I just finished reading the new novel by Harper Lee. Well, not exactly new, as it is supposedly the first manuscript that eventually led to To Kill a Mockingbird. It took me all of a week to read it, and to be honest, I am not sure that I liked what I read.
I tried to like it, I really did. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it numerous times, and always loved Scout, the pugnacious six-year-old who hated dresses, loved to read, and thought fighting was the best way to solve a problem. One of my favorite lines from the book was, and in a way, still is:
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing”.
I remember reading the book in high school and having numerous discussions about racism, moral compasses, and rape. I remember feeling like the discussions sounded much the same way a Sparknotes summary would read; kinda surface level, lacking of a deeper discussion, and very focused on how racism is bad, and how a good strong moral compass will always lead a person to the right answer (whether it is the popular choice or not). I remember reading the book a year or so ago, and feeling differently about the characters. While I still loved Scout, I found her somewhat naive, and in the process, found myself somewhat naive for missing a big piece of the story; Atticus Finch was always a racist. When Go Set a Watchman was first announced, people were outraged by Atticus being painted as a racist who attends Klan meetings, and despises the NAACP. At first, I was in that boat. How dare Atticus been shown as anything other than noble. Then I noticed he takes on the case of Tom Robinson stating that just because you already lost the game before it started, doesn’t mean you should play. He took the case because he was asked to by the judge, not necessarily because he thought Tom Robinson deserved justice. As the article Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise states:
Throughout Mockingbird, Atticus is engaged in the foundational moonlight-and-magnolias Southern delusion that so swayed Ashley Wilkes and Ellen O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. He fought with the genteel cruelty of the slaver, in service of the other American dream, which is the idea that a man can be the ultimate patriarch: the cultivated master of the lower orders, the head of a family that extends through his wife and children down through the slaves. Everyone but the patriarch, it’s assumed, is slowly developing out of moral infancy—and as such, the patriarch is charged with leading everyone in religion, work ethic and cleanliness. Atticus is the son of slave owners, and he’s acting the part of one when he argues that Tom Robinson is from a clean-living family, and the black servant Calpurnia can be trusted raising white kids—this is the race equivalent of chivalry, the imperiled pedestal.
At 16, there was no way I was clever enough to notice this. At 26, I did, but tried to pretend that was not what I was reading. There was no way that I was reading that one of my favorite literary characters was not actually a strong moral compass, but merely a man who had a strong sense of right and wrong, but was still deeply flawed when it came to racial equality. I had set my watchman in Atticus Finch, and there was no way that he was anything less than the strong moral compass I saw him as when I first encountered the book more than ten years ago. This is where Go Set a Watchman comes into play.
This book is also written from Scout’s point-of-view, but this time she is a 26-year-old living in New York. She has returned home to Alabama to visit her father. That is about the extent of what happens. While home, Scout gets in a fight with Atticus and is forced to shake off her naivete and see the world for what it really is, and her father is not the God-like idol that she has built him up to be. The title comes from Isaiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” It alludes to Jean Louise Finch’s view of her father, Atticus Finch, as the moral compass (“watchman”) of Maycomb, and has a theme of disillusionment, as she realizes her bigotry.
The problem with this book is the dialogue is awful, the story is often boring, and Scout is such a snotty 20 something that you cannot wait for her to get her comeuppance. The fight she has with Atticus is actually resolved way too easily, and it in the end, Scout decides that she cannot beat the crowd, and she won’t join them, so she ops to just sit on the sidelines and pretend what they are doing is a-okay. Chance Lee wrote a very insightful piece on the books. While I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he said, there was one particular passage that really stood out for me:
The only interesting part of this book is the climax: the actual argument between Jean Louise and Atticus. However, the denouement ruins any impact this climactic battle may have had. In it, Jean Louise is slapped so violently by her uncle that her mouth bleeds. She learns that, as a young woman, she should respect the beliefs of elder white men. To not compromise with those who refuse to compromise, Jean Louise is a bigot. Her racist father, her racist aunt, are not bigots because they are right: whites are superior to Negroes.
This is a frustrating argument that still exists today, when religious fanatics who believe that their personal beliefs trump the human rights of others beg “tolerance.” Your hate is not to be tolerated. If any benefit comes from this book, it is to show us that we, as a society, have not evolved as much as we should have in the last fifty years.
The entire article can be found here: http://chancelee.com/2015/07/14/dont-set-a-watchman/ and is well worth the read.
I guess this is why I had trouble liking the story. One of the greatest literary characters of all time turned out to be a phony, and much the way Scout realizes her naivete, I now see that sometimes great men (real or literary) are not really all that great, and it is best to be your own watchman because at the end of the day, the only person who can really steer you down the right path is you.
I think this is the best piece you have ever written.