literary deaths

Let’s Talk About That One Heartbreaking Sentence in Go Set a Watchman

The cover of Harper Lee’s newest book.

Spoilers for Go Set a Watchman below.

Near the end of the first chapter of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, after the grown-up Jean Louise “Scout” Finch has made her way by train back to Maycomb County, comes a throwaway mention of the fate of a beloved literary character, one who, in this telling, doesn’t even get a name:

Just about that time, Jean Louise’s brother dropped dead in his tracks one day, and after the nightmare of that was over, Atticus, who had always thought of leaving his practice to his son, looked around for another young man

Poor Jem! Dead before he reached adulthood, dead before he could fulfill his dream of following in Atticus’s footsteps. Farewell, old friend. May you touch the sides of spooky houses all throughout eternity.

Why did Lee give a treasured character, one half of American literature’s best sibling relationship, such a seemingly tossed-off death? It’s important to remember that when Lee was writing Go Set a Watchman, she had no idea her characters would become icons — neither Jem nor Scout nor Atticus existed outside her own head. Watchman was written years before To Kill a Mockingbird; on her editor’s suggestion, Lee expanded a flashback to Scout’s childhood into a separate novel and set the other book aside. Lee’s current editors swear they only made a light copyedit of the decades-old manuscript, preserving her original matter-of-fact dispatching of Jem. There would be no room for second-guessing: If that’s the way he had to go, that’s the way he had to go.

But why did Jem have to go, anyway? Certainly, it looks like his absence makes room for Henry Clinton to take up a large part of the new book’s narrative. And there’s a macabre charm to the way Lee treats his passing so unsparingly; yes, they grieved for him, Lee seems to be saying, but Maycomb is an unsentimental place, life goes on. But with much of Lee’s work, the answer may be as simple as: Because that’s the way it happened in real life. Lee’s own brother, Edwin Coleman Lee, was the inspiration for Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird. He, too, died unexpectedly, of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1951. He was only 30. Perhaps, in her own way, Lee was paying tribute to her brother by having his fictional counterpart meet the same end. It wouldn’t be nice to kill off Jem, but it would be true.

Let’s Talk About That Sentence in Set a Watchman