Go Set a Watchman

by Harper Lee, 1950s/ 2015

I enjoyed this book so much that I saved the last dozen pages for a couple of days rather than finishing it.  I finally read to the end on Friday evening, 19 February 2016.  I thought about the book for a while, marvelling at the skilfulness of Harper Lee in producing such a fine novel.  Then I checked the news and found that Harper Lee had just died.  She waited for me? I waited for her?  I feel great admiration for this American lady; she has left us one of the most important novels of modern times.

I had intended not to read this book because I felt there was something admirable in an author – Harper Lee in this case – giving us just one special novel and that this might be devalued by another that might not be as good.  But one of my daughters gave me a copy for Christmas and, boy, am I glad she did.

Critics I have read have not been kind about Go Set a Watchman.  I have to wonder if they understood it at all.  It is a sublime handling of one of societies biggest issues and beautifully constructed.

Like many readers, I enjoyed To Kill a Mocking Bird and agree with those who say it is one of the great novels of the twentieth century.  Go Set a Watchman is as well written, or better, than To Kill a Mocking Bird and it deals its central issue, racism, both more directly and more subtly.  It exposes the intolerance of the politically correct who refuse to see shades of opinion or to recognise any integrity not conforming to their own ideas.

I wonder if Go Set a Watchman, which we understand was written prior to To Kill a Mocking Bird, was not published because it was too honest in 1955 when Rosa Parks had just refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama and energised the human rights movement in America.  In a sense the book is more challenging and even more relevant today: we are making progress on human rights and still have some way to go but we have savage, politically correct vigilantly mobs who are threatening the free speech that has enabled the progress that has been achieved.

There are differences in people: racial, of gender, sexual persuasion, religious, intellectual.  We now understand that some differences are due to experience rather than to intellectual capacity: to nurture, not nature.

Atticus Finch is a decent, pragmatic man playing his part to improve society.  He is not a racist, as some commentators has exclaimed!  He defends the rights of men regardless of their ethnicity but he seeks to work from within society where he can have some effect rather than to throw bricks at the wall.

Jean Louise Finch is a decent but still immature dewy-eyed liberal who mistakes her father’s pragmatism for moral weakness.  She gives a spirited argument as to why all men should have justice and opportunity but has no suggestion of how this might be achieved.  For a while, she is unable to accept a measured, tolerant approach to social progress.

Be prepared to be offended and defend free speech: it’s how we will eventually make the adjustments needed to build an equal society.

Go Set a Watchman is a beacon of good sense that reminds us that evolution takes time, diversity is to be treasured and privilege brings with it responsibility.