Can we read Go Set a Watchman as an embryonic civil rights bombshell – a politically confused prequel to the more mature and sophisticated To Kill a Mockingbird – a book that stands as a solid testament to changing racial conditions in the South? Overall, this is the accepted chronology, and one that make sense given the different style of the two different books.
The book, Go Set a Watchman, can be read as a series of vignettes, a jumble of barely aligned sentiments in need of some serious editing – which in the end is exactly what happened. There are numerous reviews that explain Mockingbirdas a cooperative effort between agents, editors and Lee. While not all of these brief snapshots are openly politically biased, several of these sketches insist on serious analysis of their political content. The demand for analysis is driven partly by the odd and left-handed manner in which Lee declares her tilt toward liberalism using contrived literary signals. In the end, these signaling devices used in Watchman are of much greater significance than the author’s writing timetable. Watchman uses literary contrivances that speak to political undercurrents, but these contrivances were later dropped in Mockingbird. They are curious signals, and ones that stoke political interest more in Harper Lee herself than in her book. These declarations and the manner in which they are accomplished should be of interest to both literary devotees and political scientists, and they mark one of the main differences between Watchman and Mockingbird.
Here, we will focus on several of the more obscure and overlooked aspects of Watchman’spolitical tip-offs and what they illustrate about Harper Lee’s political leanings. We will do this to illustrate that the more ambiguous political “tells” are often the most compelling, and intriguing. The nuisance and genteel markings of some of the “tells” are more than mildly provocative; these “tells” suggest a deep understanding of contrived literary devices which seem curiously out of place in Watchman, and potentially say more about a young Harper Lee than her work. We do not want to push this point of “subtlety” too far, as many such maneuvers employed by Lee are true hit-over-the-head moments – but many others, not so much. We’ll call these “contrived light.” These are what we are after. This is, as they say, a teachable moment.
For openers, in the first twenty pages of Watchman there resides an oddly placed, 100-word passage. This is a small, tucked away section of great political subjectivity. I call attention to Lee’s debut introduction of her father, Atticus Finch. In this initial passage we find Atticus seated and reading a book titled The Strange Case of Alger Hiss. What we can say about this snapshot is that it was neither a casual insertion, nor a mistake. Writers do not (or should not) make mistakes in this fashion; the book is a deliberate reveal. Atticus is disapproving of the defense of Alger Hiss as outlined in the book. Atticus makes no bones about it as he criticizes the author, a Brit (i.e., Earl Jowitt), for having no understanding of American jurisprudence (p. 17).
For those who need a reminder, the Hiss case erupted during the McCarthy era (c. 1950-1955). In a highly charged and controversial case, Alger Hiss was accused of spying for the USSR. However, when all was said and done, although he was found guilty, Hiss was probably innocent. Hiss served three and a half years, and he and his wife had their lives turned upside-down and utterly ruined. Now consider that the author of Strange Case, Earl Jowitt, was one of the people who argued on behalf of Hiss’s innocence. Consider next that Atticus Finch is disapproving of the book and Jowitt’s effort at vindication. Finch even levels some xenophobic sentiments at the English writer and questions his integrity. At the time of the writing of Watchman, the Hiss case (if not Jowitt’s book) would have been generally and widely known. This brief passage in Watchman reveals Atticus’s Southern conservatism in a manner only slightly camouflaged beneath a literary cloak. What is of interest here is that through this literary device, Lee need not openly assert that Atticus Finch leaned far to the right; the literary device, together with Finch’s comments, does that for her.
Next, let us look to page 20 of this edition, where the narrator suggests that “only God or Robert Browning knew what” Jean Louise (aka, Scout) might say next. This is a huge declaration regarding Scout’s political inclinations, but one must wonder how many American readers in the 1960’s would be familiar with the Englishman Robert Browning’s political progressivism. This statement only makes sense if the reader has an understanding of Browning and 19th century English liberalism. Of course, the shrewdness of the Browning comment, and to a lesser extent the Alger Hiss example, marks the writer as a formidablemanipulator of political triggers. Since there was no dramatic or literary reason for the inclusion of these sketches, they must have represented for Lee an opportunity to tip her hand. A more mature writer, such as the Harper Lee who authored Mockingbird, would have probably held off on any such formal declarations.
Let us take one more peculiar example found in Watchman. On page 81 of the cited edition, Scout wanders over to a bookcase looking for a bedtime read. She runs her finger along the row of books, pausing at The Second Punic War (by Livy?), then passes on it to select The Reason Why. Admittedly, I didn’t know this last book and had to look it up. The topic of The Reason Whyis the “Charge of The Light Brigade,” a disastrous Crimean War episode made famous by Lord Tennyson and a 1930’s movie with Errol Flynn (the book, The Reason Why, was authored by Cecil Woodham-Smith). These book titles cannot possibly have been an accidental placement by Harper Lee. So, if the juxtaposition of these two books was a deliberate move, what does it mean? While it is impossible to climb inside a writer’s head, it is possible to offer a shrewd speculation. From the outside, and in general, The Second Punic Waris about the defeat of Carthage and its general, Hannibal. The Reason Whyis an analysis of the heroic but doomed “Charge of The Light Brigade,” highlighting the dire consequences of miscommunication. In the absence of more clues and knowing only that the two books were not slipped into the narrative by happenstance, we must tease out a meaning: why does Scout reject the first book in deference to the second? Scout later announces that the selection of the book was motivated by her need to “bone up for Uncle Jack.” However, as this claim is neither fully explained, unpacked nor acted upon, the selection remains somewhat mysterious. My interpretation of the act is anchored in the fact that both books are on war – that each in its own way exemplifies the destruction of ideals. Going immediately to these books identifies Scout as combative, willful, and unafraid – a warrior for ideals. The selection of the second book, The Reason Why, and the analysis of the disaster known as the “Charge of The Light Brigade,” marks Scout as recognizing that heroism, even when wrapped in failure, can still be seen as a moral and ethical standard living vibrantly within defeat. While not exactly a Pyrrhic victory, the Light Brigade remains in literature, and British history, as a triumph of duty, courage and honor against overwhelming odds. This is Lee’s aim—to infer that Scout shares these values. In the mature Mockingbird, this mantle of moral advantage is draped about the shoulders of Atticus Finch.
As these politically charged sketches were dropped in Mockingbird, it would seem that someone on Lee’s editorial team considered the references as either ham-handed or an unwieldly incongruence between the intellectual bent of the nuanced references and the southern, conservative social context; in other words, a distraction to the greater story of father and daughter. It was probably decided that the inclusion of these scenarios might actually undermine the message incipient in Watchman; they were either too heavy handed or too elitist. Greater subtlety of purpose was encouraged for Mockingbird.
It would seem that a prime element of the editorial assistance Lee received was criticism of the back and forth, uneven development of her political statements. Within Watchmanthere are multiple examples of blunt exhortations for change without resorting to gimmicky improvisations. However, our track here is to zero in on those political gimmicks, as they show how art can host ideological and political messages, both subtility and not subtility. Our contention is that all art and literature contain ideological messages, and the overt political overtones in Watchmanprovide ideal terrain for proving this contention.