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Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set A Watchman’


The motivation for this book is obviously Ms. Lee's desire to ameliorate the national media clamor against the southern states brought on by the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. A national condemnation was rising against the social conditions in states which had been the Confederate States of America and for social change. So Ms. Lee wrote a propaganda book in an attempt to counter the waterfall of negative comments about the South in the media.

Early in the book Atticus Finch derisively says the Supreme Court has a bid for immortality and asks his daughter, 26-year-old Jean Louise (Scout) who is back home in Maycomb, Alabama for a vacation from her job in New York City, what's in the news in New York about us here? Atticus in this book is what we now call a conservative Republican. The book is set in the mid-1950s when there was still quite a lot of segregation all across the United States. However, it was strongest and most rigid in the south and the NAACP sent some members to help get black people registered to vote.

Ms. Lee wrote flashbacks to when Scout was six years old telling how life was from the girl's viewpoint and those parts are lively, entertaining and well written. Her editor recognized that. More on the editor later. This book begins with heavy-handed questions and answers them in the end. Here's an excerpt between Atticus Finch and his daughter Jean Louise (Scout) FInch who is "the liberal" in this book.

"Let's look at it this way," said her father. "You realize that our Negro population is backward, don't you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word 'backward,' don't you?"

"Yes sir."

"You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship and why?"

"Yes sir."

"But you want them to have all its privileges?"

"God damn it, you are twisting it up!"

"There's no point in being profane. Think this over: Abbott County, across the river is in bad trouble. The population is almost 3/4 Negro. The voting population is almost half and half now because of that big normal school over there. If the scales were tipped over what would you have? The county won't keep a full board of registrars because if the Negro vote edged out the white you'd have Negroes in every county office."

"What makes you so sure?"

"Honey," he said. "Use your head. When they vote, they vote in blocs."

Taking that last line first. Were not the whites voting in a bloc for white candidates? So if these Negroes do the same and all vote for Negro candidates then that is unfair?

The line just before that where Jean Louise says, "What makes you so sure?" is bogus because if she were truly a liberal her response should have been, "So you all should have been educating the Negroes and preparing them for responsible citizenship since the end of the Civil War. You have had 90 years with little progress. The Supreme Court had to act as nothing short of Supreme Court orders would get the social integration ball rolling. Your separate but equal system was not producing equality."

Atticus goes on to use an example of blacks not being ready to assume the role of responsible citizenship by bringing into the argument a black man named Zeebo who has had many marital problems and is looked upon as comical. By doing that he overlooks the obvious choice of a responsible citizen in Mr. Chester Sumpter, a black man and professor and principal of the Mount Sinai Trade Institute, Macon County's largest Negro school.

Citizens councils are given some space in the book. They were all white male meetings of the County's most socially powerful citizens. In the book a Mr. Willoughby who was not elected or appointed is head honcho of Macon County. They meet at the county courthouse every Sunday to discuss ways and means of keeping the Negro in his place and maintaining their own way of life, the same as always. Talk about backward! These citizens councils were an anchor to the past.

Ms. Lee however attempts to justify them through Atticus Finch who gives an example of the council's democracy by allowing a straight up bigot, and in Atticus's words a sadist, the opportunity to speak at the last meeting just because he asked. At one point Atticus and his paralegal admit to being hypocrites which Atticus defends with, "Hypocrites have just as much right to live in this world as anybody." A non sequitur as they were not talking about euthanasia but about improving morals and integrity.

Propaganda obviates critical thinking by asking and answering questions that lead to a predetermined biased conclusion. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Ms. Lee tells the story excellently. In this Watchman book she has characters asking and answering a lot of questions which leads the reader to favorable conclusion's about that south, that they were doing fine in their slow way and there are some white people in the south whod think and act with equality and justice. We may grant the last half of that sentence, but the first is absurd. I mean, How slow can you go?

The integrity of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a impugned by this Watchman book with Atticus present at all the power meetings including the KKK and just watching. (He's the Watchman.) Why did not Atticus propose better education for blacks back in 1935? In the Watchman book why is there no black representative sitting at the citizens counsel such as Professor Sumpter? If the bigot, Mr. O'Hanlon, is allowed to address the council, then where is the liberal view?

Ms. Lee's editor recognized her potential and adroitly co-opted her into writing a great book which condemned the social conditions she was trying to justify in her Watchman book. One may call it a more sophisticated example of propaganda on the surface, but one can think through it critically and know Mockingbird to be true. The editor back then was very good and we need to know who he was. But the editor who published Watchman was thinking only of money.

Ms. Lee tries to make this a coming-of-age book for 26-year-old Jean Louise and everybody in the white community is happy at the end with each other's prejudice, being hypocrites and going along to get along. In the black community there is sadness and a very young man is charged with manslaughter as Atticus plans to plead him guilty even before investigating the case.

The book is short and seems to have been written too fast. Ms. Lee has a knack for writing about kids and growing and she should have written more about just that in subsequent books. They'd have been good.

Remember that she did write "To Kill a Mockingbird" with prompting and advice and deserves all the credit she received for that. This other propaganda book should have stayed in the box.

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