Go Set a Record Straight

Go Set a WatchmanForget what you’ve read and/or assume about Go Set a Watchman. It is not a “first draft” of To Kill a Mockingbird. And while it may not narrowly meet the definition of sequel, it sure reads like one: a new story, set decades later, with most of the same characters. Indeed, it really feels like the writer of this book assumes readers are familiar with the events and characters of To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes, there are inconsistencies, huge ones, which indicate it was not written after final edits to Mockingbird. But it mostly works as a sequel.

Also, Go Set a Watchman is not remotely, as NPR suggested (and many people suspected), “a mess.” It pleasurable reading, with Lee’s talent for dry humor and poetic description, and her unmatched ability to write perspicaciously about her own terrain. There are some uneven transitions, overlong conversations that could be trimmed (the mansplaining in this book!), and the aforementioned inconsistencies with Mockingbird, but it is not far from the polished sequel that might have been, if Lee had wanted to pursue it. I wonder how much of the decision not to publish this, as is, has more to do with anxiety over how the (white) reading public would receive it, than a judgment on its literary quality? And I wonder if Lee’s decision to abstain had more to do with roiling her community than feeling the manuscript was not up to snuff and beyond salvation?

Now to the touchy spot. The Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is a continuation of the one we love from Mockingbird. It is not a different Atticus, or a different draft of Atticus. Sorry, folks. This is Atticus. Harper Lee goes out of her way to show us that the Atticus in Watchman is every inch the Atticus of Mockingbird. And, as you have probably read, in Watchman Atticus is a bigot.

Keep in mind that even the Mockingbird-era Atticus is a man of his time and place. His attitude toward black people is kind but paternalistic. He maintains his idealism in the courthouse, but the black people he has in his house are servants. He is a perfect example of the white moderate of good will, the kind Martin Luther King described as “the biggest stumbling block” to equality. This new Atticus does fit with that one; he may not fit with the one in your head but he fits with the one in the book.

Early reviewers dropped a “Snape kills Dumbledore” sized spoiler on the reading public, but the reviewers didn’t tell you this: it is supposed to be shocking. It is absolutely devastating to Jean Louise (aka Scout) when she finds out what her father has become. If we feel the soil give way beneath our feet, it’s because that’s exactly what Lee intended to do to us. I’m sorry you had to find out that way. I’m sorry I had to find out that way.

But it’s important for us to accept that this is our beloved Atticus Finch, and not some Bizarro world Atticus Finch, because racism is not just enacted by the uneducated, trashy Ewells of the world. It is also enacted by genteel and well-educated whites, even ones with lofty principles. Jean Louise discovers her father at his racist meeting among “men of substance and character, responsible men, good men. Men of all varieties and reputations.” She hides and listens to the filth spew from their mouths. None spews from her father’s mouth, at this meeting, but he doesn’t speak up. She thinks: “Did that make it less filthy? No, it condoned.”

This is a necessary message, and a necessary postscript to To Kill a Mockingbird. Racism is enacted by kind, polite people. Silence is sanction. If this is not the same Atticus, and if this is not a sequel, there is utterly no point to the book. The book is about Scout, now grown, coming to terms with the frailties of her own origins. Everywhere she goes, all of the people she meets, the people she loves, veer into racist diatribes. Is she of these people, she asks herself? Are these the people she loves? When she describes herself as color blind, it is not to hint that she doesn’t “see color,” in that late 20th Century trope, but that she has been blind to the true nature of her community. To be honest, even Jean Louise’s own New York-influenced high mindedness falls short of 2015 standards (but she’s getting there, her own ideas evolving even in the text.)

This book is a time capsule; perhaps its most glaring deficit in that regard is that Lee could not know how iconic Atticus and Scout would be decades later, how much we would want Atticus to remain a pillar of progressive ethics. Lee writes about him as if he were a mere human character. Perhaps the idealized Atticus Finch is another southern flag that needs to be lowered.

I won’t belabor this point, but I want to set the record straight on the book itself. Go Set a Watchman is not a mess, nor is it a sloppy draft. Read as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it has powerful and necessary truths, even ones that make us uncomfortable. It deepens and complicates our understanding of To Kill a Mockingbird, and though it is imperfect, it is no stain on Lee’s legacy.

4 thoughts on “Go Set a Record Straight

  1. This is one of the most insightful and coherent things I’ve read in response to this book. I haven’t read it yet, and was thinking I didn’t want to, but now you’ve made me want to go ahead, take a deep breath, and read. In light of so many controversies these days, this feels like a very relevant book as you’ve described it. Thanks.

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