Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
With the flap over Harper Lee’s new book still simmering among readers I know, I have to admit that I’m surprised at how virulently both professional reviewers and ordinary lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird hated the fact that Go Set a Watchman finally made it into print.
Sure, it’s not the example of craftsmanship that To Kill a Mockingbird is. But then, in the last few months it’s been well established that it was an early draft of that novel, one that is set some eighteen years after those hot summer days of the Great Depression when Atticus stood up against his friends and relations in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama to defend an African American man against rape charges.
Like many people of my generation, I was worried about reading the story of a lesser Atticus. A few years ago, during the years-long fiftieth anniversary celebration of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, I was in the independent bookstore Bookshop Santa Cruz and saw a bumper sticker for sale: “What would Atticus do?” That this is practically blasphemy in the comparison of Atticus to Jesus didn’t matter. I loved it and bought multiple copies, distributing it to some of my favorite English teacher buddies.
So I found it ironic that in Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch asks the very question “What would Atticus do?” The answer is not what Jean Louise had hoped he would–and not what all the folks with images of Gregory Peck standing in the courthouse, worn out from Tom Robinson’s defense, had hoped for either. (If you are over forty, Gregory Peck is so melded in your mind with Atticus Finch that you can’t even pretend they are different people.)
So what if Harper Collins manufactured a fake literary event? People are free to respond as they see fit. There was no order that readers rush to get the book at midnight of its publication date. Take away the ‘New Harper Lee Book Discovered!’ nonsense, and I’m glad that Go Set a Watchman was published. It’s a great example of how a pretty decent book becomes a great book in the hands of a great editor.
The best parts of Go Set A Watchman are not those that are causing controversy, but rather Jean Louise’s reminiscences of her girlhood (as ‘Scout,’ of course) and the author’s beautiful evocation of small town Southern life in Maycomb. It is easy to see an editor reading the manuscript and pointing out these passages to Lee. “Here’s your story. Write it.” Anyone who is a writer–whose secret desire is to become a published author–would do well to read both books and note how completely the story changes. That so much work went into a manuscript that the author had considered fully realized may give the struggling writer the faith to press on, to discover the heart of her story and start again.
For junior high and high school students, reading Go Set a Watchman just before reading To Kill a Mockingbird would provide an excellent opportunity to understand why their teachers require several drafts of important papers and why they are taught to peer edit one another’s work. Besides the clear superiority of the sections of Go Set a Watchman that deal with Scout’s childhood, there is a lesson in the mess that Jean Louise tries to sort out about her father’s views of race and segregation. Lee turns rather long speeches about ideology into dialogue, a mistake that writing teachers refer to as ‘info dumps.’
The info dumps containing views on the NAACP and whether the South is ready in the 1950’s to be fully integrated are now historical arguments–and Jean Louise’s father, aunt, and uncle all land on the wrong side of history. These ideological issues are the trigger that forces Jean Louise to see her father as a man and not some sort of infallible god. We readers of To Kill a Mockingbird, like Jean Louise, are unhappy to be disillusioned with Atticus. Too bad. A break with a parent’s conscience and the formation of one’s own is a necessary ritual of coming into adulthood. It, too, is an important lesson for teens to derive from the books they read. For those of us adults who want too much to cling to an idea of Atticus as the father we all wish we had guiding us through life–well, it’s never too late to realize that our conscience and our actions are in our own hands.