Go Set a Watchman on sale at Books and Books in Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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Harper Lee's fraught return to Maycomb County casts a stark light on both the past and present

How do we talk about Go Set a Watchman? Does its existence diminish To Kill a Mockingbird? How does it stand in relation to that text?

We always knew that Scout would speak her mind. We just never expected she would say these words. “You’re a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant, Atticus,” she rails at him. “You’re a nice, sweet, old gentleman, and I’ll never believe a word you say to me again. I despise you and everything you stand for.”

Even if you have read every word printed about the contentious publication of Go Set a Watchman, it is still stunning to come across these exchanges in a novel that is either a long-lost novel by Harper Lee or a very early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, depending on whom you listen to. But no wonder Atticus Finch’s daughter is angry: she is just as shocked as we are. Scout – that scrappy tomboy in overalls who stands with her fellow youngsters Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield as an icon of American literature – is now Jean Louise, a sophisticated 26-year-old woman.

As Go Set a Watchman begins (its title is taken from the Book of Isaiah) Jean Louise is coming back to Maycomb County from her somewhat mysterious life in New York. At the station to meet her off the train is not Atticus, who is 72 and suffering badly from arthritis, but Hank Clinton, her father’s junior partner. Hank and Jean Louise have known each other since childhood, but now Hank is very much in love with her and wants to marry her. He calls her “honey” and a “child”, but she resists his unappealing blend of declared love and financial ­prudence (“I have now reached an economic status that can provide for the support of two”). And so begins Jean Louise’s challenging, unhappy return to Maycomb, the place that she, and so many readers, once happily called home.

I can’t recall when a book was so eagerly awaited as Go Set a Watchman. There were the Harry Potter Years, certainly, those midnight bookshop openings and eager kids dressed as wizards staying up all night. But we watched Harry Potter rise to classic status before our eyes (whether that status is deserved is another story altogether): Mockingbird has been firmly in the pantheon since it was first published in the summer of 1960. It is a book that is not only a staple of classroom teaching but also genuinely beloved. Oprah Winfrey, writing at the time of its 50th anniversary in 2010, called Mockingbird America’s “national novel”. The 1962 film adaptation won three Academy Awards; and an upright, stalwart Gregory Peck became enshrined in the collective imagination as the embodiment of Atticus Finch.

Yet part of the wider fascination with Mockingbird always lay in it being Lee’s only novel. Nelle Harper Lee, who will be 90 next year, is often lazily described as a “recluse”. What this seems to mean, in 21st-century parlance is “someone who doesn’t give interviews”. Like Neil Armstrong, another figure whose staggering fame was an early harbinger of the growth of celebrity culture, she wisely decided early on that she had little to gain by talking to the press. That didn’t stop the folks in Monroe­ville, Alabama – her native town, on which Maycomb is based – from capitalising on her success; head to Radley’s Fountain Grille on South Alabama Avenue and order up a plate of buffalo wings and “loaded cheese fries” in homage to Lee, why don’t you? To Kill a Mockingbird was a fascinating singularity; the novel was all the more adored because it stood alone.

But then, late in 2014, Go Set a ­Watchman was discovered among Lee’s papers. Or so we were told. The story of Watchman’s publication is a gripping tale in its own right. Tonja Carter, Harper Lee’s lawyer – who took over after Lee’s sister and gatekeeper Alice died, aged 103, in November 2014 – attests with certainty that she came across the manuscript in a safe-deposit box that year. But a rare books expert from Sotheby’s, Justin Caldwell, has said that he encountered the manuscript as early as 2011 when he went to Alabama with Lee’s literary agent in order to appraise her papers. And then, for a while, there was the mystery surrounding the decision to publish the manuscript, whenever it had been found. Why hadn’t it been published before? When publication was announced, in February this year, Lee – who had a stroke in 2007 and now resides at an assisted-living facility in her home town – was reported to have said, “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman.” But others were not so sure; so much so, that following “an unspecified complaint”, Alabama State’s human resources department was concerned that Lee might be the victim of elder abuse. The case was closed after officials spoke to Lee.

Harper Lee on the porch in Monroeville, Alabama. Photo: Donald Urhbock/The Life images collection / Getty

Publication was slated for the very same day that the New Horizons spacecraft would swing close to Pluto, that most distant object in our solar system, its journey of nine years and three billion miles a parallel wonder to the release of Watchman. But then came more mystery, more fuss, as embargoes on publication were broken and news leaked that Atticus was not the man we thought he was. Twenty years on from the time of Mockingbird, the lawyer who defended a black man, Tom Robinson, when he was unjustly accused of rape by a white woman, saying that the case was “something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience – Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man” has changed his tune. With the grown-up Jean Louise standing before him, he speaks plainly in the language of Jim Crow: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

So how do we talk about Go Set a Watchman? Does its existence diminish To Kill a Mockingbird? How does it stand in relation to that text?

In the first place it seems to me wiser to read Watchman as a very early draft of Mockingbird, rather than an independent work. It seems clear that Watchman was the text submitted by Lee to the publisher Lippincott in the 1950s; Tay Hohoff, a forceful editor there, worked closely with Lee on draft after draft, through argument after argument, to coax out To Kill a Mockingbird.

Watchman is written in the third person, Mockingbird in the first. Watchman is best described as picaresque, a loosely linked series of events with no clear narrative through-line; Mockingbird is driven forward by the trial of Tom Robinson. One of the pleasures of reading Watchman is to admire the genius of an editor who saw what was hiding inside this strange, discursive book. Robinson’s trial is mentioned in a paragraph or two here: the character is never named, and furthermore Atticus gets him acquitted. It’s a worthwhile exercise to compare the opening two paragraphs of Mockingbird with Watchman’s: the former make you want – need – to read on; the latter, quite simply, do not. Watchman comes alive when Jean Louise’s recollections of her childhood with Dill and Jem and Cal, those characters we know and love so well, intrude into the present-day plot. (Jem’s ­appearance in flashback in this book is positively ghostly because we learn, brusquely, in the opening pages, that he dropped dead of a heart attack two years before this tale begins.)

The story of Watchman, when it finally gets going towards the second half of the book, is of Jean Louise’s horrifying discovery that not only is Atticus reading pamphlets with titles such as The Black Plague, he is also on the board of directors of the local citizens’ council. Citizens’ councils were white supremacist groups in the Southern states largely organised after Brown v Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that decreed segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Now, when Atticus decides he will take on the case of a black man, it is simply to fend off the “buzzards”: the NAACP lawyers “who demand Negroes on the juries in such cases”.

How is it possible that the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird has turned into (or had his origins in) this terrible man – a man against whom Scout stands firm, at great cost to herself, and her sense of what home is? For all the flaws in this novel, however, Atticus’s transformation is wholly believable; and I wonder if Harper Lee thought, once again, to teach us a lesson. For the lawyer’s attitude in Mockingbird surely can be seen as conservative and paternalistic; and Maycomb society, in both books, is strictly hierarchical, even within its white community. For all that this novel was written before – was transformed into – Mockingbird, it is possible to see how Lee would go back in time to imagine her character’s ideals before those ideals had been taken too far by “Negroes” who disagreed with Atticus’s statement of what he sees as simple fact: “white is white and black’s black”.

Shocking? Perhaps not when, 150 years after the end of the American civil war, it is just this month that the Confederate battle flag has been removed from its place above South Carolina State House; it took the murders of nine men and women in a church to force its removal. Though the motivation for publishing this novel can be debated (it will certainly earn a windfall for all concerned), it is hard to regret its appearance. It casts a stark light not only on the past, but on the present, too. “Leave the slaves out of it for a while,” says Atticus’s brother, Jack, debating with Jean Louise. Harper Lee, in Go Set a Watchman, reminds us that we can’t.

The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night; if ye will inquire, inquire ye; return, come. 

Erica Wagner is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. She is working on a biography of Washington Roebling, the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge

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Now listen to Erica discussing Go Set a Watchman on SRSLY, the New Statesman's pop culture podcast:

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era