The day Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was released, Distinguished Professor of Law Judy Cornett (A&S ’77; LAW ’82) read the entire book. Though she holds a JD and teaches law, Cornett earned master’s and doctoral degrees in English and has always had a great interest in Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Since taking part in a 2007 panel examining the influence of literary lawyers and judicial films on modern-day attorneys, Cornett’s appreciation for Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird has deepened. She has presented her thoughts at several conferences and lectured in continuing legal education programs, examining Finch’s behavior according to modern ethics rules, specifically the Model Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers.
There’s been a lot of buzz around Go Set a Watchman due to its origins and the surprising picture it paints of Finch, who has long been considered a hero in American fiction.
Here are Cornett’s five things you need to know about Go Set a Watchman.
- Go Set a Watchman is the story of twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch (known as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird), who returns to her roots in Maycomb, Alabama—the small-town Deep South—after living in New York City for five years. The story is told in the third person but reads like a first-person narrative. Like her younger self in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise is a sharp social critic. Her observations about her culture are witty and sometimes caustic.
- The novel takes place in the late 1950s, after the US Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which compelled the racial integration of public schools.
- Jean Louise must come to terms with how Maycomb reacts to legally mandated racial integration, which has brought to the surface racial tensions that were submerged during her idealized childhood. The denizens of her hometown—including her father, Atticus Finch, now seventy-two years old—resist integration. Her father argues on constitutional grounds that the federal government should not impose fundamental social change on states. Jean Louise counters that the ruling does no more than provide justice for African Americans, a principle which Atticus himself upheld in his defense of a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman.
- The conflict between Jean Louise and Atticus exemplifies the collision between ideals and reality that inevitably accompanies life experience. Jean Louise judges Atticus, but the novel points out that belonging to a community requires that we move beyond judgment.
- The question for Jean Louise is what does it mean to be from Maycomb but not of it? Is there a way to renounce the community’s—and her father’s—racism without renouncing the people she loves, and even herself? Indeed, the novel suggests that this is the dilemma for all progressive southerners. As her Uncle Jack says, “[I]t takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days.”