Inside Out

“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, 

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

It’s the book release of the decade, perhaps even the century. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is finally here, despite endless controversy, speculation, and hesitation.

Watchman is Lee’s first go at her magnum opus. After the first draft was presented to her publisher, it was suggested she redraft; and thus, the To Kill a Mockingbird we all know and love was born. Watchman was sent to publication after its discovery just last year amid ample criticism–how could Lee, who is no longer of sound mind after suffering from a stroke and old age, properly consent? There was also strong hesitancy–how could any book live up to expectations when its predecessor is ranked just under the Bible on the list of Most Influential American Books? None of this must have mattered enough, because Go Set a Watchman is finally here.

Forgive me, for I want to be able to review Watchman as a completely independent entity, because that’s the fairness that each book deserves when questions of its value are at stake; but it’s nearly impossible when it lies in such a monumentally large shadow.

Nearly twenty years later, Jean Louise is back in Macomb on her annual vacation from life in the Big Apple. This highly stoic town remains untouched even years later; its cast of characters has rotated slightly, but each individual presence remains. Atticus is growing old and suffering from arthritis. Aunt Alexandra remains her typical self, still consumed by heritage and southern way of life, caring for her brother in his old age. Uncle Jack, a minor character in Mockingbird, is here to stay for good in Watchman. He assumes a role that was formerly Atticus’: Scout’s moral compass. Jem–bless his failing heart–suffered from a heart attack and has unfortunately passed away in the exact fashion as his mother. Dill, much to my own disappointment, is living in Europe after fighting in the War. Henry Clinton is the new man in town who has stolen Scout’s heart and vehemently pursues her hand in marriage.  Macomb is still Macomb. Jean Louise is sill Jean Louise. They always have, and as Lee has shown us, they always will.

Where Mockingbird was a story, Watchman is a lesson. The first chronicles an adventure through the tales of the “ordinary” life of a pure and naive adolescent, whereas the second offers its themes in a much more literal sense–Uncle Jack as well as Atticus present them nearly word for word. For this reason I believe Watchman to be more harsh, more unpolished, and therefore more realistic; because the lessons of life do not unfold for us in elaborate tales and stories. They are handed down harshly in some of the worst times and must be taken as they come. Despite this higher level of realism countless others, including myself, will continue to favor Mockingbird over Watchman for its gentler ways, deeper emotional stakes, and its lightheartedness while discussing topics that are anything but lighthearted.

Those who read Mockingbird prior to reading Watchman are in for a shock when they see Atticus, a former pillar of justice and morality, as the one thing even Scout could never: a man. Life–no pun intended–is not black and white, and sometimes, as in the case of Atticus and countless southerners during the Civil Rights movement, men must do things that go against their nature for a multitude of reasons. It does not make them bad people; it makes them people.

This humanization of privileged men, this shift in focus, is what makes Go Set a Watchman a worthy entity of its own.

In TKAM, Lee was able to draw sympathy from readers to characters like Calpernia and Tom Robinson, and even Atticus for taking on a case that no one would dare touch, because they were outsiders. Macomb shut its doors on them, and for that reason Lee commanded they receive readers utmost respect. This, of course, is easy. It is in our nature to sympathize with these people. We are drawn to outsiders, to underdogs, because they know no better. It simply makes sense to give sympathy to those who cannot help the position they are in.

Focus is shifted away from the outsiders of Macomb in Watchman as Lee tries to build sympathy for a group of people that we’ve been taught from day one never to sympathize with: the privileged. The insiders. O’Hanlon and members of the Citizens’ Council who preach the utmost monstrosities become humanized through Atticus’s explanation: each man has a different reason for doing as he does, and this variation in reasoning is why we must judge wrongdoings fairly. Even Atticus, former pillar of perfection, is humanized to Scout when he violates the code of morality she holds for him that would be strict even for a Saint. As hard as it may be for us to accept, southern men did what they did simply because it was what they felt they had to do–and those feelings came from an infinite  number of origins. Was it necessarily right? No. But despite the way it goes so strongly against the current of human nature, Lee tries to build sympathy for the insiders in Watchman in the same way she tried to build it for the outsiders in Mockingbird. 

To Kill a Mockingbird is about a lot of things, but I believe it most importantly to be about the nature of humans. Watchman is the perfect companion–notice how I say companion, as I’m certain it would never be able to stand alone without its predecessor. Human nature will always have its flaws, and Harper Lee created two universally applicable pieces of literature that present problems from both the inside, and the out.

It is so much easier to love TKAM over GSAW because we have always been taught to give compassion to the outsiders. It’s natural, relatable. When something as unnatural as Watchman comes along and asks us to observe human nature as it stands, uninterrupted, and sympathize with the bigots that life has always taught us to cast aside, something in us resists. It is this resistance that makes the novel’s themes successful. Sympathy is universal. Men are not gods; they are men. Black and white will always exist, but both sides must be understood entirely before objective judgment can be placed. The realism of this in Watchman is overwhelming, and it’s for this reason that we must try to love it just as much as Mockingbird. 

Books such as these can never fail to be of use, and despite the controversy I’m extremely glad Go Set a Watchman was sent to publication. Whether you fall on the inside or the out, the importance of Harper Lee’s words will resonate with you, just as they will continue to resonate with millions for years to come.

2 thoughts on “Inside Out

  1. Pingback: Rearview Mirror: July 2015 | The Aroma of Books

  2. Beautiful review! I haven’t yet picked up Go Set a Watchman because I was terrified of being disappointed. I think I’m ready now to be able to appreciate it as worthy in its own right despite its differences to TKAM.


    Liked by 1 person

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