Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’: Facts and Predictions


Hermetically sealed in its embargo, it’s likely that Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman — the most preordered book in its publisher’s history — will remain a welter of enigma until its release next Tuesday. Sure, one or two stray members of the press already have a copy, and we’ll hear from them soon enough. But the rest of us will have to, yes, read the book to find out what happens in the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Hell, Harper Lee only got her copy last week.

In the meantime: we do know a few things about Go Set a Watchman — the novel, not the fount of controversy. To begin with, let’s get one thing straight: it is a sequel that was written (if not published) before its prequel. (Kind of like Star Wars.) It was not, as some people are now saying, “a prequel.” But what else do we know? Let’s move on to what the publisher has given us:

Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some 20 years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch — Scout — struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.

Now, readers who find themselves excited to meet an adult Scout Finch are certainly justified, but it’s worth mentioning that they have likely already met an adult Scout Finch. One of the stranger ideas about TKAM is that it is written in the voice of Scout the Child — it isn’t. It is a story told by an adult Scout. But it also bears mentioning that we don’t know which Scout — TKAM‘s or GSAW‘s — is the elder version, even if we do know that Go Set a Watchman takes place 20 years later.

We do know that the new book is set, like its prequel, in Maycomb, Alabama, but this go-round the events take place in the mid-1950s. This places Go Set a Watchman in the South at a moment when the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to take shape, when, as another press statement for the novel points out, “the Supreme Court had ruled unanimously in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 led to the year long Montgomery bus boycott.”

The political struggles mentioned by the publisher, then, almost certainly have to do with the era’s upbuilding pressures against Southern racism and conservatism. On the other hand, the personal struggles mentioned in the press statement likely concern the relationship between Scout and her father, Atticus. With this in mind, here are some rapid-fire predictions about Go Set a Watchman, ranging from likely to crazy:

Prediction: Atticus will be preoccupied with his failed defense.

Evidence: We know that after Harper Lee’s father, A.C. Lee, lost the court case that may well have been the basis for To Kill a Mockingbird, he never tried another case.

Prediction: Atticus may not be quite as progressive as some readers remember.

Evidence: This is a widely known biographical sentiment regarding A.C. Lee, echoed by Harper Lee’s documentarian in this video.

Prediction: The novel’s title comes, in part, from a peculiar habit of Lee’s father, who would repeatedly set his watch when nervous.

Evidence: This passage from I Am Scout, an unofficial 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.

Prediction: Someone, possibly Scout, is pregnant.

Evidence: The novel takes its name from Isaiah 21:6, which we know refers to the fall of Babylon as seen by a kind of sentinel, who is almost certainly Atticus. But 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 arriving at 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.