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Go Set a Watchman | Context


Origin of Go Set a Watchman

In 1957 an editor rejected Harper Lee's manuscript for a novel. The novel featured Jean Louise, a young woman struggling against the racism of her Southern hometown as well as the perceived moral failings in her family and friends she had grown to love and trust. However, the editor saw promise in the writing and encouraged Lee to re-envision parts of the story, telling it from the perspective of "Scout," a child version of Jean Louise. Although the revised manuscript became the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee published no other books, and some viewed her as a one-book author.

Lee's original, rejected manuscript lay hidden in a safe-deposit box. Then, in 2015, 55 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee's publisher announced that this previously written story featuring a 26-year old Jean Louise would debut as Go Set a Watchman. Lee's agent reported that Lee viewed Go Set a Watchman, a story set 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, not as its sequel but rather as its "parent."

Go Set a Watchman, like To Kill a Mockingbird, features characters and a setting drawn from Lee's experiences growing up in the small, post-Depression Southern town of Monroeville, Alabama.

In addition to Lee's own experiences, the author drew on classic literature and archetypes as she developed her story. The title Go Set a Watchman is taken from the Bible, Isaiah 21:6. In this verse, a prophet is given a vision of a watchman in a tower, posted as a lookout in a time of danger and vulnerability to attack from the enemy. The watchman's job is to gather intelligence and sound the alarm if necessary. In Lee's story, the watchman signifies the conscience, which serves as a moral lookout in the struggle against racism and injustice, as well as in the search for one's own identity.

Lee also draws heavily on English poet Robert Browning's poem, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came (1855), which is referenced several times in the story. Childe Roland's search is the classic hero's journey of separation, initiation, and return. In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise is living in New York, apart from her family. She returns to her hometown and finds herself in conflict, first with Aunt Alexandra, and later with Atticus and Hank. Like the narrator of Childe Roland, who feels like he's been lied to by a "hoary cripple," Jean Louise feels her father, now in his 70s and crippled by arthritis, has deceived her. His words and actions do not align with the image of him she holds in her mind. Like Childe Roland, she travels "a wasteland," feeling separated from her family and all that has been familiar to her. Jean Louise's effort to disentangle her conscience from that of her father allows her to "return" as an individual with her own moral compass, transformed in ways that position her to accomplish a greater good.

Relationship Between Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird

Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird have many similarities but also significant differences. The setting of both stories is Maycomb, Alabama, prior to the emergence of the powerful civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, with racial tensions and injustices playing central roles. Go Set a Watchman, written first, takes place in the mid-1950s, following World War II (1939–45), whereas To Kill a Mockingbird takes place 20 years earlier, in the 1930s just after the Great Depression (1929–39).

Go Set a Watchman, told in third person, includes numerous flashbacks to Jean Louise's childhood, during which she recalls experiences that shaped her beliefs about herself, others, and society. To Kill a Mockingbird explores and develops such experiences more fully, telling the story of a specific incidence of racial injustice through the voice of "Scout," as Jean Louise was affectionately known during her childhood.

Critics have noted more polish and consistency in the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird than in Go Set a Watchman, as would be expected in a later, more fully edited manuscript. Critics also point to inconsistencies in the narration of Go Set a Watchman, as the narrator on occasion surprises readers by taking them into the heads of characters other than Jean Louise.

Other than age, most characters in the two books are similar, with Jean Louise being the grown-up version of the boyish, smart, and opinionated Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. A notable and much-criticized exception is the character Atticus. To Kill a Mockingbird's younger Atticus is a model father of impeccable moral character who defends the defenseless and stands for justice regardless of race or social class. For his principled defense of a poor, black man, Atticus and the entire Finch family suffer much ostracism from the white community. In contrast, Go Set a Watchman's elderly Atticus is a flawed segregationist who believes justice and equality will come with time, provided the federal government minds its own business and lets the states handle their own affairs.

Both stories address the theme of racial prejudice; however, Go Set a Watchman explores the theme in ways that are less straightforward than in To Kill a Mockingbird, providing a story some critics consider richer and more reflective of the realities of the South in an era before the development of a powerful civil rights movement. For example, Go Set a Watchman's Calpurnia, the black mother-like cook of To Kill a Mockingbird, hesitates before responding to the grown-up Jean Louise's question, "Did you hate us?" This hesitation suggests the reality of underlying resentment and the impact of growing racial tensions, even by black workers considered "one of the family" by their white employers.

Political and Social Ideologies of the Era

In the late 1800s, despite Constitutional amendments that ended slavery and gave legal rights to blacks, many Americans, especially those living in the South, viewed African Americans as inferior to whites. Seven of eight Supreme Court justices supported such a view in 1896 when the court issued its opinion in the Plessy v. Ferguson case: the court declared, "If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane." In addition, the "Jim Crow" laws enforced segregation of African Americans and whites in public places. The laws, in effect throughout the South, were not completely abolished until 1975.

In the mid-1950s, the same era during which Lee was preparing her initial manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, the Supreme Court was again considering the segregation issue. In a historic 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, Justice Thurgood Marshall, wrote that the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Implementation of this decision would require more hearings over a period of five years. Meanwhile, tensions grew, particularly in the South, and the early signs of a developing civil rights movement appeared.

Longstanding views of race proved slow to change. Nationwide school integration would not become a reality until the early 1970s. Although civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for peaceful resistance, violence erupted in several urban centers in the mid- to late 1960s with increasing frequency as inequalities persisted.

Many Southerners believed that change would and should come, but they wanted it to come gradually and without interference from the federal government. Many believed that reason would triumph and good would prevail if states' rights were privileged and the federal government's powers were limited.

Economic changes accompanied the social changes occurring in the South during the 1950s. World War II veterans, many of whom were African American, came home to an era of increased prosperity and opportunity. The military, racially segregated at the beginning of the war, was becoming more integrated by the war's end.

Today the beliefs and language found in Go Set a Watchman may be somewhat jarring. Negro, a term considered offensive today, was acceptable in the 1950s when Lee was writing the novel. Likewise, to be "color-blind," as Jean Louise claimed to be, was admirable, whereas today the term seems simplistic, reflecting a lack of respect for cultural differences and an unrealistic denial of the lingering racism in American society.

Despite varying critical opinions on the literary quality of Go Set a Watchman, the work provides a relatively unedited glimpse into the mind of a socially sensitive individual who wrote from her lived experiences growing up in a segregated South.
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