Reading & Literacy

So Do You Teach Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman or What?

By Ross Brenneman — July 17, 2015 3 min read
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Well. Where to start.

Several decades ago, a young Alabamian writer named Harper Lee wrote a novel about a young Alabamian woman named Jean Louise Finch returning home from New York City. Lee titled that book Go Set a Watchman. Her editor suggested instead that Lee write a new book about Finch’s childhood. Lee did, and in 1960, she published that book: To Kill a Mockingbird. Popularity ensued.

Go Set a Watchman remained lost to time, buried away among Harper Lee’s possessions. Then it resurfaced. Here’s the long version of how that happened. Here’s the short version: Lee didn’t want to publish another book, and her sister Alice defended that decision. Harper Lee entered into an assisted-living facility due to frailty. Alice died. Soon after, Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, “discovered” the Go Set a Watchman manuscript and put out a statement on behalf of Harper Lee that they were going to publish this book. Everyone involved is going to make a lot of money off it. This is probably not a coincidence.

Full story: Harper Lee to Publish Sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, But Why?

On Tuesday, HarperCollins published Watchman. It is currently the bestselling book on And number two? To Kill a Mockingbird.

Mockingbird is by many accounts one of the most widely taught books in U.S. schools. So what effect does its sequel have on how Mockingbird will be taught, if at all?

How Is Go Set a Watchman?

A warning: Plot details, and possible heartbreak, ahead.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in my 9th grade English class, and not again since. Like Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, then, I too am returning to Maycomb, Ala., waiting to be reacquainted with a town and its romanticized inhabitants: Atticus Finch, the lawyer developing arthritis; Aunt Alexandra, who moved in after the cook, Calpurnia, moved out; and Scout’s brother, Jem. Well, unfortunate news: Jem is dead, killed off in the space between novels. And, against the backdrop of the goings-on in Maycomb, the U.S. Supreme Court has just delivered its decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Everything starts quaint and normal, and there are flashbacks to Scout’s halcyon days, those that formed the backbone of Mockingbird. The history of a few events has changed, but it feels as comfortable as coming home ever does. Or at least it does until Jean Louise learns her father and her boyfriend are part of a citizens’ council—a polite term for a group of people supporting segregation—and is left to cling to the hope that Atticus’ presence at such a meeting could be a mistake or at least rationalized. That illusion is shattered, too.

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. ... And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground." —Isaiah 21:6-9

The reader asks the same questions Jean Louise does: Was Atticus Finch ever really the man we thought he was, or did we love him so much that we ignored any weaknesses? Have we so built up Atticus over the decades that we imagined a version of him that Lee never created? What is the cost of this idolization?

The parallels between Jean Louise and us are fascinating. Everything about this book is a goldmine for English teachers.

And look: The novel is beautiful—Lee often employs stunning prose, if sometimes hard-to-swallow dialogue. Jean Louise’s initial struggle with her perception of her father is one of the more heartbreaking passages of literature I’ve ever read. Watchman challenges the reader to examine how we act on our morals when they contrast with the worldview not just of strangers, but of loved ones; as another wise old man from literature once said: “‘It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.’”

But the contextual questions nag, too. Is this the Atticus that Lee would have created after writing Mockingbird, with the help of an editor and the benefit of reflection? Or did Lee write Mockingbird with a determined path toward Watchman? We’ll probably never know. Her lawyer’s account of finding the Watchman manuscript has changed, as The New York Times has reported. The PBS show “American Masters” got to spend time with Harper Lee, but the resulting 13-minute video segment featured no video of the author, opting instead for short audio snippets and heavily featuring—you guessed it—Lee’s lawyer.

HarperCollins has said that this is a largely unedited manuscript which, were Lee in better condition, might change. But the hard copy doesn’t mention that detail, so future generations of readers may go without such nuance and consider Watchman canon. Whether or not it is, we’ve nevertheless learned even more from Atticus Finch.

Now I guess we wait for The Catcher in the Rye Returns; maybe Holden Caulfield will be a corporate lawyer.

Image credit: Associated Press

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.