Review of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

By Maggie Ferguson

For Christmas, 1956, Harper Lee’s closest friends in New York, a young couple, gift her with a fully-funded fellowship year (so jealous). She works on Go Set a Watchman, a novel that takes her back to the American South and to Maycomb, her fictional small-town microcosm of the South. As her main character, Jean Louise, compares the South in the 1950’s to the 1930’s South she was raised in, Jean Louise grows increasingly panicked at the pervasive racial prejudices amongst whites.

In Go Set a Watchman, the white populace of Maycomb, quintessential Southern town of the 1950’s, fears being overrun by N.A.A.C.P, by their black neighbors, and by the Federal Government. They feel they’re about to be attacked, and their preacher quotes Isaiah, 21:6, to warn them of an incoming assault:

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

Listening in church, Jean Louise re-appropriates the same language to cry out for a watchman to guide her through the justice and injustice plaguing the South. Jean Louise uses the same language for alarm to a different purpose. Her sense of right and wrong is in peril.

As Jean Louise wakes to how deeply-entrenched the social stratification rooted along racial lines is in Maycomb, her conscience marks the unfair and unjust, and she struggles with her repulsion. To the trained eye, the draft of Go Set a Watchman needs a rewrite. The novel feels cobbled together, and without any explanation, references old incidents as if assuming the reader already knows the backstory. The knowledge chiseled out in this novel, the same skeleton of characters and location, will informed Harper Lee’s draft of her next novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Go Set a Watchman, To Kill a Mockingbird traces Jean Louise’s loss of innocence, only twenty years earlier—in the 1930’s. The novel showcases the trial of a wrongly-accused black man Tom Robinson and the system that unfairly convicts him. Jean Louise watches her father Atticus defend Tom, evaluates evidence of Tom’s innocence, and still sees Tom convicted.

Both Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird share the same concern over an individual’s conscience. Conscience is touted as independently determined by the individual rather than ruled by the majority. To Kill a Mockingbird’s climactic trial is designed to make the reader see injustice prevailing in the Southern climate. The novel puts a lot of faith in a reader’s ability to see what is right. The reader is trusted to think with Jean Louise, independently, and recognize racism. Since its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird has entered school curriculum to instruct young minds on how to recognize injustice.

Go Set a Watchman didn’t even make it to publication before the press reported Jean Louise’s father, Atticus, is a pro-segregationist. In fact, Jean Louise seems like the only white character in Go Set a Watchman who is a desegregationist. If Go Set a Watchman can be said to have a narrative arc, it is that of Jean Louise fully engaging her sense of right and wrong, her conscience, against the prevailing attitude supporting segregation. Her uncle Jack defines conscience as:

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.”

Go Set a Watchman is a mess of scenes, but it does succeed in championing a well-developed conscience as a weapon against injustice.

The narrative that the human brain is capable of being the watchman Jean Louise craves has been around since the inception of anti-slavery in the United States. Writing in 1852, Ralph Waldo Emerson came to a similar conclusion: he must speak to his peers about the entrenched injustices they weren’t seeing:

“I have quite other slaves to free than those negroes, to wit, imprisoned spirits, imprisoned thoughts, far back in the brain of man,–far retired in the heaven of invention, and which, important to the republic of Man, have no watchman, or lover, or defender, but I.”

Emerson publically addressed anti-slavery by preaching the importance of self-reliance, of individualism, and of a man’s own conscience. He called upon men to make morally-right decisions, to think for themselves and not only of themselves.

Go Set a Watchman’s strength, like Emerson’s, lies in challenging others to have a conscience. This July, revisiting Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the Economist reports:

“Fifty years later . . . [if black America] were a separate country, it would have a worse life expectancy than Mexico, a worse homicide rate than Ivory Coast and a higher proportion of its citizens behind bars than anywhere on earth.”

“The wealth gap is much larger: the median white family in 2013 had net assets of $142,000; the median black family had a paltry $11,000.” (Source: The Economist, The fire and the fuel)

The language of Go Set a Watchman around race issues may be outdated, but as a challenge to recognize racial social stratification and desegregate, it stays relevant.


Maggie Ferguson lives and writes in Colorado where she is a long-time Lighthouse Writers Workshop member. Her fiction has appeared in Stone Crown’s Magazine and elsewhere. She’ll be attending Emerson College’s MFA program in the fall.