As another Southern writer once said, “You can’t go home again.” In Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which takes place in the mid-1950s, a 26-year-old Scout Finch takes the train from New York City home to Maycomb, Ala., and finds the familiar world turned mighty strange.
TV and air-conditioning have changed the landscape, and beloved childhood friends like Dill and her brother Jem have vanished. Others, like Calpurnia, look at Scout, here called by her grown-up name of “Jean Louise,” as though she were, well, a white lady.
And then there’s Atticus. Now 72 and crippled by arthritis, he’s still a wry patriarch, but in one of the novel’s key scenes — set, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, in Maycomb’s courthouse — Atticus allies himself with the kind of men who several years later stood shoulder to shoulder with Bull Connor and George Wallace.
Go Set a Watchman is a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically, beginning with its fishy origin story. Allegedly, it’s a recently discovered first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m suspicious: It reads much more like a failed sequel. There are lots of dead patches in Go Set a Watchman, pages where we get long explanations of, say, the fine points of the Methodist worship service.
The novel turns on the adult Scout’s disillusionment with her father — a disillusionment that lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird will surely share. Reeling from the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Atticus reveals himself as a segregationist and a reactionary extremist. He’s a staunch proponent of states’ rights, a critic of federal programs, even popular ones like Social Security and the G.I. Bill, and a foe of the NAACP.
One could say, as some commentators already have, that Atticus here displays layers of contradictory attitudes about race harbored by whites, no matter how progressive. But, no. This Atticus is different in kind, not just degree: He’s like Ahab turned into a whale lover or Holden Caulfield a phony.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus was his own man; here, he essentially tells Scout you have to go along to get along. This Atticus, we’re told, joined the Ku Klux Klan in his youth; now, he’s on the local Citizens Council. This Atticus is a eugenicist: He believes in racial theory and reads pamphlets with titles like “The Black Plague.” He warns the horrified Scout that: “We’re outnumbered here [in Maycomb]” and observes that “Our Negro population is backward” and “Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Scout, who takes up her fallen father’s torch of progressivism, likens his views to those of Hitler and Goebbels.
Yet, the more poignant revelations in Go Set a Watchman have to do with Scout; at 26, she’s still a sort of tomboy, talking herself into marrying a childhood friend named Hank. At least half of this novel is devoted to Scout’s (or Jean Louise’s) torment over not feeling like she has a place in the world.
In a moving set-piece about halfway through the novel, Scout dutifully attends a “Coffee” that her prim Aunt Alexandra hosts for her. She wanders from group to group of women — The Newlyweds, The Diaper Set — and feels alienated. We’re told that Scout: “glanced down the long … livingroom at the double row of women, women she had merely known all her life, and she could not talk to them five minutes without drying up stone dead.”
I ached for this adult Scout: The civil rights movement may be gathering force, but the second women’s movement hasn’t happened yet. I wanted to transport Scout to our own time — take her to a performance of Fun Home on Broadway — to know that, if she could only hang on, the possibilities for nonconforming tomboys will open up. Lee herself, writing in the 1950s, lacks the language and social imagination to fully develop this potentially powerful theme.
The novel goes on sale Tuesday, and everybody who loves To Kill a Mockingbird is going to read it, no matter what I or any other reviewer says about its literary quality, the bizarre transformation of Atticus or its odd provenance. All I know for certain is that Go Set a Watchman is kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece.