Go Set a Watchman on sale at Books and Books in Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

***

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

Show Hide image

In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump