Archived Reading Room

Harper Lee’s ‘Watchman’ hits the mark

bookSo, Scout (Jean Louise) comes back home to Maycomb — where “everyone is either kin or almost kin”— at age 26 and after being “away” and living in New York City for several years. Sixteen years have gone by since we last heard from her in the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, and the Maycomb she comes home to isn’t the same Maycomb we know from the 1960 novel.

Even so, Harper Lee’s “new” novel takes you back with whole chapters of flashbacks to those days in the 1950s when Scout was known as “Scout” and not Jean Louise. It is no wonder to this reader that Go Set a Watchman was supposedly actually written before Mockingbird, as the flashback sections are so reminiscent of Lee’s legendary book. While there is still some controversy as to when Watchman was actually written and/or edited and rewritten, it reads like the natural sequel to Lee’s Mockingbird in almost every way, as there are sections that could have easily been present in Mockingbird — chapters from Scout’s childhood memories as vivid as anything in Mockingbird.

In this “pre-sequel,” what we have is an historo-sophical study of racism in the early NAACP days of the Alabama South. Much of this comes from Jean Louise’s uncle Jack in very interesting monologues citing the comparative history of 1800s England to that of the pre-Civil War South. 

“The South was a little England in its heritage and social structure,” Uncle Jack tells Jean Louise. “It was a nation with its own people, existing within a nation,” he goes on to qualify. And from here to the end of the book we get some great conversation on the subject between the two and between Jean Louise and Atticus, who in Jean Louise’s eyes has become something of a bigot — even a racist — during the time that Jean Louise has been away.

And the plot thickens as the book, by chapter 17, becomes a philosophical debate between Jean Louis and her father Atticus — and something of a podium for Harper Lee to question the caprice of her father’s hypocritical behavior and the greater issues of the vagaries of racism and equal rights. 

And here the dialogue is Alabama classic! Something right out of the 50s and early 60s. We get a real tactile sense of the time and place in a pre-integration and pre-equal rights South. And we also get a sense of Lee’s genius as a young fiction writer and storyteller. A very mature prose. Meticulous and skillful editing. 

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So, what is the meaning of the book’s title? And what is a “watchman?” While it is originally a railroad reference to someone who keeps track of train schedules and puts out flags and lanterns to stop trains at the stations, in Go Set a Watchman Harper Lee internalizes this term to reflect human consciousness and integrity. As Uncle Jack says to Jean Louise on page 265, “Every man’s watchman is his conscience.” In this sense, Jack’s message to the grown-up Scout is that life is a lesson in humility and that in the end life is really a question of balance. Nowhere is this more eloquently stated than in Uncle Jack’s soliloquy where he preaches:

“I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.”

While Jean Louise is ensconced in a private war with her father, who she feels has betrayed her and his own personality, it is the Maycomb County Council — an all-white pro-agrarian assembly — that is the villain in this story. There’s no Boo Radley and no lynch mob, and not much action in Watchman, but what there is is lots of mental acuity and acumen — which I feel bodes well for the perpetualization of the deserved legendary reputation of Harper Lee. I’ve been to Monroeville, Alabama and I’ve spent time there talking to people who know Harper Lee and who call that place home. And I was among the sceptics — a “doubting Thomas if you will — with all the media preamble to the release of this book. But after reading Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee has made a believer out of me. And, yes, by God, she’s done it again. Another classic?

Thomas Crowe is the author of the award-winning memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods and the novel The Watcher: Like Sweet Bells Jangled. He writes reviews and editorials for this paper and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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