On Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”: An Essay

Harper Lee

Harper Lee

Essay by Glynn Custred

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There are several ways a novel can become a bestseller. At one end of the scale are the author’s name recognition and heavy investment in an aggressive marketing campaign. At the other end is the widespread appeal of what the story has to say and how well it is said, expressing in perhaps a new, more relevant way some old recurrent theme, or bringing to life in fictional form issues of contemporary interest and concern. The latter explains the success of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and the former the financial success of her newly released novel Go Set a Watchman.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Jean Louise Finch’s childhood in the 1930s in the small fictional Alabama town of Maycomb, and of her father, Atticus Finch, a virtuous and respected lawyer from whom she acquired her sense of justice and understanding of courage. Two incidents in the novel depict Atticus’s physical courage. One is his defense of the neighborhood when he confronts, with a rifle, a rabid dog in the street. The other is when, alone and unarmed, he guards his client in jail against a potential lynch mob. But what was seen as his noblest act is pure moral courage: defending an innocent black man accused of raping a white girl at a time and place when an honest defense in such cases could be socially disadvantageous, even dangerous.

The novel was greeted at the time with international acclaim, quickly becoming a lucrative bestseller, and eventually translated into forty languages. Two years later it was made into a film which was also financially successful, earning ten times the cost of production. The novel, however, proved more than just a bestseller, and its film version more than just a box office success, for a year after its publication Lee won the Pulitzer Prize and subsequently numerous other literary awards. And the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, one for best picture, winning three. In 2003 the American Film Institute designated To Kill a Mockingbird the best film of the twentieth century, and in another rating the Institute placed it twenty fifth on its list of the all-time greatest films.

To Kill a Mockingbird has become a monument in American literature, hailed as a classic, praised as a masterwork and deemed one of the best books ever. This acclaim comes not just from the story and the way it is told but because the novel resonates as a modern morality tale expressed in striking prose about prevailing moral attitudes; the narrator both affirms values and serves as a didactic guide. Atticus is a hero in the epic tradition, recalling the noble knight of medieval romances, a man of virtue as defined by the modern liberal age: fair in his judgments, never angry, deeply dedicated to truth and justice despite the consequences they might bring, and accepting of others and their ways.

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Such a figure fits neatly into the iconography of the Civil Rights Movement. This is one reason for the high regard in which the novel is held and explains the Presidential Medal of Freedom and other honors awarded to the author. The book’s didactic value also accounts for the fact that it is today the most widely read novel in American schools from grades nine to twelve. After such spectacular success, however, Harper Lee wrote nothing more.

That’s why in the summer of 2015 the announcement of the publication of a new novel by the revered author aroused so much interest. The book sold two million advance copies and accounted for Amazon’s largest pre-publication orders since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007. Marketing was also quite evident in the promotion of the new release as evidenced by its international campaign. A German translation, for example, appeared at the same time as the English original. Also at the same time the novel was being reviewed in American and British newspapers, it was reviewed in all of the major German papers. And when the novel arrived in bookstores in Germany it was prominently displayed, as it was in American stores, alongside To Kill a Mockingbird in order to not only sell the new book but also revive sales of its predecessor.

The material for both of Lee’s stories was the South from the early to just beyond mid- twentieth century, a reality which provided the material not only for her work but also for a number of works of Southern fiction. This variety of American literature is characterized by attention to time and place, with a sometimes brooding sense of history and often Gothic overtones; by family ties and the importance of community and the individual’s place within it; and by a sense of honor, sometimes interpreted in strange ways, as well as a commitment to distinct social classes within the white community and a sharp caste line between the races. Other characteristics include the use of Southern dialect and, sometimes, references to local cuisine, architecture, landscapes, and manners, as well an emphasis on religion, well-known hymns, and the influence of the King James Bible, which has been so much a part of Southern life, thought, and language. All of these themes appear in both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

For example, there are references in both books to church and church activities and biblical allusions and references in the dialogue to drive home some point. Also, the title of Go Set a Watchman from Isaiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, go set a watchman, and let him declare what he seeth.” This passage is quoted in the novel by Rev. Stone in church one Sunday. Later Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack – a physician and Atticus’s brother – says that “everyman’s watchman is his conscience.” This is an apt title for a novel that deals with the matter of conscience in the clash of perspectives on race, tradition, and society.

The perennial Southern theme, that of place, appears throughout Go Set a Watchman but is most clearly expressed in the opening pages, when the narrator describes Jean Louise’s trip from New York by train to Maycomb for a visit home.

Since Atlanta, she looked out the dinning-car window with a delight almost physical… she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards inevitably grew verbena surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.

She expresses affection for her hometown but says later that she couldn’t live there again, an introduction to the conflict on which the story is centered. She also explains the history of the town and the county of Maycomb, beginning with the Creek Indian Wars.

An element in To Kill a Mockingbird which clearly depicts a particular Southern reality is the relationship between Jean Louise and her brother, Jem, and Calpurnia the black housekeeper who, in the absence of their deceased mother, helped raise them: it’s a personal relationship and a bond that crossed caste lines and was common in the South at different times and places. One Sunday when Atticus was in Montgomery for his service in the Legislature, the children asked Calpurnia if they could go with her to her church. She scrubbed them and dressed them as she had never done before. When they asked why she was going to so much trouble she said it was because she didn’t want anyone in her community to think she doesn’t take care of her children.

Social class also plays a role in both versions of Lee’s Maycomb County, where the lowest class is sometimes referred to as “white trash,” a group looked down on by both blacks and middle and upper class whites. In Go Set a Watchman, Henry Clinton is, in a way, of victim of class consciousness: he’s a man about Jean Louise’s age and a potential candidate for her to marry; he’s an attorney and a protégé of her father who has worked his way up from low status but, to some in the community, still bears the stigma of his origins. In To Kill a Mockingbird lower class whites are the villains: a girl caught by her father trying to sexually entice an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, whom Atticus defends, and her brutish, abusive father, who brings the false charge of rape against Robinson and eventually attempts to exact revenge on Atticus through his children.

The buzz about Go Set a Watchman did not come from its nature as a work of Southern literature, but from the fame of its predecessor. Since the action of the new release takes place 20 years after that of To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel appeared, at first, to be a sequel. Critics quickly corrected this misconception. Go Set a Watchman was actually the first version of a two-year project by the author and her editor, Tay Hofhoff. After several long and thoughtful revisions, this project became a finished product. It has been suggested that the original biblical title was dropped for one that might have more appeal in the North, where the book market thrives. And perhaps this was the reason the final version differed enough from the original to warrant the division into a separate novel.

There was, and remains, a shadow of suspicion over the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Why, it was asked, after over half a century of ignoring the original manuscript – the version from which To Kill a Mockingbird derived – did the now 89 year old author, confined to a nursing home, suddenly release this other text for publication? What other reason, said some, than to make money by publishing a previously rejected manuscript unworthy of publication.

There are indeed some rough spots in the latest novel that could have been smoothed out. But this falls far short of explaining the reaction on the part of some critics when they read the story and found it presented a different version of Atticus than the one made famous in the earlier publication. Some said that the originally rejected manuscript should never have been published, apparently more for its violation of the image of its central hero than anything else. For example, Heller McAlpin wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Mockingbird beguiles, dazzles, and moves to tears as it conveys core values of empathy and human decency. Watchman horrifies with its ugly racism, even as it emotes and moralizes didactically, chunky and shrilly.” One independent book seller in Michigan, Brilliant Books, made international headlines by apologizing for selling the book under misleading circumstances and offering full refunds for those who had purchased it.

To better understand that reaction and to better understand the point the author was trying to make, it is useful to briefly review the time in which the story unfolds and the conflicts and struggle which the author depicts. Go Set a Watchman takes place in the 1950s. As Steven and Abigail Thernstrom point out (in America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible: Race in Modern America), before the 1950s racial tension was largely a Southern problem, for there were relatively few blacks scattered throughout the rest of the country. For example, the census of 1910 showed that 89% of the black population of the United States lived in the South, three points lower than reported in the pre-Civil War 1860 census. This remarkable demographic immobility, they say, was in large part because, despite the disadvantageous social conditions in the South, the black population filled an economic niche there which did not exist for them in the North. After all, massive European immigration supplied the population needed to tend the farms in the Midwest and to supply workers in both the Midwest and the urban centers of the North.

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These conditions began to change with the First World War, when the flow of immigration from Europe was greatly reduced, and even more so during the Second World War, when blacks were needed not only for military duty (in a segregated army) but also to work in the factories of the industrialized parts of the country. Those two events led to what has been called the Great Migration in which a half million Southern blacks went North by 1920, joined by another three quarters of a million during the decade of the 1920s. Another 398,000 migrated north in the 1930s, and from 1940 to 1960 3,348,000 settled not only in the cities of the Midwest, Northeast and the Middle Atlantic States, but also in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and Portland.

The process of black migration differed from that of the transatlantic wave of newcomers, for blacks’ access to higher paying jobs was blocked less by employer discrimination than by the resistance of labor unions to the competition of cheaper labor. There was also a “color line” or racial glass ceiling for blacks who could have advanced to higher paying positions. This economic barrier was a factor in restricting their ability to obtain housing. Another factor in Northern housing discrimination was quite simply Northern white racial attitudes.

In that regard the Thernstroms cite the national opinion poll of racial attitudes commissioned in 1939 by Fortune Magazine, the first such poll in the country. Asked whether blacks “should be allowed to live wherever they want to live, and should there be no laws or social pressure to keep them from it” (“not a radical notion,” as the Thernstroms observe) only 19% of the residents of New England and the Middle Atlantic states endorsed it, and in the Middle West, whose urban centers such as Chicago and Detroit had received much of the Great Migration, only 12% of whites thought that blacks should live where they pleased without interference. And when blacks did move to white communities, the process of “white flight” expanded black urban enclaves. Thus the “Negro Quarters” (simply the “Quarters” in Lee’s novels), which were typical of the de jure segregated South, became the ghettoes of the de facto segregated urban North.

This de facto exclusion extended to public education as well, for since schools are located in neighborhoods, there emerged two kinds of schools, one for whites and the other for blacks. In some states this separation was sanctioned by state law and upheld by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1897). It was in Topeka, Kansas, not in the South, where race-based segregation gave rise to the Supreme Court’s famous Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954.

Yet black Americans were beginning to advance economically in the otherwise unsegregated North. One element of this change was the GI Bill, which made it possible for veterans to attend college, the gateway to greater success and the platform on which restrictive racial attitudes were increasingly evident. There were also prominent and influential figures within the black population who gave voice to the racial discrepancy in the country: figures such as W. E. B. Dubois, the eminent black intellectual, and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who had successfully unionized the all-black Pullman porters on the nation’s railroads. And, of course, there were the writers Langford Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, who put the case of black Americans in forceful verse and prose. Moreover, the war recently fought against the racist National Socialist regime in Germany and the ensuing Cold War brought to the public conscience a clearer awareness of how its founding principles clashed so sharply with real behavior, most obviously in the South.

It is in that context that young Jean Louise, a sensitive and rebellious spirit since her childhood, returns from New York to Maycomb where she sees how the post-war tide of change is beginning to alter her hometown. First she notices the physical changes with new construction built for the sons and daughters of farmers now employed in new walks of life. She also feels a new level of racial tension. When she goes to the Quarters to see Calpurnia, she is surprised and disappointed to be greeted not with the warmth she had known as a child, from the woman who had so lovingly brought her up, but rather with defensive formality.

Jean Louise is later dismayed when she discovers among her father’s papers a shrilly worded racist pamphlet. Atticus had been independent enough to vote for Eisenhower, a Republican in the Democratic Party’s Solid South. He had once defended a black man accused of rape (which became the pivotal event in the final version of Lee’s work). She was even more dismayed when she learns that he has joined the local citizen’s council, an association of men organized to counter the changes which were mounting against the racial policies of the South. She goes to a meeting of the council in the courthouse, sitting in the balcony where Atticus does not see her, and she’s appalled to see him, as chairman, introduce the author of that racist pamphlet she had found so offensive.

Here is where the writing gets rough, descending, as McAlpin put it, into emotional didactic moralizing which is “chunky and shrill.” After leaving the meeting Jean Louise goes out into the street and vomits before attacking her father for his failings. The child Jean Louise in To Kill a Mockingbird comes across as overly precocious, perhaps because the narrative was adapted from flashbacks in the earlier version. Her actions as an adult in Go Set a Watchman, on the other hand, are childish, even hysterical. John Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” wrote that “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” and by extension played-down emotions in prose and poetry can be more effective than emotional outbursts. Herein lies the weakness in Lee’s first version of her work that could have been resolved with careful rewriting.

Another disappointment is that, although Jean Louise asserts the principle of racial equality and rejects the ugly racism that was thrown up to defend segregation, she reveals herself as a state’s rights advocate, suspicious of the encroaching power of the federal government. She agrees with Atticus, for instance, that the Supreme Court in Brown v. the Board of Education had overstepped the bounds of the Constitution, thereby setting a dangerous precedent by disregarding the law (although she does say rather weakly that something should be done). This runs head-on against the ideology of court activism and government intervention which had become a prominent political agenda in the United States since the days of Woodrow Wilson.

Even worse is that Jean Louise does not dispute Atticus’s assertion that blacks are a backward race, and thus cannot be trusted to govern. Her defense of civil rights is based solely on her perception of the inherent equality of people and her strong feelings about it. No wonder that some critics felt a sense of outrage, even betrayal for tarnishing an exemplary moral tale. If the original version had been smoothed out and published as it was, it would have been an example of Southern literature, examining a confrontation which was the hallmark of the time. But if that had been the case, the novel never would have become the financial success and the icon it is today.

The confrontation depicted in the novel involved four perspectives typical of Southern action and reaction of the time. One is Jean Louise’s emotion-based assertion of the principle of racial equality. Another is the social accommodation as expressed by Henry, the young man who had crossed the social line from “white trash” origins to a secure position in the community and who did not want to compromise his status through dissent. Still another is the argument of her father, who cherishes and defends the rule of law and remains fearful that any disruption of the legal structure, even in the name of racial equality and an overreaching government to implement that goal, would eventually lead to tyranny. The fourth, finally, is expressed by her Uncle Jack, who knows that change is coming and who sympathizes with her views and feelings but also explains Atticus’s views in terms of Southern heritage. Jean Louise finds Henry’s “go along to get along” acquiescence far from admirable, lowering him in her estimation. Atticus’s reasoning she finds overly abstract, leaving out the human factor. But Uncle Jack’s argument is more convincing, bringing a clearer awareness of the motives of others as well as of her own weakness. In this respect Uncle Jack is the watchman who declares “what he seeth.”

He takes her back to the Civil War, which she dismisses at first as irrelevant. But as he tells of its horrors she thinks about her grandfather who had seen the corpses stacked up at Shiloh. He then explains that the antebellum South was a society of a handful of large land owners and a “multitude of farmers and slaves.” Only about five percent of the population owned slaves, he says, with many of them never even seeing one. “What was it then,” he asked, that made “the ragtag Confederate army,” the last of its kind, so weak, and that yet “worked miracles?” His answer was that it was an army of individuals. No machine, he says, “when it’s crushed to powder, puts itself together again and ticks.” But “those dry bones rose up and marched and how they marched.”

There were different reasons that society fought, “a society highly paradoxical with alarming inequities, but with the private honor of thousands of persons”; different reasons, Uncle Jack says, like a thousand lightening bugs winking in the night. They fought to preserve their identity both political and private. In that regard, a grandmother once told her grandson that her grandfather, a small backcountry farmer in the Appalachians, told them that the war was the worst thing he had ever seen, and if it wouldn’t have brought dishonor on his family he would not have gone back.

Uncle Jack recognizes that in the modern industrial world the attitudes of the Old South were antiquated, quixotic as he puts it, but that the Old-South perspective had persisted through the rigors of war and the hardships of Reconstruction and changed only in the absence of slavery. Those who ensured that this perspective endured, amid growing poverty and the “Tobacco Roads,” did so as a people bound by a common Celtic, Anglo-Saxon background and culture, “a nation within a nation” that three-fourths of the rest of America failed to understand. The rest of the country, in Uncle Jack’s view, did not know “what kind of people we are” and “what we are still close to in this world[,] … a sense of kinship among people,” a people ground down but enduring in their homogeneity and habits of thinking that, elsewhere in the country, were long past.

Part of the danger these Southerners saw in the modernizing country was the growing power of government, with its unsettling effect on any stable, organic society, as well as on values themselves; for these Southerners saw people from farms now working in factories, depending on an expanding and impersonal bureaucracy instead of the traditional supports of family and community. The government’s activism in civil rights was, to them, yet another move towards government consolidation. Atticus and men like him were not dedicated to keeping Negroes in their place, as it were, but trying to preserve “the meaningful things of this society” by “fighting a rear guard action to preserve a certain kind of philosophy that’s almost gone down the drain.” Or so Uncle Jack believes.

As for the citizen’s council, says Uncle Jack, when you’re looking down the double barrels of a shotgun, you reach for any weapon you can. He tells Jean Louise that it was in that context that she should understand her father’s actions. “But what about the Klan?” she asks him. Uncle Jack explained that there were lots of people even at the highest level of society who were members at the time. Atticus had briefly joined only to learn what it was all about and who was involved, and then he left. After that Atticus said they had the right to dress up in white sheets and make fools of themselves in public if they pleased. Jean Louise remembers that, when she had asked Atticus why he let the author of the racist pamphlet speak at the citizen’s council meeting, Atticus said, “because he wanted to,” a show of absolute tolerance to which many of us today object.

But when it came to breaking the law, Uncle Jack submits, Atticus abruptly drew the line, for “the law is what he lives by.” “He’ll do his best to prevent someone from beating up someone else,” explains Uncle Jack, and in the same spirit he will oppose the federal government. Yet, Uncle Jack continues, a new South is being born, pointing as an example to the changes Jean Louise has noticed on her return to Maycomb. The struggle Southerners were now experiencing, says Uncle Jack, is its birth pangs. He only hopes it will not be as painful this time as it had been before.

Uncle Jack then confronts Jean Louise with her childish outburst, calling her a bigot, although only “turnip size” one. She consults the dictionary for the definition: “those who oppose with obstinate intolerance any creed, belief or opinion different from their own.” Uncle Jack says that she has been colorblind all of her life—which was part of her nature—and so she stood in opposition to the enforcement of color-based separation, which was her right. But where she went wrong was by making Atticus a tin god onto which she has projected her own sense of rectitude, a stereotype which blurred the real man and the virtues in him that she so admired. Uncle Jack tells her that the South was changing and that it needed people like her. She then learns, for the first time, that her uncle had once been in love with her mother, and that all of their lives he had regarded her and her brother as his children. He quietly expresses his gratitude for what they had given him. The conversation ends with a more tolerant Jean Louise, her conscience and determination still firmly in place. A child of that new South that has been born, with an even stronger appreciation of family and its importance in life.

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The thoughts and feelings of Atticus and Uncle Jack were widespread at the time in which the novel is set. William Faulkner expressed them in Intruder in the Dust, published in 1949, a novel which parallels Lee’s work in several obvious ways. In both stories the central moral figure is a wise small-town lawyer. In Faulkner’s it is Gavin Stevens, who had studied at Harvard, where he became Phi Beta Kappa, and at the university in Heidelberg. Stevens is an able man who has returned to the small Southern town where he was brought up, whose preference was the study of Classical Greek but who earned his living by practicing law. Both Intruder in the Dust and To Kill a Mockingbird deal with a black man wrongly accused of a crime, and in both novels the villains come from the lowest class of the white population. Moreover, Uncle Jack’s view of the South and his explanation of Atticus’s resolve to resist, as he explains it, his niece is much the same as what Gavin Stevens tells his nephew, whose thoughts and feelings Faulkner expresses in the narrative.

The North, to Stevens, was not so much “a geographic place but an emotional idea,” acquired as Stevens was growing up and which he “on the threshold of manhood had found no reason or means to alter” and still “had no reason to believe in his old age [he] would alter.” For Stevens, the North is a “rich teeming never-ravaged land of glittering undefiled cities and unburned towns and unwasted farms,” a country “long secure and opulent” and populated by people who “spoke the same language and at times even answered to the same names he bore but yet between whom and him and his there was no longer a real kinship and soon there would not even be any contact since the very mutual words they use would no longer have the same significance.” The North, in Stevens’s view, included people with an “almost helpless capacity to believe anything about the South not even provided it be derogatory but merely bizarre enough and strange enough.”

This was in fact a part of the general concept of Southern distinctiveness, rooted in large part in an agrarian-based sense of order, community and humanity, a sentiment further elaborated by Faulkner, who writes that the South was alone in the United States as a homogeneous people, except backcountry New England, which was inland from “the coastal spew of Europe which this country quarantined unrootable into rootless ephemeral cities with foundry and minimal paychecks.” Only the South, says Stevens, was resisting “what the outland calls (and we too) progress and enlightenment.”

What Southerners were defending, Stevens says, was not politics or beliefs or even a way of life, “but simply our homogeneity from a federal government to which in simple desperation the rest of the country has had to surrender voluntarily more and more of its personal and private liberty in order to continue to afford the United States.” That homogeneity, he claims, comes from durable and lasting values as seen in “the literature, the art, the science, that minimum of government and police which is the meaning of freedom and liberty, and perhaps most of all a national character with anything in a crisis.” “That’s why,” Stevens concludes, “we must resist.”

At that point Stevens dreams the impossible dream of reconciling the two separate segments of the Southern population, black and white, both of which have their own distinct homogeneity. The black has “the same value and love of the few old things which no one wanted to take from him: not an automobile or flashy clothes,” etc., with music of his own, “a hearth, not his child but any child, a God in heaven which a man may avail himself of at any time without having to wait to die, a little earth for his own sweat to fall on among his own green shoots and plants.” The impossible dream is that those two tradition-based segments of the Southern population might confederate, not merge, in defense against “a mass of people who no longer have anything in common save a frantic greed for money and a basic fear of a failure of national character” hidden behind “a loud lipservice to a flag.”

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Thoughts and sentiments like those – that the South was a beleaguered nation within a nation with a distinctiveness different from the rest of the country regardless of slavery – had been building for a long time, the topic of historian Avery Craven’s The Growth of Southern Nationalism 1848-1861. Craven casts this time as one when modernity with “values all its own” was “crowding into the United States” and clashing with the agrarian values of the South that were incompatible with the new dominate age. “Perhaps the American tragedy,” Craven speculated, “lay in the way in which attitudes were allowed to develop and in the fearful cost which the nation paid to get itself into the modern world.” This process and its result were more recently examined by Thomas Fleming in A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought, which shows how over 80 years the North and South drifted apart not only on the issue of slavery but also in their different views of the nation and of themselves. This tension increased in the form of anger and rage and at last exploded in a war that accounts for the hostility and defensiveness that persisted in the South into the twentieth century.

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A defense of tradition, common to both Lee’s and Faulkner’s fiction, was explicitly spelled out in expository essays by twelve Southern writers published in 1930: I’ll Take My Stand. In those essays the so-called Southern Fugitives defend traditional agrarian society against industrialization, urbanization and the various changes brought about by modern society. Among the authors, also known as the Southern Agrarians, were John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, prominent writers who worked within a movement from which emerged the New Criticism, a major contribution to literary scholarship.

Their defense of traditional society is valuable in understanding, even empathizing with, traditional agrarian societies in the face of the encroaching ideologies of modernity. Yet it is not a workable foundation for policy, since the forces of change are too strong, at least in Western Civilization. Ransom later recognized that fact. Davidson still defended segregation while Robert Penn Warren, after initially defending segregation, supported the Civil Rights Movement.

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The Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board of Education decision, which initiated the action that led to Jean Louise’s crisis of family, principle and identity, also motivated Robert Penn Warren to travel across the South to assess public opinion on that landmark decision. He interviewed white Southerners from all walks of life, recording their anxieties and hatreds as well as their desire to maintain the best of their culture. He published the results in 1956 (when Go Set a Watchman is set) in a book titled Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, which a New York Times review described as “a cry of anguish.” He later interviewed black leaders – some prominent such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, others not widely known – which was published in 1965 (five years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird) titled Who Speaks for the Negro. He eventually befriended fellow writer Ralph Ellison.

Northrop Frye draws a distinction between the literary scholar and the “public critic.” The scholar examines a literary work for its style, themes and effectiveness within its social and historical context as a basis for better understanding and for greater appreciation of the skill and wisdom or folly of the author, not to mention the work’s place within literature and history. Part of that task involves careful judgment about the good and bad qualities of a particular literary work. But, Frye says, evaluation is “only a minor subordinate function” of the scholarly process which should never be allowed to take priority over the rest because “scholarship will never be forwarded on the value judgment.” The task of the public critic, however, is “to exemplify how a man of taste uses and evaluates literature, and thus shows how literature is absorbed into society.” His approach in achieving that task, says Frye, is characterized by the “random, haphazard use of his material” in contrast to the more systematic, analytical approach of the scholar.

The public critics reviewing Go Set a Watchman have had their say – with probably more criticism to come – based on their own value judgments and sense of what the public should perceive as good taste, and in the process they have, many of them, thrown the same type of temper tantrum that Jean Louise threw when she discovered that her father was not the tin god she had made him. It will be interesting to see what literary scholars have to say about the novel in the context of the times and conflicts in which it was written.


Works Cited

Craven, Avery. 1953. The Growth of Southern Nationalism. Louisiana State University Press.

Fleming, Thomas. 2014. A Disease in the Public Mind: a New Understanding of Why We Fought

                 The Civil War. New York: Da Capo Press.

Frye, Norbert. 1957. The Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rubin, Louis (ed). I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. New York: Hatper


Thernstrom, Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom. 1997. America in Black and White: One Nation,

                 Indivisible: Race in Modern America. NY: Simon and Schuster.

Warren, Robert Penn. 1956. Segregation: the Inner Conflict in the South.

Warren, Robert Penn. 1965. Who Speaks for the Negro.



  1. What a beautifully researched and thoughtfully considered analysis of Lee’s work. Thank you for sharing these insights.

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