Ok, I know the controversy surrounding this publication as well as you do. Harper Lee didn’t want this one published–no, she actually did, claims a close family member–no it’s just the publishers being greedy, claims a friend. With that in mind, I decided not to spend money on the book, but I was curious enough to borrow a friend’s copy and read it. What I was most curious about was the reports that Atticus Finch, national hero and all-around Saint for Our Times, turns out to be a racist. How? Why? What? The mind reeled. How could Harper Lee DO this to us? Didn’t she know that in a world where our heroes most often turn out to have feet of clay or at the very least terrible foreign policies, we needed this one man to teach his son that heroism is strength of moral character not a man with a gun, and to show that racist Southern town that a black man’s word could be equal to a white woman’s?
Apparently, Harper Lee wrote this novel first, and her agent talked her into reworking the flashback of the trial into a whole new novel. I love To Kill a Mockingbird, and I taught it overseas in a society where slavery was technically outlawed but not criminalized and certainly still practiced. But even though Watchman is not as well written, it still makes me sad that she didn’t write more. This was her first one. Her second, Mockingbird, was excellent. What else could she have done?
Go Set a Watchman starts out with Jean Louise Finch returning to Maycomb County, Alabama, on vacation from New York. It’s an indeterminate time in the mid-50s, presumably after 1954 because the Supreme Court has passed the school desegregation law and Southerners are mighty upset.
The grown-up Jean Louise isn’t quite sure what to do with herself initially. Her father is 72 and crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, her on-again off-again boyfriend, Hank Clinton, keeps proposing to her but she’s just not sure, and she wants to love her home town but is dismayed at seeing its shortcomings with fresh, adult eyes. She can’t really relate to the women who seem to have only their husband’s opinions and not their own and whose weekly highlight is a “coffee” hosted by her Aunt Alexandra. When, bored on a Sunday afternoon, she goes to see what her father and her boyfriend Hank are up to, she’s shocked to find them sitting quietly in a meeting of the segregationist Citizen’s Committee. Scout provides the book’s moral compass—she is outspoken and outraged and aghast; she’s made physically ill by the whole thing. The thing is, Atticus hasn’t really changed. He is still progressive for his time, but he is also a product of his culture and environment. He doesn’t believe blacks are ready for integration, likening them to children in a passage that makes modern readers feel hot under the collar (rightfully; it really is painful to read), and explaining that change can’t be forced onto a people until they are ready, but he still believes in basic equality. He is just nuanced about it.
It’s an important book for our times, and not just because the issue of race continues to haunt our society as a whole. Harper Lee is unsentimental and clear-eyed, and this is a didactic piece of fiction about seeing each other whole, flaws and strengths together, and recognizing that accepting others as they are has a lot to do with how we see ourselves. In many ways, it is a coming-of-age for Scout, who has always worshipped her father to the point that when he reveals his feet of clay she becomes physically ill. Can she, can we, still see the good in him, in the unfailing courtesy that would have him wait in line behind blacks while the white shopkeeper beckons him forward, or in his thoughtful, articulate way of handling his daughter’s disappointment in him?
In a time when we are so polarized as a nation that each side can easily believe horrible things and worse motives about the other but has trouble seeing anything positive, Harper Lee shows us that both good and bad are often true. People are complex. Everybody loves Mockingbird, whether they think President Obama is a closet Muslim born in Kenya or they think he’s the best president ever until we can get Hillary in office. Too often we see nothing in common with those on the other side, and we surround ourselves with like-minded people and are never challenged in our beliefs, only strengthened. So perhaps by showing us that even Atticus Finch is a flawed saint at best, and showing us that people and cultures change slowly and reluctantly but that we need those prophets amongst us to urge us to be our best selves, Harper Lee has done us all a favor by allowing this book to finally see the light of day.
It’s not an easy read but it’s worth it. It makes you think.