Published on August 18th, 2015 | by Dave Scaddan1
Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee)
What, you’re too good to read the new book from Harper Lee? You like your Atticus Finch frozen in amber? Get over yourself, says Dave.
Almost two years ago, copies of three unpublished stories by J.D. Salinger made the rounds on various torrent trackers. Though it was the author’s intent to have them remain in the Princeton library until fifty years after his death (2060), lack of security and reader demand broke that wish and brought these stories into the semi-public eye. One of these stories, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls”, provided a glimpse into Salinger’s Caulfield clan that went beyond what Catcher in the Rye could provide. The story came with a heavy, unavoidable dose of nostalgia, taking the reader back into the realm of an adolescent classic. It also embellished Catcher to a certain extent, showing us more of what its author kept hidden or untouched in one of the most well-known novels in American history. At the same time, reading it felt like a guilty indulgence: simultaneously an act of ignoring the creator’s wishes and an act of admiration for his work.
This is much the same effect to be found in reading about an adult Jean Louise (Scout) Finch in Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set A Watchman. It’s like catching up with a long-lost friend, scared that she’ll do something to shatter your pristine image of her, but knowing that whatever happens, you’ll keep paying attention out of sheer curiosity. Who knows why this book, a sequel to the untouchably wonderful To Kill A Mockingbird should emerge now, but it’s here, and when we’re ready, the journey back into the hot afternoons of Maycomb, Alabama await us.
Plenty has been written already (even by some who admit they refuse to read the book) about how the novel threatens to tarnish the image of Atticus Finch as a beacon of racial equality by having him utter racist sentiments in his waning years. Far more interesting than this fictional development is the reminder of what we, as readers, have done to this classic character over the past six decades. We have idealized him to the point where we feel like Atticus belongs to us, and that his creator should not meddle with his perfection. This idealized notion is the main reason Go Set A Watchman was not published in the late fifties when it was first submitted, and it raises some interesting questions about what our fictional characters have come to mean to us (and what we believe we have the right to expect from them). Atticus Finch has been made into a kind of monolith for civil rights even though he never really existed and thousands of actual civil rights activists did. Now that we have raised him to these heights, how could another entirely heroic portrayal look anything but cartoonish?
So, if you’ve heard about “racist Atticus” and avoided reading Go Set A Watchman on that reluctance alone, get over it and read it. There’s plenty more going on here than an aging, southern attorney’s concerns about the NAACP. It might be worthwhile remembering that in To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is, first and foremost, a father. Everything we see about his politics, his beliefs, his history, we see because we watch him in the role of parent. Go Set A Watchman is the continuance of that role – everything else is just cultural context, as it was before we cast our image of Atticus (probably looking a lot like Gregory Peck) in the wax museum of our collective fictional heroes.
With this in mind, Go Set A Watchman has the potential to be a bittersweet counterpart to Mockingbird. After all, it is probably inevitable that we will all live long enough to have our beliefs considered offensive by those much younger than us. Think about how a conversation involving three or four generations of your family sounds when the topic turns to immigration or same-sex marriage or the plight of transgendered people. Are your grandparents and great-grandparents insufferable, emotionless morons because they don’t agree with all the change they see? Or are they more of a reminder of how we will be at some future Thanksgiving when say, our great niece and nephew (who right now, haven’t been born yet) will scoff at us because we don’t believe that robots (or clones) should have the same rights as people? To see ourselves as ‘above’ this inevitability, to believe that our views will always remain on the cutting edge of socio-political thought, is pretty vain. Perhaps this “racist Atticus” phenomenon has its bright side. Perhaps it helps to point out that the advancement of civil rights by large groups of people has the potential to progress beyond the scope where the individualized ideology can keep up. This is true progress, no? Where would the rights of the disenfranchised be if we waited for every octogenarian to accept where we were heading?
Besides, to cast the Atticus Finch of Go Set A Watchman as a racist is a lazy, oversimplified characterization. There’s plenty more to this character, much of which is probably best left to be discovered by turning the pages yourself. The real star of the novel is Jean Louise: a young woman staring down the barrel of spinsterhood as she returns from New York to the Alabama town that spawned her. The book will remind you how funny Harper Lee is — something that’s easy to forget when one’s memories of reading her first (and only other) novel have been black-and-white-washed by Hollywood and time. It will remind you how her masterwork was actually about so much more than the trial of Tom Robinson — in essence, it was really about a child who loved her town so dearly because her father had such a wonderful way of easing the pain of all that was wrong with it. These qualities are fully alive in Go Set A Watchman, even though it may be darker and less vast than To Kill A Mockingbird.
Yet the best reason to read this book has nothing to do with what happens in it, or with who appears in it (or doesn’t). The best reason to read this book is because of who wrote it; the same reason that made it impossible for some of us not to read “The Ocean Full Of Bowling Balls” in 2013. Go Set A Watchman is the second of two novels by Harper Lee, and there will never be a third. So if you love To Kill A Mockingbird, that means that you love Harper Lee as an author and you should go back to Maycomb, if you haven’t already. It’ll be like going back to a long-ago neighbourhood you still remember growing up in — you’ll be scared of some of the changes you might see, but not as scared as you would be if nothing had changed at all.