Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee – a Reader’s Guide

Nelle Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee at her parents’ home in Monroeville, Alabama in 1961

What modern classic makes #4 on the banned book list?

It’s on 8th grade reading lists around the country. The author’s ‘new’ novel was released this summer and stirred up a controversy, maybe because Harper Collins made historic sales of more than 1.1 million copies in the first week.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is #4 on the Banned and Challenged Classics List ( see list) with the most recent objection in 2009 for language including racial slurs. (ALA List of challenges below). Since its publication in 1960, the book has been challenged by schools and parents and the NAACP, for profanity, sexual content, racial themes and epithets.

Yet To Kill a Mockingbird is often considered the best novel of the 20th century. Why? The humor, the characters, the plot, the theme, the first person narrative of Scout Finch, just one of literature’s memorable personalities from this novel. Who hasn’t heard of Boo Radley? Or Atticus Finch?

Readers believe in them, they seem three dimensional and they have to deal with some ugly stuff in the Deep South of the 1930s: a trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman.

So the world’s been waiting for Lee’s second novel for decades, almost given up on that possibility because of her reclusive nature. Was Mockingbird a one hit wonder? The answer to that is yes, and no.

The Controversy

Published this year, 55 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is not really new because Lee wrote it before To Kill A Mockingbird. However, since its discovery, the subsequent release was marketed as new. So the manuscript is old, but the novel is new to readers. Lee wrote it before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird!

The inside jacket flap of Go Set a Watchman has this inscription.

From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Misleading? It’s the literary event of the century about the novel of the last century. Scout is twenty years older and returns to Maycomb, Alabama, a fictional version of Lee’s hometown of Monroeville. Scout goes by her Christian name Jean Louise and things have changed.

Recommendations for the Reader (and for Book Club)

If you haven’t read Mockingbird since 8th grade, read it again. You will laugh out loud at Scout’s voice and Maycomb. You may even cry. It’s touching and authentic. Then read Go Set a Watchman. Scout is a child in Mockingbird and an adult in Watchman, a book which needs, demands, foreknowledge of setting, characters, and plot. Chronologically it’s the correct order and you will experience Lee’s exceptional writing as the world did with Mockingbird first.

Skip the reviews and the hullabaloo and decide for yourself. Consider both books, because you will need the context. Here’s a simple guide for analysis and review.

  1. Plot summary Mockingbird – review, Q&A (Check out LitLovers or Schmoop)
  2. Author Bio & Controversy to publish or not to publish Watchman (Read notable reviews)
  3. Plot summary Watchman – review, Q&A
  4. Who is the Watchman? What is the plot and climax?
  5. Does the new cast in Watchman work? With Uncle Jack & Aunt Alexandra, but no Jem, no Dill, no Boo Radley
  6. Are you glad you read Go Set a Watchman? Why or why not? What did you learn?

 

Harper Lee Watchman

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, published 2015

 

Why We Need Go Set a Watchman

I read the books in September, Mockingbird for the third time. Avoiding reviews, press coverage and feedback was nearly impossible. And I almost made it.

*******    SPOILER ALERT    *******

At the Verizon store earlier last month, a slim spectacled senior nodded when he saw the book in my hand. He said it was heartbreaking. My eyes went wide and he took that as interest to hear more. He continued, “Atticus. He’s changed. It’s sad.” He shook his head. I asked if he read it, which he did NOT, but he read the reviews.

So much for making up my own mind. With this well-meaning declaration clouding my view, I finished the novel, intent on giving it a fair, unbiased shake. Now, I’ll give you my take too.

Yes, Atticus falls from grace in Watchman and this revelation is a pivotal part of Lee’s storyline. He is not the ideal figure and saintly lawyer the world came to know in Mockingbird. I will let readers discover why. But the storyline here is titular and when Scout struggles to reconcile her father’s flaws, her Uncle recalls the bible passage the minister shared, 21st chapter of Isaiah, verse 6.

For thus hath the Lord said unto me,

Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

If you know your scripture, then you might know the reference. I had to check to find out what the watchman saw. “Babylon has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the ground.”

Uncle Jack explains the shock and frustration about Atticus, that Scout has become her own person and that “every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as collective conscious.” (Chapter 18, p. 265)

What child does not see her father as a god of sorts, all knowing, good, loving, moral, and just? When and why does that change? There’s the watchman waiting, looking, seeing. Babylon falls. Atticus falls; he is flawed and so are we, society, even 55 years later.

Here’s what else I learned from Watchman. Flashes of Lee’s genius light up the pages and provide the rich foundation and setting for what became her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Her father said it took five years to learn law after one left law school: one practiced economy for two years, learned Albama Pleading for two more, reread the Bible and Shakespeare for the fifth. Then one was fully equipped to hold on under any conditions. (Go Set a Watchman, Chapter 2, p. 34)

[Jem, Dill, and Scout] listened to messages of the Reverend James Edward Moorehead, a renowned speaker from north Georgia. At least that is what they were told; they understood little of what he said except his observations on hell. Hell was and would always be as far as she was concerned, a lake of fire exactly the size of Maycomb, Alabama, surrounded by a brick wall two hundred feet high. Sinners were pitchforked over this wall by Satan, and they simmered throughout eternity in a sort of broth of liquid sulfur. (Go Set a Watchman, Chapter 5, p. 61)

Go Set a Watchman will not be the novel of this century, but it was nice to return to Maycomb with Scout as an adult, to see the town more clearly. The change in Atticus didn’t surprise me, because Mockingbird was written through the eyes of a child.

Atticus is prone to err; he is human. And Harper Lee, the stand-out writer of the 20th century, the creator of a powerful iconic masterpiece in literature, after reading this first novel, we see how Lee grew as a writer as well, and that she too is human.

** ALA Banned & Challenged Book Listing

Notes on challenges, bans, censorship

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

  • Challenged in Eden Valley, MN (1977) and temporarily banned due to words “damn” and “whore lady” used in the novel.
  • Challenged in the Vernon Verona Sherill, NY School District (1980)  as a “filthy, trashy novel.”
  • Challenged at the Warren, IN Township schools (1981) because  the book does “psychological damage to the positive integration process” and “represents  institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature.” After unsuccessfully trying to ban Lee’s novel, three black parents resigned from the township human relations advisory  council.
  • Challenged in the Waukegan, IL School District (1984) because the novel uses the  word “nigger.”
  • Challenged in the Kansas City, MO junior high schools (1985). Challenged at  the Park Hill, MO Junior High School (1985) because the novel “contains profanity and  racial slurs.” Retained on a supplemental eighth grade reading list in the Casa Grande, AZ  Elementary School District (1985), despite the protests by black parents and the National  Association for the Advancement of Colored People who charged the book was unfit for junior high use.
  • Challenged at the Santa Cruz, CA Schools (1995) because of its racial themes.  Removed from the Southwood High School Library in Caddo Parish, LA (1995) because the book’s language and content were objectionable.
  • Challenged at the Moss Point, MS School District (1996) because the novel contains a racial epithet. Banned from the Lindale, TX advanced placement English reading list (1996) because the book “conflicted with the values of the community.”
  • Challenged by a Glynn County, GA (2001) School Board member because of profanity. The novel was retained. Returned to the freshman reading list at Muskogee, OK High School (2001) despite complaints over the years from black students and parents about racial slurs in the text.
  • Challenged in the Normal, IL Community High School’s sophomore literature class (2003) as being degrading to African Americans.
  • Challenged at the Stanford Middle School in Durham, NC (2004) because the 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel uses the word “nigger.”
  • Challenged at the Brentwood, TN Middle School (2006) because the book contains “profanity” and “contains adult themes such as sexual intercourse, rape, and incest.”  The complainants also contend that the book’s use of racial slurs promotes “racial hatred, racial division, racial separation, and promotes white supremacy.”
  • Retained in the English curriculum by the Cherry Hill, NJ Board of Education (2007).  A resident had objected to the novel’s depiction of how blacks are treated by members of a racist white community in an Alabama town during the Depression.  The resident feared the book would upset black children reading it.
  • Removed (2009) from the St. Edmund Campion Secondary School classrooms in Brampton Ontario, Canada because a parent objected to language used in the novel, including the word “nigger.”

(Source American Library Association)

About mylinhshattan

MyLinh B. Shattan is a writer who has worked in the private sector, taught at college, and served in the U.S. Army. She holds a B.S. in Mathematics from West Point, an M.B.A. from Florida Southern College, and an M.F.A. in Writing from Queens University.