Here’s What We Know About Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’


News this morning that Harper Lee will publish Go Set a Watchman, a sequel (of sorts) to her beloved 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, was met with thoroughgoing cheer and goodwill. It is certainly an unexpected development: it was long thought that the 88-year-old Lee would never produce another book, much less a continuation (of sorts) of the original story. Here is what we know about Go Set a Watchman so far:

The new book is set in Lee’s famed Maycomb, Alabama, during the mid-1950s, 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird and roughly contemporaneous with the time that Lee was writing the story. The civil rights movement was taking hold in her home state. The Supreme Court had ruled unanimously in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 led to the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott.

Perhaps the most striking revelation about Go Set a Watchman, which was actually written before Lee’s classic novel, is that it will sustain the consciousness of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, whose idealism and faith in human kindness persists in the face of racial violence and capsized innocence. If the soon-to-be-published novel is set 20 years later — nearer to the time that both novels were written — we can surmise that Scout is roughly 29 to 30 years old. According to the publisher’s statement, we also know that “Scout (has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father, Atticus,” where she is forced to “grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.”

Technically speaking, To Kill a Mockingbird was narrated by an older Scout — she was possibly 30, or even older — although we have no idea what life has brought her since the events of that book. I would argue that it’s Scout’s withheld, adult knowingness, her ability to convincingly root the events of the novel in her own childhood, that provides much of the work’s lasting appeal. The possibility that Scout’s mind and life might be opened up to reflection adds an entirely new dimension to Lee’s world.

We know, too, that To Kill a Mockingbird is rooted in Lee’s own life. Atticus Finch is in some respects a portrait of Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, who was an attorney and, eventually, a member of the Alabama legislature. Amasa Lee, it is often pointed out, once defended two black men, a father and son, in a murder trial. Both men were hanged.

Might Go Set a Watchman be a semi-autobiographical portrait of father and daughter in the wake of traumatic, racist events? Was Amasa Coleman Lee (and therefore Atticus Finch) preoccupied with his failed defense in the murder trial?

There isn’t much to go on, but we have one tantalizing bit of evidence: the novel’s title. Go Set a Watchman might refer to Amasa Coleman Lee’s peculiar habit of repeatedly setting his own watch. This from I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee:

When [Amasa] was lost in thought he had a habit of absentmindedly fumbling with things, including his watch, a fountain pen, or his special favorite: a tiny pocketknife.

But we also know that the title — again, Go Set a Watchman — comes from the Old Testament, and, specifically, Isaiah 21:6. The preceding verses allude to childbirth…

Therefore are my loins filled with pain: pangs have taken hold upon me, as the pangs of a woman that travaileth: I was bowed down at the hearing of it; I was dismayed at the seeing of it. My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me. Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.

… before culminating in the verse that gives the novel its name:

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

What to make of it?