How Go Set a Watchman Solves the Mystery of Harper Lee

Harper Lee
Harper Lee Photo: Corbis

Tourists come to Monroeville, Alabama, for one reason: to visit the real-life model of To Kill a Mockingbird’s Maycomb and the birthplace and current residence of its author, Harper Lee. Invariably, they come to the well-preserved county courthouse, which looks a lot like the place where Atticus Finch defends a black man falsely accused of rape, and they visit a stone wall, next to a shake-and-burger shack, that used to separate the houses where Lee and her childhood friend Truman Capote (Mockingbird’s “Scout” Finch and Dill Harris) played and plotted.

Mockingbird’s Maycomb was a throwback, a ‘30s backwater rendered by a New York transplant in the late ‘50s. On the other hand, the Maycomb of Go Set a Watchman, Mockingbird’s first draft, was contemporaneous, the sketch of a writer suspended between her racially stratified hometown and her adopted liberal refuge. For reasons as muddled and fraught as the draft itself, 2 million copies of Mockingbird’s inelegant precursor were published this week. In Watchman, that heralded courthouse is where a 26-year-old Jean Louise (no longer Scout) watches her hero lawyer father attend a racist meeting; the site of her former home, now an ice-cream parlor, is where she subsequently vomits in revulsion. Watchman may leave Mockingbird fans equally horrified, and critics disappointed, but it’s a crucial biographical document. For every question it raises about its profoundly famous and private 89-year-old author, it also answers a mystery or two about Lee’s life and motivations.

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, Nelle Harper Lee’s life story has set in the public imagination along the familiar lines of a recluse narrative. She came to New York, bright-eyed and dream-filled, published a book celebrating small-town life and justice, won enormous fame and then, paralyzed, retreated into the twin anonymities of Manhattan’s upper reaches and Monroeville’s fishing holes. Watchman tells a different story, one in which home, not fame, is the greatest source of angst. In its rawness and fragmentation, the draft feels to anyone who’s read up on Lee (especially Charles Shields’s biography, Mockingbird) like notes from a journal toward something like proper fiction. It’s the product of an intensely loyal person who nonetheless never belonged — not as a tomboy in a debutante culture, not as an arriviste in haughty New York, and not as a prodigal-daughter spinster returning to a home she no longer knows. Mockingbird, for all its dark jibes and Gothic twists, is a fairy tale, and Maycomb is its cozy fortress. Watchman is the chronicle of a love of place curdling to disdain — even hate.

Lee’s father, the prominent town lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee, once defended two black men on a murder charge, but he also defended segregation. Lee frequently traveled by train, as does Jean Louise, between New York and Alabama, and over the years she grappled with what it meant to call a place home. New York wasn’t necessarily it, either for Jean Louise, who still considers settling in Maycomb (and hates the city’s “slogans, isms, and fast sure answers”) or for Lee, who told a friend, “I wouldn’t go into downtown Manhattan for the world.” As Lee grew older without a second book in sight, her confidence and her old contacts fell away, and her orbit moved closer to Monroeville — particularly her older sister, lawyer, and part-time roommate, Alice. (Watchman was “discovered” shortly after Alice’s death at 103.)

Yet even as her visits home grew longer, Lee never fully reconciled with the town that made so much of her novel. When it proclaimed itself “the Literary Capital of Alabama,” she retorted, “The literary capital of Alabama can’t read.” Two years ago, she sued the museum in the old courthouse for profiting from Mockingbird merchandise, but the opening lines of her complaint aimed squarely at her hometown: Mockingbird’s “realistic and highly critical portrayal of Maycomb’s residents shone a harsh light on the attitudes of communities” like Monroeville. And yet, “The town’s desire to capitalize upon the fame of To Kill a Mockingbird is unmistakable: Monroeville’s town logo features an image of a mockingbird and the cupola of the Old County Courthouse.” Several years before the suit, Lee told Marja Mills, a reporter granted the unique privilege of writing about her, “This is not the Monroeville in which I grew up. I don’t like it one bit.” She was approaching 80 at the time, but she could have easily been the 26-year-old narrator (and 30-year-old author) of Watchman.

The dilemma of what to do with Atticus’s revealed racism animates Jean Louise for the final half of Watchman, as she and the reader flail from argument to argument with her erstwhile neighbors, her would-be fiancé, her father, and Dr. Finch, an uncle given to Socratic puzzles and tired apologias for Southern “identity.” By the end, the daughter has earned her father’s pride and resolved, for her part, not to hate him after all.

That part of Watchman feels true to anyone foolhardy enough to try to change a relative’s mind over dinner, but it makes for unsatisfying fiction. Even more troubling, it reduces the struggle for civil rights to a family squabble. It subscribes, in the end, to the substance of Dr. Finch’s casual dismissal of slavery: “What was incidental to the issue in our War Between the States is incidental to the issue in the war we’re in now, and is incidental to the issue in your own private war.” In other words, the Civil War was about economics, not slavery; Jim Crow was about federalism, not racism; and Scout rages over daddy issues rather than civil rights.

Lee’s editor at Lipincott, Tay Hohoff, couldn’t help with the daddy issues, but she knew what to do with Watchman. She sent Lee back to her desk with the idea of turning Jean Louise’s childhood flashbacks into a book that read the present into a simpler past. In the process of doing so, Lee chose to depict Atticus at his prime and ahead of his time — a man whose neighborly pragmatism in a backward place felt something like progress. He couldn’t change the world, but he could raise a daughter to carry a sense of fairness forward into changing times. “I guess it’s like an airplane,” Watchman’s Jean Louise thinks on the last page, musing on the generations. “They’re the drag, and we’re the thrust, together we make the thing fly.” Nearly 60 years later, it’s hard to agree, especially when Jean Louise, representing the “thrust,” rails against the overreach of Brown v. Board of Ed. But in Mockingbird, Lee makes sense of it. Maycomb’s gauzy virtues overcome its ugly vices; in this remembered world, justice advances neighbor by neighbor, because there’s no other way.

Watchman lays bare the muddled prehistory behind a finished novel so long revered for its moral clarity. By retreating to childhood, Mockingbird resolves a tension between universal (or maybe Northern) values and the iron bonds of family, tribe, and region. A.C. Lee, his daughter’s model for Atticus, didn’t fund Nelle Harper’s adventure in New York after she quit law school to write. When she succeeded, he expressed surprise. According to Shields’s biography, he did moderate his views on race in the late ‘50s. Maybe that influenced his daughter to soften Atticus; maybe his daughter influenced A.C.’s actual softening, which fed back into the book. Regardless, we can imagine his gratitude to his daughter for showing him his best face, the face of Atticus in Mockingbird. He died in 1962, only two years after it was published, but he saw her win the Pulitzer and he even got to meet Gregory Peck, who’d soon play Atticus in the movie. His daughter lives on, in assisted living in Monroeville, at peace with her father but not necessarily her home.

How Watchman Solves the Mystery of Harper Lee