Closer Readings Commentary

“Go Set a Watchman”: A Literary Landmark

July 14, 2015, literary history will be made. On this day publishing giants William Heinemann and HarperCollins are scheduled to release Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman.

Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, 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 the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires.—opening lines Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman reflects Harper Lee’s initial vision and retains the original title of a reworked story that went on to be published as To Kill a Mockingbird. While in the early stages of writing, following the suggestion of her editor, Ms. Lee had opted to revise the original version into a flashback seen through a child’s eyes. This editorial shift had the main character, Jean Louise Finch, narrate reminiscences of events that had occurred in her small Alabama hometown during the Great Depression.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, we first meet Jean Louise or “Scout” when she is six and watch her grow to age nine. The resulting novel became a coming-of-age story about a child’s loss of innocence as she confronts the realities of racial prejudice in the 1930s, when Jim Crow was enforced by state and local legislation in the South. Published in 1960 to critical acclaim and public enthusiasm, the appeal and popularity of this classic has not flagged to this day.

Go Set a Watchman

Ms. Lee’s original manuscript containing the first version story was thought lost. The very existence of Go Set a Watchman was essentially forgotten until its discovery last year by the writer’s attorney. This find sent the literary world reeling with speculation (how was it unearthed? why now?) and anticipation (when will it come out? will it ring true in the way Mockingbird did? can it be as good?) The contents have been a closely guarded secret since it emerged, though The Wall Street Journal published a sneak peek, offering the full first chapter on Friday, July 10. According to the publishers, the novel will appear in its original form without any major revisions.

We know little about the plot of Go Set a Watchman. This story centers on the adult Jean Louis (Scout) who is living in New York City in the mid-1950s. It expresses her grown-up sentiments about personal and political matters on her homecoming to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her father. But it will undoubtedly offer a return to some favorite characters we came to know in the first novel

As this sequel takes place 20 years after the events detailed in To Kill a Mockingbird, the setting would be contemporaneous with the time that Lee was writing. In its larger, national context: the civil rights movement was starting to take hold across the country; The Supreme Court had issued its landmark decision ruling segregated schools unconstitutional (1954); Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955 was spawning a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

The novel’s title is derived from a biblical verse, Isaiah 21:6: "For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth." (Isaiah, a prophet in the Kingdom of Judah 8th-century BCE, is prophesying about the fall of Babylon.) The watchman may reflect Scout's view of her father, who serves as a kind of protector of Maycomb. Perhaps Ms. Lee was making a reference to the impending fall of a pre-civil rights society (a modern day Babylon) that she found oppressive and corrupt? The use of such a biblical allusion would be natural for this author, who was raised on the King James Bible. It reflects the tradition of Southern renaissance writers, including William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom!), from whom Ms. Lee emerged.

Until this recent discovery, the world had had to make do with a single novel from the reclusive Ms. Lee, who was reluctant to give so much as an interview to her adoring reading public. For half a century many fans had hoped in vain for another work of fiction from this brilliant author—that long wait is almost over.  

National novel

Fifty-five years after publication, the original To Kill a Mockingbird remains a blockbuster. Required reading in many high schools, this exemplar text regularly tops lists of the most widely read books for grades 9 through 12. The Library of Congress’s Center for the Book ranks it second, behind only the Bible, for books that are “most often cited as making a difference in people’s lives.” Banned from the shelves of certain libraries while at the same time being voted as the best novel of the 20th century by American librarians, it has been dubbed as our national novel.

The 1962 film adaptation of the novel earned three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck. Atticus Finch has been identified by the American Film Institute as “the greatest hero in 100 years of film history.” Mockingbird continues to stir emotions, create controversy, and transform lives in 21st century America still plagued by various forms of intolerance and injustice.

How will you celebrate?

To honor the publication of the new novel next week, bookstores across the country are planning to host conversations, read-a-thons, and kickoff parties. Vigorous debate is sure to ensue in literature circles and classrooms as readers ponder whether Go Set a Watchman lives up to the expectations set by Ms. Lee’s original masterpiece.

Students may delight in looking back at the typewritten copy of "One-Taxi Town," the original New York Times book review for To Kill a Mockingbird dated July 10, 1960. Have them compare it to the forthcoming reviews for Go Set a Watchman. As your class time allows, read sections of Go Set a Watchman and have the class compare Jean Louis’s insights into life as a mature adult with Scout’s world view as a young child in To Kill a Mockingbird.

To pave the way for its roll out next week, EDSITEment highlights two popular lessons on To Kill a Mockingbird, aligned to Common Core State Standards:

Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird": Profiles in Courage

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.)

Scottsboro Boys and "To Kill a Mockingbird": Two Trials for the Common Core

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.)

Did you know that you can now search EDSITEment by state academic standards? Just click on the "Search by Standards" line in red above the Search Box.