Declaring What She Sees: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

Jemson was Methodist of the whole cloth: he was notoriously short on theology and a mile long on good works. — Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

One of the many strokes of genius of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird – our greatest American novel – is to make a child, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the narrator. We see the South, that is, 1930s Maycomb (Monroeville), Alabama, through a child’s penetrating stare. In Harper Lee’s much heralded and equally maligned second novel Go Set a Watchman, twenty-six-year-old Scout returns home from her sojourn in New York to visit her aging father, small town lawyer Atticus.

Many have condemned the publication of Go Set a Watchman as a brutal defamation of our beloved Atticus Finch or as an unedited, sloppy novel that detracts from the reputation of Harper Lee. While Go Set a Watchman lacks the literary perfection of her first novel, I am bold to believe that Watchman, particularly when read in the context of Mockingbird, confirms the artistic genius of Lee. She has said that she wants to be our Jane Austin. In writing Watchman, Lee is all that and even more.

I didn’t say that her novel is easy to take; the last third of the novel as Scout confronts the racism of her hero, Atticus, is excruciatingly brutal but utterly truthful. I grew up in a town like Maycomb, among people just like Atticus and I can tell you – no better picture has been painted of the ambiguities, the complexities, and the evil of genteel, educated, polite Southern racism circa 1955 than Watchman.

No one can help comparing Watchman with Mockingbird; many take offense that Lee presumed to publish another book after reaching the apex of international literary glory. I believe that the main reason for outrage against Watchman is that Lee has dared to allow Scout to become an adult woman and that she has dared to tell the truth about race in America and maybe that Lee has written as a Christian.

The first thing I noted by comparison was that Watchman is often very funny; I never saw much humor in Mockingbird. The funniest passages are when Lee remembers church.   She recalls the Baptist revivalist’s sermon, “Would You Speak to Jesus if You Met Him on the Street?” that led Jem, Scout, and Dill (“Scout and me are Methodists,” admitted Jem) to re-enact a baptism by immersion in Dill’s fish pool. In Jem’s pretend sermon, he asked, “Where is the Devil?” and answered, “Right here in Maycomb, Alabama,” a statement that proves to be prophetic by the end of the novel.

The children are punished for their bogus baptism (Whap! came Miss Rachel’s switch on Jem’s behind before he could finish his sermon) but in a way, all church is pretend in Maycomb. Returning to the church of her childhood during her fateful homecoming, Jean Louise encounters “the warmness that prevails among diverse individuals who find themselves in the same boat for one hour each week.” The sermon is delivered by the Reverend Mr. Stone of whom her crazy uncle pronounced, “…had the greatest talent for dullness he had ever seen in a man on the near side of fifty.” Stone’s preaching is studiedly inoffensive. As a pastor, he had “all the necessary qualifications for a certified public accountant: he did not like people, he was quick with numbers, he had no sense of humor, and he was butt-headed.” Maycomb’s Methodist Church (“not large enough for a good minister but too big for a mediocre one”) at first was pleased when the bishop sent them a young pastor. After less than a year, word around the congregation was, “We asked for bread and they gave us a Stone.”

The only show of passion during or after service was when Jean Louise’s (“licensed eccentric”) uncle accosted the volunteer choir director and complained that the Doxology had been sung too fast. He was informed by the musician that a pepped up Doxology was pushed at a course led by a man from New Jersey on “what was wrong with Southern church music.”  Her uncle shot back, “Apparently our brethren in the Northland are not content merely with the Supreme Court’s activities. They are now trying to change our hymns on us,”

While biblical allusions are scattered throughout Go Set a Watchman, one is impressed by the irrelevance of the church. When push comes to shove in Maycomb (and the whole town is being pushed by the nascent Civil Rights Movement), no one seems to recall anything of help or challenge from their Christian faith.

The same Sunday evening of the church service, a meeting is held in the Maycomb County Courthouse (in the same courtroom where Atticus had been unassumingly heroic in Mockingbird) because “politicking’s done on Sunday in these parts.” At this gathering of the County Citizen’s Council (euphemism for the South-wide effort to resist integration), there gathered are “not only most of the trash in Maycomb County, but the county’s most respectable men” including the man who has meant the most to her, the man whom Jean Louise (and all of Mockingbird’s readers) idolized. Atticus introduces the guest speaker, a disgusting man who stands up and delivers the most vile and repulsive of rambling racist diatribes. Jean Louise, who has slipped into the “Colored balcony” to witness the event becomes infuriated and nauseous.

That evening Jean Louise grows up the hard way. She discovers that she embodies Atticus’ noble values better than he. Atticus “had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.” In the aftermath, she visits her beloved family servant Calpurnia, offering Atticus’ help in an upcoming manslaughter case against her son. Calpurnia is polite but cold toward the child for whom she was a surrogate mother. She thanks Jean Louise but indicates that she and her family will attempt to defend themselves. (“NAACP-paid lawyers are standing around like buzzards,” warns Atticus.) The African Americans of Maycomb are moving on, securing their lives without the help of their privileged, white, disappointing protectors.

“Did you hate us?” Jean Louise tearfully asks Calpurnia. After silence, “Finally Calpurnia shook her head.” Whether in assent are denial, we are not told.

Jean Louise has a bitter, angry confrontation with Atticus before she leaves Maycomb forever. Atticus attempts to defend himself, trotting out all of the conventional Southern white justifications in defense of segregation, dated but shockingly similar to the current rhetoric of right-wing politicians from Texas to North Carolina.

I’m sure that Go Set a Watchman will be read and dissected for decades. Harper Lee’s rendition of mid-1950s Southern racism, white privilege, class tensions, relationships between men and women, and ordinary, mundane evil is spot on. Any Southerner over fifty is sure to find Watchman to be a painful but revealing read as we walk again with Jean Louise that path made or refused by every Southerner I know.

In its own way, I believe that Watchman is a very Christian novel, maybe even Methodist. Though Jean Louise is the only character who notices the gap between Maycomb’s universally held Christian convictions and the racist “Christian civilization” they think they have built, that she even notices and rebels is a Methodist moral achievement in the rigidly enforced segregationist mindset that is the charming world of Maycomb, Alabama. Watchman is a story of redemption, of the Wesleyan New Birth as a painful opening of the eyes, of the move into adulthood as learning to tell the truth.

Atticus calls the vile Alabama governor merely “indiscreet,” and the failure to get a conviction of the murderers in “the Mississippi business,” a “blunder.” Atticus, like any person, we Christians believe, is not only a sometimes admirable personal of great integrity, he is also a sinner, a confusing mix of good and bad. Harper Lee is a great literary artist, and, in her own way, the best Methodism can produce, a firm believer in the biblical truth that the purpose of telling a story is to tell the truth. Only then shall we be free.

The text for unfortunate Mr. Stone’s Sunday sermon was from Isaiah 21: For thus the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. Stone had droned on about escaping the frustrations of modern life by coming to Family Night each Wednesday bearing a covered dish. In Go Set a Watchman prophetic Harper Lee takes Isaiah as her model. Even as the child Scout stared at her world, seeking the truth about things, so Jean Louise Finch stares at her world and dares to declare what she sees, thereby blessing the rest of us, if we dare.

5 thoughts on “Declaring What She Sees: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

  1. Thank you for this Will. Eloquently said by someone who knows the scene. It reminds me of my own pilgrimage of moving from my home in Oregon in 1969 to go to seminary at Emory in Atlanta. I was hoping to steal some soul from the South. I was tired of hearing race relations sermons in Oregon from preachers who had never met a black person in their lives. I wanted to go where people struggled with these issues in a live way every day, with all the ambiguity inherent in such a context. I have always appreciated and celebrated your witness to the Lord who tears down dividing walls of hostility in a real place, in real time, with real consequences.


  2. I was determined not to read this novel and have my image of Atticus challenged. After reading this take on the book, I am anxious to read it and see again through Scout’s eyes. I grew up in the South and had a similar experience when I realized a beloved relative was racist. I attended a church where unbeknownst to me black people were prohibited from church membership. Those shocks were hard to reconcile with the otherwise loving relative and church. My college aged daughter and I had planned to read the book together until I initially refused to see Atticus in this light. I think it will lead to a personal history review with my daughter now. Thank you for writing this reflection.


  3. As a child, my summers were spent in the red clay of South Georgia (a place my father escaped as soon as possible). I never understood the friction between my father and his family. Jean Louise gives an insight to how my father viewed his small town while I envisioned a south gone with the wind.

    Do you think Lee paints an accurate historical picture of small southern Citizens committees in Watchman?


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