As the release date for Watchman approached I deliberately avoided any articles about it. I didn’t read the released first chapter, I didn’t read speculation or spoilers. I wanted a clean slate. However, I did accidentally read a few headlines and began to feel deep apprehension and terror at reading the book. I have for several years romanticized and idealized Atticus to the point that if people ask me what kind of guy I want to date I might respond, “Like Atticus but maybe more outdoorsy.” I was not sure if I could handle Atticus being anything but what he was in To Kill A Mockingbird. And this is all in addition to the hubbub and controversy of whether or not Harper Lee consented to have this book published in the first place.
But, despite it all I knew I had to read it and I am incredibly glad I did. There is so much to this book that writing this review a mere few hours after reading it seems dangerous because I probably need more time to fully digest it. But, I have to write. My reaction to reading Watchman was so nuanced I have to begin a review, even if after days or weeks my reaction becomes more full or clear. I have to discuss now.
If you don’t want spoilers, please DON’T read on. Please do as I did prior to reading Go Set A Watchman and avoid this post as if it were your worst nightmare. If you’ve read the book or don’t care about spoilers or don’t ever plan on reading it, please continue.
First of all, it is great seeing Scout as an adult. She has shed her childhood name and now goes by Jean Louise, but she is every bit as stubborn and just as much a firecracker. She still has it out with Aunt Alexandra on the regular but nowadays, when she says something to irritate Aunty it might be more calculated. She still prefers pants to dresses and still can’t fathom the traditions of the ladies of Maycomb. She is a delight.
What I find to be the most poignant aspect of this book–at least for my personal edification–is, Jean Louise feels all the feelings we as readers do. We idolized Atticus because Scout did in To Kill A Mockingbird. As an adult Jean Louise learns her father is fallible and makes mistakes. We as readers understand her duress upon seeing Atticus at a Citizens’ Council (a white supremacist group), because we literally feel it ourselves. Figurative empathizing with a character goes out the window here–Jean Louise feels sick to her stomach and so do we. How could Atticus, who behaved the same way in his front yard as he did in his living room, go to a meeting that portrayed black people as subhuman? How do we not feel the same rage that leaves Jean Louise yelling in the street when Atticus tries to defend his stance? He who defended Tom Robinson and treated Cal like a member of the family? It is nearly intolerable.
But, here is one thing I gathered from this book: While it could be said To Kill A Mockingbird was about Scout and Jem and childhood and justice and seeing Atticus as a hero, Go Set A Watchman is more about Jean Louise developing her own conscience outside of what Atticus would do. That’s not a very deep revelation, Harper Lee spells it out with the help of Uncle Jack Finch. But it is an important distinction to make. We all idolized Atticus, but because our perceptions were set by a child consumed by hero worship, we forgot that Atticus was a man of the South. He, as are we all, was a product of his culture. He is imperfect. He is human. Does that justify attending meetings and arguing that integration would only harm Maycomb’s black citizens because they are too far behind to catch up to their white counterparts? No, it doesn’t. But I don’t think it means we have to stop loving Atticus.
Atticus makes it very clear he still loves everyone. He still treats every person with respect and dignity. But, he’s not perfect. He doesn’t want the big federal government telling southern people how to live, a common refrain from that part of the country still heard today. He is still very much Atticus, despite this painful revelation of his character.
All in all, there are many things Atticus says that hurt. As a reader I, like Jean Louise, want there to be some kind of explanation. I want it to be a misunderstanding or a joke. It isn’t a joke and it isn’t quite a misunderstanding. However, Atticus is still Atticus. Jean Louise hurls at him accusations of being just as bad as a man who speaks at the Citizens’ Council who was, “…the political symbol of everything her father and men like him despised,” but later learns Atticus still doesn’t agree with that man. Like any other situation in which he might find himself, Atticus will let people speak their piece and do what they do. But, the moment any person–be they black, white, rich, poor–tries to hurt someone else, he will use every ounce of his skill and the entire justice system to mount a defense. Justice and law are ultimately what guide Atticus Finch.
I think it is also important to remember that Go Set A Watchman isn’t a proper sequel. It was written first and we see plainly that many details changed when it was rewritten to become To Kill A Mockingbird. We don’t know what inspired those changes or what felt the most true to Harper Lee. We don’t know why there seems to be such a disconnect between the Atticus we have come to love and the Atticus in this new light. We don’t need to read these two books as if one supersedes the other. They are two different parts of a long history. It’s also key to remember that Go Set A Watchman isn’t the end result, To Kill A Mockingbird is. I don’t think we can responsibly take everything we read in Watchman as the final say in the matter of Maycomb and its citizens.
There is no excuse for a Citizens’ Council. But after reading this, I still love Atticus. It is probable that Watchman is too distant from Mockingbird to taint my love for Atticus or Calpurnia or anyone. They are 55 years apart in publication, 20 years apart in storyline, and leaps and bounds apart in creative skill on Harper Lee’s part. Go Set A Watchman, it seems, is where Harper Lee learned to write a book. It is not as great as To Kill A Mockingbird, and not just because we lose our idealized view of Atticus.
Watchman isn’t as rich. It isn’t as well worked out. It is a good read, but if it weren’t for Mockingbird, it probably wouldn’t be much of a blip on the literary landscape. It is the novel written so that Lee could change the world with To Kill A Mockingbird. There are sentences and entire paragraphs taken directly from this book and put into To Kill A Mockingbird. There are themes and patterns seen in both books. There are also details we see played out in Mockingbird that we can tell from Watchman were changed in later drafts. For example, the details surrounding the pivotal rape and race case in Mockingbird are dramatically different in Watchman. I have read To Kill A Mockingbird at least 11 times now, and as such a frequent reader of that book, reading Watchman was kind of like reading original notes and ideas that eventually changed shape and took a wholly different form in the end. It was amazing. Atticus’s racist tendencies aside, reading this book was amazing.
I can’t even begin to comment on what Harper Lee’s intentions were for this book. But it seems in Go Set A Watchman, all the rage and betrayal she might have felt as a Southern woman maturing during the Civil Rights Movement were expressed in this book. And it seems possible To Kill A Mockingbird was the hope that followed.
As Jean Louise says, “[Atticus] has left [us] flopping like a flounder at low tide.” It is a side of Atticus we never dreamed possible. But this book is remarkable, in its way. Had this book been published in 1960, it would not have gone well. In fact, without the existence of To Kill A Mockingbird it probably still wouldn’t go well.
Watchman depicts white southerners, including Atticus, as the antagonizers of Civil Rights. America loves its heroes, especially its white heroes. In this book, Scout is heroic but not in the same way as Atticus in Mockingbird. While Mockingbird is a glimmer of hope, Watchman is a cold calling out of segregation and racist practices. There isn’t a holy white Savior–a white man is just as likely to be racist as he is to say Hidy-do. America prefers to see white heroes coming to the defense of black people in plight, and that simply doesn’t happen in Go Set A Watchman.
Ultimately, Go Set A Watchman isn’t as romantic or warmhearted or endearing as To Kill A Mockingbird. It is more an evolution of personal conscience. It revisits a few old characters, breaks our hearts a time or two, but shows us the wonderful human Scout turned out to be.