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Go Set a Watchman – It’s Not About Atticus

Karin Kallmaker Sisters of the Pen 3 Comments

Go Set a Watchman

The trending hashtag was #atticusracist. I’ve felt very alone wondering why it wasn’t #scoutreturns. Plenty has already been written and argued about whether Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, should have even been published, whether she was elder-abused into publishing it and whether it damages the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird. I hadn’t even been trying to follow the debate and have nevertheless read excerpts of blogs, Facebook posts, Tweets and in some cases entire critical articles I couldn’t resist because I was definitely having a reaction to the reactions.

I want to be clear – I have only read the first chapter, just like most people making social media types of posts like this one. It is definitely on my list to read.

The general plot summary: A twenty-something Southerner returns home from college to find that heroes of the past are flawed, and life more nuanced than the child ever noticed. Among these discoveries is that loved ones hold views the narrator finds repugnant, forcing a reassessment of the past. This is the classic plot of hundreds of books acclaimed for insight into culture and history, and the reflections of the narrator on important topics like class, race and gender.

Where’s Scout?

As a female reader growing up and in college, I read dozens of novels with this general theme – going home again and home is not what it used to be – and most of them were written by men with male protagonists. In the case of Watchman, the narrator and author of the story are both women. Of course I realize the role that tomboy Scout plays in many of our lives, but I’m troubled by a wide-spread insistence that this beloved female narrator shouldn’t be allowed to grow up, and that her creator should have kept her vision of Scout as a young woman to herself forever.

Because legacy? I get that on one level. Scout has been frozen in time for more than 60 years and I am personally leery of unfreezing her in my own mind. It might be painful. How can it measure up?

But on another level I can’t miss the fact that a woman writer and her rare female character are being gutted of their agency to tell a story that men tell all the time, and to praise like “insightful, unsettling” and so on. I notice that the narrator we have known to be truthful, observant and unflinching is being discounted or wished to silence.

Because She’s a Woman? Or Because We Don’t Like Her Truths This Time? Both?

What trended in the days before the release of the novel, when only a few critics had read it in its entirety and only an excerpt was available online, was that Atticus Finch is revealed as a racist. Not only was our adult Scout being robbed of her right to have a story about herself to tell, focus was almost entirely on the men in the story and how Jean Louise, no longer Scout, now perceived them.

Open Quote Mark featuring Starry NightSomehow, a story with a female narrator who wonders if she will marry, worries about her aging parent, feels alienated from the world around her, questions her role as a woman in society, was all about a man.

Critics focused on how Atticus had changed. Analysis of Jean Louise and her reactions, discoveries and growth – mostly missing, or offhand. Because I have not yet read the book I was looking in these reviews for information about Scout and found next to none, beyond simple plot summary. Then I began to wonder why.

What I was reading instead on social media was rejection of the idea that Atticus Finch might have changed. Sometimes there was enough thought to suggest the idea that Scout might not have fully understood him when she was a child, but mostly Atticus was the focus of the attention. Why? Because he can’t be racist.

Because good people can’t be racists, right?

Out of all that’s swirling around online, that is the gist that comes through loud and clear. Atticus Finch represented a good white man who believed a Negro should get a fair trial. So he can’t believe that and be a racist too.

The idea that a moral person can’t also be racist flies in the face of our history and seems yet another stage in denial of how complex people really are. Too many good, moral people are racist on some level, and a good many more people want to deny the reality that Atticus Finch now represents.

I wonder if that’s because it chips away at the group delusion that racism isn’t still real and pervasive, and it challenges the conscience-salving myth that the South was full of Atticus Finches, fighting for civil rights. Which, with a sigh of relief, was translated to mean that all American history is full of real Atticus Finches, and therefore only a few bad seeds are actual racists.

Jean Louise discovers that the South is indeed full of Atticus Finches – she is shattered by learning the entirety of his world view. Someone with great moral courage and goodness who isn’t perfect, has been warped by fear and poisoned by wanting the world to be simpler, and therefore is part of the problem of racism – people like this run through our history. They are our ancestors, our grandparents and parents, and – please to a lesser degree – they are us.

For Jean Louise, these discoveries are devastating. They cause her to question the world she lives in and how she can fit in. Why is that not a valid story for her to tell us?

Even when this observation about the era is serendipitously well-timed, and holds up a mirror to debates we are finally having right now about complacency and revising history, far too many people are rejecting the premise as possible, or, perhaps more honestly, saying it’s not a premise they want to hear.

Or, that this sadness and trauma was not what Harper Lee intended – it’s just a mistake. Harper Lee can’t possibly have meant to tell us this story. A story that she conceived 60+ years ago, possibly even before To Kill a Mockingbird. No, the story is the fault of her executor and publisher who failed to edit the book, which I can only read to mean “should have changed the story.” Why is what Harper Lee wrote not a valid story for her to tell us?

Sorry, but everyone agrees that Harper Lee wrote the book. What we find in it is Harper Lee’s work. Why are critics trying to assign “blame” elsewhere? Why is it impossible that, when looking at the state of racism in America, Harper Lee finally realized it was time to tell us more truth through the evolution of her characters and Scout’s voice, a truth she observed all around her more than half a century ago?

If the publication of the book is to be judged, then judge it by mistakes and flaws of writing craft, and some critics have begun to take that task on. With several days on sale, comments more of this nature are emerging.

Open Quote Mark featuring Starry NightBut the attempt to blame the story itself on how the book came to be “hurriedly” published reeks of denial that this may be exactly the experience the author wanted the reader to have when she conceived the story – for us to be unsettled, heartbroken, disoriented in our own lives.

Is it because Harper Lee is old that some seem so eager to claim she’s not responsible for her own story, again, written more than half a century ago?

As I finished this blog I saw that The Atlantic’s review “What About Scout?” is out, and it was the first I’d seen that looks at Go Set a Watchman as having a valid story, Scout’s story, to tell, while acknowledging that more editing would have further strengthened the prose and dialogue. I also discovered this powerful review from NPR’s Errin Whack.

To Kill a Mockingbird was about race, wasn’t it? It made me feel as if there was hope, and the world could change, and that a girl could tell a powerful tale about how she really feels. Go Set a Watchman‘s story doesn’t ruin Mockingbird‘s legacy. To Kill a Mockingbird is a world and a young girl we desperately want to exist. But like Scout, I think we may have to grow up to take in that Jean Louise – and we as well – are living far, far from that hope made reality.

If nothing else, Go Set a Watchman‘s very existence, and the hurt and outrage people feel at the idea that their beloved hero could be so deeply flawed has made us all Scout once again. We are shattered by the truth, and everything we thought we could trust turns out to be far more complicated than we want it to be. Like racism, like our history.

It has already caused this much reflection and thought in me and I haven’t even read it yet.

Copyrighted material.

Comments 3

  1. I must admit, my partner and I were very excited when the announcement was made regarding “Go Set A Watchman” and we pre-ordered a copy immediately. Then the “reviews” started, with the focus being on Atticus being a racist. We talked about it, and basically decided that we didn’t want to read “Watchman” for fear it would adversely affect our love of “Mockingbird” and we didn’t want to take that risk. We currently have the book on a shelf, in a “to read” sort of netherworld. I still don’t know what we’ll eventually do, to read or not to read.

  2. Karin, I haven’t read it either, but, like you, have read about it. To add to your Scout-focused list, Maureen Corrigan of NPR did a review that walked right up to the line of outing Scout, lamenting the fact that she was born too soon and wishing she could take her to a performance of Fun Home (!) to make her see that everything ends up okay for tomboy girls. In terms of the book itself, I thought Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker made 2 good observations: 1) looking at the text itself, he didn’t buy the idea that Watchman was the original MS sent to the publisher. He thought it was a sequel that Harper Lee locked away because she didn’t think it worthy. and 2) he saw no contradiction in the Atticus portrayed in both books. Instead he saw Atticus as a clear example of the type of “kinder segregationist” who didn’t engage in violence but still saw Black people as “children” who had not earned their rights.

Thoughtful and Congenial are welcome visitors. Disrespect and Spite will be shown the door.