Southern Comfort Gone Wrong in Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman

by Beth McAuley

Published at 2015-10-27

The hype generated around the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman (HarperCollins, 2015) made many of us want to read this book. After all, it was Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, a classic in our own time. We, at TEC, were enthusiastic. We bought two copies: one for us to read in-office and one for the first of our Twitter Giveaways. That was in late summer. It was a slow read and a difficult one.


Go Set A Watchman 


The phrase “Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth” is taken from the Book of Isaiah 21:6. In the biblical telling of the story, the watchman witnesses the fall of Babylon and the smashing of its graven images. This is what he reports back. In the novel, the “man on the watch” is the now 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch, fondly known as Scout in Mockingbird.


Jean Louise is working and living in New York City. She has come home to Maycomb County, Alabama, for her annual two-week summer visit. It is the early 1950s. It is post–Second World War, post–Reconstruction South, the NAACP is promoting greater justice, and the Civil Rights Movement is gaining momentum. Maycomb is a slumbering town, and Jean Louise’s community includes her father, aunt, uncle, best friend/boyfriend, and fellow church congregants.


She anticipates coming home to what she has always known: order, friendliness, Southern hospitality, and Southern comfort. As much as she enjoys coming home, she prefers the more modern lifestyle of NYC, and looks forward to getting back.


But all is not as it should be in the white community of Maycomb.



Change is A-coming



One of the first signs of things changing is during the Methodist Church service on the first Sunday Jean Louise is home. The sermon is long and somewhat tedious, and the reference to Isaiah is read in the context of those not attending service and what may befall them.  But what alarms Jean Louise is the change to one of the closing hymns, known as “The Doxology.” The tune is not the same. The rhythm has changed. The new minister, Mr. Stone, is making changes without consulting the congregants. He is a northerner, a liberal, and too friendly with the Yankees. Jean Louise’s uncle, Dr. Finch, remarks: “We asked for bread and were given a Stone.”


The shift in the service leaves Jean Louise unsettled.


When she returns home from church, she discovers another unsettling development. When tidying up papers in the living room, she finds a booklet entitled The Black Plague tucked away in her father’s favourite chair. The contents are not revealed in full; the title says enough. As Jean Louise reads it over, she becomes alarmed, infuriated, and extremely upset. How could this be? How could Atticus be reading such material?


She tracks down her father and her best friend/boyfriend, Henry, at a special meeting of the city council taking place in the courthouse. The views being expressed by the white male leaders of her community are openly racist; they are determined to kill any and all civil rights and freedoms for the black population; the racism being spoken is painful. Jean Louise watches this meeting silently and unnoticed from the balcony above. Her fury and disbelief at what she is hearing are difficult to contain. The image of her father as a just and kind man is falling apart, and her sense of security, of being “home,” is quickly unravelling.


The next day, she finds herself in yet another painful situation. She is the reluctant guest of honour at her aunt’s Monday coffee party being held in the living room of their home. Those in attendance are the white women who manage the home fronts, the children, the social clubs. They speak openly against the NAACP and all it represents; they are not in favour of increasing the civil rights and greater participation of the black population in their community. Jean Louise does her best to control her emotions, finding a way to probe, to ask questions about these attitudes. She is trying to understand where they came from. She can’t remember ever hearing them spoken so openly before.


Finding Comfort in What Was


There are throughout the novel a number of flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood, of growing up in Maycomb. The flashbacks help anchor her in a past that was good, that was fair. They seem to help her alleviate the sense of being a stranger in her hometown while confirming the white Southern comfort she grew up with, but one of limited interaction with the black community in her midst.


In search of past comforts, Jean Louise even drives over to the black neighbourhood to visit the home of Calpurnia, who worked in the Finch home taking care of Jean Louise, her brother, Jem, and Atticus. Calpurnia has grown old, and Jean Louise has heard that Calpurnia’s grandson has been arrested. She goes to offer assistance, and to seek comfort. But Calpurnia is cold towards Jean Louise. There is no “motherly” love on offer. She leaves crestfallen and shocked, not understanding this change in their relationship.


Sometimes Jean Louise’s innocence and naiveté are beyond this reader’s understanding. Or, as the author writes it: “Had she insight, could she have perceived the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind” (p. 122).


Southern Comfort Gone Wrong


Towards the end of the novel, Jean Louise does confront Atticus, and his explanation is as painful as the views espoused by the women having coffee and by the men attending the meeting in the courthouse. She threatens to head back to NYC, to get out of Maycomb and never to return. She cannot believe what she is hearing from her family. She cannot fit in to this new context. She cannot tolerate what she “seeth.”


When Jean Louise goes home to Maycomb, she returns with expectations that nothing has changed. And, indeed, she is put in the position of “watchman,” taking in what is going on around her and trying to find a way to understand what she is seeing and hearing.


Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set A Watchman was perhaps a warning to the white South that big changes were coming; and perhaps it was a warning to pro–Civil Rights activists that resistance would be intense. And it was. And it still is.


While the overleaf of the book jacket provides some context for this story, a more developed introduction outlining the era and providing a historical overview would have been welcome. As readers, we are thrown into this “white” corner of the South to experience the racist attitudes and thinking as Jean Louise experiences it. How are we to take it in and understand it? But perhaps that’s the point: how can we understand it?


Go Set A Watchman could set the stage for an instructive discussion in a critical race studies class. That is, if readers are up to the raw racism it exposes. Some books are difficult to read, and this falls into that category. But if Harper Lee’s intention was to wake us up to what we were/are seeing, she did a good job.