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Go Set A Watchman finds limits to some people’s anti-racism

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Fifty years after anti-racist classic To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s characters reappear in the unsettling Go Set A Watchman, writes Sarah Ensor
Issue 2463
The Cover of Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee’s classic novel about racism in the US South, To Kill A Mockingbird, came out in 1960. Until last week it was her only published book.

Go Set A Watchman, featuring many of the same characters and some of the same events, has upset many of her fans. It shows the limits of how much change they would accept.

Lee originally wrote this novel in 1957. Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returns to her childhood home in Alabama to see her family. 

At one point she recalls her lawyer father Atticus successfully defending a young black man accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama. 

This incident was expanded to become To Kill a Mockingbird after two years of rewriting. It won the Pulitzer Prize and is still one of the most popular books in the US. 


Go Set a Watchman’s status as a draft is sometimes obvious. The writing is initially clunky, but soon becomes funny and charming. Lee further developed this skill in the later book. 

To Kill a Mockingbird is told in Scout’s voice as a child—gently laughing at her family and neighbours. 

With their mother dead and their adored father at work, Scout and her brother Jem were able to run in and out of the houses of the black and white people they loved. 

They heard a lot more than the adults realised and were deeply affected by the racist hatred swirling around them. 

As Go Set A Watcheman opens Scout, now known as Jean Louise, is travelling back to Alabama. 

She is considering whether to give up her independent life in New York and marry her old friend Henry, now a lawyer working with her father. 

It seems an unlikely choice—she’s done so much to avoid becoming another middle class housewife. 

Then a young black man accidentally kills an old white man. Jean Louise’s secure view of her father and their relationship begin to fracture. 

Atticus says he will represent the young man—but only to stop the Civil Rights organisation the NAACP sending lawyers who might stir people up. 

Then at a “citizens’ council” Jean Louise witnesses her father and Henry calmly listening to the racist bile of a visiting speaker defending segregation. 


It makes her physically sick. She thinks it must be all over with Henry and will never forgive her father. 

This is what has shocked so many fans of To Kill a Mockingbird—that the great defender of equality before the law Atticus Finch could become a defender of segregation. 

It is obviously unfinished and there’s no reason to think that Lee ever meant it to be published. And this is the real pity. 

Because we will never know what this could have been if, 50 years ago, Harper Lee had been prepared to develop the rest as she did the Mockingbird section. This would have meant exploring the limits of her characters’ ideas and politics.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee, Heinemann £18

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