter, and Nelle was the only choice, given the third sister’s husband and children in another town.
    AC Lee’s reported response to Nelle’s success seems sparse and a little chilly. “I never dreamd of what was going to happen. It was somewhat of a surprise and it’s very rare indeed when a thing like this happens to a country girl going to New York. She will have to do a good job next time if she goes on up. I feel what I think is a justifiable measure of pride in her accomplishment, and I must say she has dsiplayed much determination, confidence and ambition to give up a good job in New York and take a change at writing a book.”

    Sister Louise told her son’s teacher that “To Kill A Mockingbird” was just “ridiculous.”

    And that was for a fairly benign book that showed AC Lee as a veritable saint.
    Had “Go Set A Watchman” been published, one can only imagine the response of family and hometown both. Take a gander at the reaction of Pat Conroy’s family after “The Great Santini” and “Prince of Tides.” With such a bold author, who got her pin feathers clipped by Lippencott’s editors, and whose family was hanging on the sideline with a veritable hood to prevent any further flight, it’s amazing that she wrote anything, let alone “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Watchman’s” raw, unpolished horrified bravey and insight.
    By the way, Ms. Le Guin, throughout my lifetime, your writing has been an inspiration, whether it was about the power of art, (Malafrena) the value of seeing outside systems (practically everything you have written, but especially Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed) the ability to see those who are other as having value (The Word For World is Forest) or the wisdom to embrace the dark other within ourselves. (The entire EarthSea Trilogy.) And on and on. Though you did not use your words with your inlaws, you have used them in such positive ways ever since, and for that, and the inspiration they have given so many, including me, I cannot thank you enough.

    Sakki Selznick

  33. I believe the real tragedy here is the loss of what Harper Lee would have written if her first novel had not been so entirely transformed by her editor. I doubt she was taken advantage of by anyone. Perhaps she thought Americans were grown up enough now to hear the story she meant to write.

  34. LeGuin seems to reiterate for the umpteenth time that it’s complicated being from the south. I have no doubt that it is. Racism is a yankee term, and TKAM was a yankee book. I’ve watched southern writers struggle with their complexities; wolfe, williams, capote, faulkner, but all of them had second works that surpassed their first. Harper did not, and as leguin points out, it’s both a pity and a waste. i think it’s what early fame does do you, either burns you out for drives you into seclusion

  35. Great review. The point you make Ursula that haunts me is the fact that its unimaginable to expect anyone to abandon and reject a family they say they dearly love over any difference in values like this, then or even today, no matter how horrific. Its not because we are all morally weak, pathetic creatures, or blind to injustice. Its just that we love (I would hope!) our families. And I would hope that love is a much more complex and enduring thing? Its one thing to disown your families after terrible upbringings or abuse and move on. Love is gone in those relationships. But by the same token, there have been horrible crimes committed in loving close families where forgiveness and love still exists. Yes it is possible to love your racist family, and that not make you a coward and a participant, nor a passive wallflower or any other label. You can certainly march and stand up for what you believe in and come home to those same people. In fact that seems to take more courage. Many people did….and still do. That certainly feels more honest, at least.

    I’m not judging the story or book, but like you articulated, Ursula, so well, its just as unbelievable as the first book. I think a more heroic tale would have been something more in the middle…..the conversion or evolution of a racist in such a family (which happened), or the story of the struggle for such a family to accept their daughter’s alternate views as she rejects theirs. Again, I’m assuming her love for her father at least, endures. But Jesus said it best, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone….’ Maybe that should have been the real lesson here.

  36. Oh my God, people! This book is essentially a rough first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. What difference does it make if Atticus is a racist or a llama? Harper Lee wrote a faulty first novel, like most young novelists. She had a brilliant editor at the time who saw the potential in her work. She, herself, revised Atticus into a model of compassion, kindness, understanding and judgment. That’s the point. That’s what great art is all about– that’s what revision is for.

    Rather than being appalled that a first draft created a flawed male character, why not applaud the revision that became the damn-near-perfect novel, To Kill a Mockingbird? To Set a Watchman should never have been presented as a “new” novel, or a “sequel,” or anything but what it is– an early and very rough draft of a later masterpiece. If blame must be laid, lay it at the feet of greedy publishers who waited for Lee’s sister to die and then foisted it on an unwitting public. I believe they took advantage of the aging author living in a home, who for years resisted this or any other inferior publication. In time, it will be grist for the mill of Harper Lee scholars. Admire the promise of the draft, and let it go.

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  38. Fascinating discussion. But the view of so many commenters (and Ms. LeGuin herself) that TKAM is a “dream” or “fairytale” about American racism continues to perplex me. Perhaps those who read it in eighth grade remember it that way. But go back as an adult and you see that it is nothing of the sort. After all, Atticus fails to deliver justice to Tom through the system in which he’s invested his life. Tom is convicted anyway, then murdered. The “nice” people Scout and Jem love most seem to accept this, not to be heartbroken the way they are. The religious people in town are hypocrites on this subject, as is the teacher (who, in a not-very-subtly-ironic scene, describes the horrors of what Hitler is doing to the Jews before reverting to the unthinking racism of the classroom.) When “justice” is done in the end with the death of Bob Ewell, it’s shown to be impossible for the actual justice system to produce the just result; Sheriff Tate must shield the true perpetrator for real “justice” to be done. Near the end, Scout says (I’m paraphrasing) “Jem and I figured we’d learned everything we’d ever learn in our lives, except maybe algebra.”

    I don’t think there is anything naive or simplistic about this view of the deep evil of the system and the difficulties of growing up in it and finding it “honey-sweet.” The insights emerge through indirection, which is what makes them powerful. The story emerges sideways without seeming to be about what it’s about. That, of course, is the source of its power, as with poetry and most decent fiction.

    I don’t think the millions have embraced this book because it makes them feel good about themselves, but because it helps them understand evil on a deep and personal level–not just that it exists, but how it continues to exist. And I’ve always assumed it’s taught in schools because, in addition to its story and message, it teaches these slightly-beyond-literal-minded reading skills that you need in order to appreciate literature. I’m surprised that Ms. LeGuin, whose novels are wonders of subtle indirection and wisdom, didn’t experience TKAM this way, but maybe its closeness to her own family experience makes a difference in the encounter.

    • Indeed. It’s all there in the book, under the surface of the words.

      I’m also wondering also if Gregory Peck’s iconic film portrayal helped to cement the commonly-held perception of Atticus Finch as an inviolable hero. Certainly his literary persona was far more subtle and contradictory. While Atticus did extol Calpurnia’s virtues as a valued member of the Finch family, he also revealed his supremacist mindset when lecturing Scout on the ultimate sinfulness of white people taking advantage of the “ignorance” of black folk. Perhaps the polite fiction of Atticus Finch is more a product of readers’/viewers’ projections than any intended suggestions on Lee’s part.

      • Yes, I forgot about the way so many early reviewers lamented the loss of the “iconic, heroic” Atticus when they were obviously thinking of Gregory Peck!

        Having sat down and read Watchman since I last posted, I’m most struck by a detail that illustrates the way the explicit anger in Watchman goes underground in Mockingbird. In Watchman, in the brief mention of Atticus’s defense of a young black man accused of raping a white woman, Atticus gets him acquitted! For Lee to change that in Mockingbird is a good example of the way she and her editor must have worked to submerge the issues (in the child’s voice that doesn’t grasp them) by re-patterning the events themselves.

        That said, I don’t think Watchman is all that bad. I found it interesting and touching, if nowhere near as highly polished (and like a lot of first novels, including many that are nowadays just thrown into print, it sets up the story more convincingly than it resolves it.) In spite of everything, I think I’m glad to have it.

  39. I have been waiting for this review, and now I will read the book. One comment I’d make, point well taken about the obliviousness of many non-Southerners to the racism that exists in their own communities. In the safety, so called, of an integrated Quaker boarding school, in 1954, I was privy to the anguish caused my African American roommate, when the chairman of that school’s board, who was white and Quaker, would not permit his daughter to room with her the following year.

  40. I disagree, and that is not something I thought would ever happen.

    I am responding not to your opinion of Go Set a Watchman but to the section that begins, “If you love and respect…”

    Love changes everything, right? If some of the people you love and respect are Black (or Brown in Sheriff Arpaio’s Arizona, or Jewish in 1936 Germany) then you are going to have to make up your mind. If you give support to the haters by your presence and your silence, then you are going to kill those relationships.It’s not a question of understanding or forgiveness. People may forgive you, even continue to love you, but they’ll never trust you again. Will you trust yourself around them?

    To Kill a Mockingbird is a truthful book in some ways. It says: When one of the Others is murdered, We just go on with our lives. In general, that seems to be true.

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  43. That was a wonderful review – intelligent and thought-provoking like all your work. I had decided I wasn’t going to read “Go Set a Watchman” bit now I’m determined to get a copy and read it as soon as I can.

    Only ” Jean Louise has arisen and denounced, unsuccessfully. Does she depart? ” Couldn’t you have been one of those to walk away from Omelas ?

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  45. Such an insightful review. It is true that we all grow up and live in a world that is full of prejudices and bigotry and we have to find ways to avoid acting unjust or being treated unfairly and be more tolerant than most people around us. Far too often I find myself failing in such attempts. In Go Set a Watchman, when Jean Louise Finch is crushed after discovering Atticus’ racist stand, her uncle Dr Finch tells her that she has to figure out her own conscience. Harper Lee writes, ‘Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious’ Brilliant indeed and I am glad that I have read Harper Lee’s original manuscript. Nonetheless To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of my favourite fictions.

  46. Ms Leguin is, I believe, one of the greatest writers of our era. She is also a very astute observer of society. I also come from the Northeastern US, where segregation most certainly existed, but it was enforced by social norms, real estate agents steering customers away from neighborhoods where “they wouldn’t fit,” and deed restrictions. It wasn’t just people of color: real estate agents refused to show a family friend’s father a house in a nearby suburb because he was Italian-American, and they weren’t wanted there.

    I may read the book Go Set a Watchman; I tend to read relatively little fiction (I will be rereading one of my favorites, Convective Heat Transfer; my tastes are probably a bit odd). My knowledge of the book is, therefore, quite limited, and relies on the, in my opinion, somewhat overheated reviews. I have read To Kill a Mockingbird, and have been following the turmoil surrounding Go Set a Watchman‘s contents.

    Obviously, since Scout is a young child in TKaM, her narration cannot be considered to be completely reliable, so believing it to be an accurate description of her father’s feelings about Blacks is probably not valid. However, assuming that Scout’s reportage of Atticus Finch’s actions in defending an African-American person accused of a crime are accurate within the fictional narrative of the two books, I tend to see this as indicating Atticus Finch, the lawyer, is behaving in accord with the best standards of his profession: defending a person accused of a crime, regardless of his personal feelings about the person.

    That sort of action seems to be deprecated in early 21st Century society, where personal feelings must trump professional obligations: if Atticus Finch is a racist and a lawyer, he must not provide competent legal counsel to black defendants, just as if he were a pharmacist who holds certain religious beliefs, he must not provide prescribed medication. Instead, Atticus Finch places his professional obligation above his personal beliefs. This is his struggle, which was invisible to Scout. Maybe Jean Louise, when she recovered from her upset*, realized this, maybe she didn’t. GSaW does not, then, show Atticus Finch to be a hypocrite, who went against his beliefs, but a man of honor who found that his belief in his profession’s ideals, which required fair trials be provided to all defendants, overcame his personal belief that Blacks were inferior.

    * As an aside: if Jean Louise is 26 when she realizes that her father and brother were racist, when did she stop talking to them? Was she particularly unobservant? Was she sent away to boarding school in Switzerland? One would think that the racial attitudes of her immediate family would be noticed, if only from daily casual conversation.