Go Set a Watchman
By Harper Lee
278 pages, $27.99
By Bruce Andriatch
Everyone has to learn the hard way that their heroes have flaws. Athletes use steroids. Political leaders steal from taxpayers. War veterans lie about their exploits.
But finding out that Atticus Finch is a bigot? Learning the truth about Santa Claus was less painful.
That should stop absolutely no one from getting their hands on a copy of “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee’s eagerly awaited – and questionably motivated – sort of sequel to/kind of first draft of the legendary classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It is filled with the evocative language, realistic dialogue and sense of place that partially explains what made “Mockingbird” so beloved.
But let’s face it: Even if it had none of that, it’s worth reading just to see what became of the fictional folk of Maycomb, Ala., after Boo Radley saves Jem and to see what all the nonfictional fuss has been about.
If somehow this is the first you’re hearing of the literary kerfuffle that culminated with the book’s release this month, a brief overview:
Lee became one of the most celebrated American writers of all time with the publication of “Mockingbird,” a status that grew exponentially with the Pulitzer Prize, the Academy Award-winning film of the same name and the placement of the book on curricula from fourth grade to college English classes. For more than 50 years, the figure of the crusading Atticus, a single father raising two children whose daughter watches him fighting with courage and integrity but ultimately in vain for the acquittal of a black man wrongfully charged with rape in 1930s Alabama, has been synonymous with the battle for racial equality in the United States. He is the person we aspire to be.
“Watchman” was, to some extent, the original effort that became “Mockingbird” with the help of an editor who guided it out of Lee. “Mockingbird” was a story seen through the eyes of 6-year-old Jean Louise Finch, aka Scout, Atticus’ only daughter. “Watchman” is told through 26-year-old Jean Louise, now living in New York City in the mid-1950s and still occasionally called Scout when she comes back home to Maycomb to visit her aging, frail father, whom she regards as her hero and her moral compass.
That all comes crashing down on page 111 of “Go Set a Watchman,” when we first begin to learn that Atticus is a racist, a hypocrite and – this might be even more difficult to take for some readers – a Conservative.
The story takes place over the course of a few summer days. The exact date is never stated, but it is sometime after the Supreme Court roiled the South by ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954 that the doctrine of separate but equal was unconstitutional.
Jean Louise finds her hometown changed in appearance but familiar in more important ways. Her father’s sister Alexandra is now living with Atticus and caring for him.
Jean Louise holds her aunt in the same low esteem with which she held her in “Mockingbird,” but the character brings out some of the best in Lee.
“Alexandra had been married for thirty-three years; if it had made any impression on her one way or another, she never showed it. She had spawned one son, Francis, who in Jean Louise’s opinion looked and behaved like a horse, and who long ago left Maycomb for the glories of selling insurance in Birmingham. It was just as well.”
The story in “Watchman” is told in the present and through flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood and teen years. It revolves in large measure around the relationship between Henry Clinton and Jean Louise, who have known each other forever. Henry, who now works as a lawyer with Atticus, would like to marry her; she loves him but is not IN love with him. In one scene, the two of them jump into the river for a nighttime swim. When news of the scandalous behavior reaches Alexandra and then Atticus, it gives Lee a chance to demonstrate her skill with dialogue.
“Mary Webster was on the blower. Her advance agents saw Hank and me swimming in the middle of river last night with no clothes on.”
“H’rm,” said Atticus. He touched his glasses. “I hope you weren’t doing the backstroke.”
“Atticus!” said Alexandra.
“Sorry, Zandra,” said Atticus. “Is that true, Jean Louise?”
“Partly. Have I disgraced us beyond repair?”
“We might survive it.”
The story turns when Jean Louise learns that both her father and Henry belong to the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, a group like many others in the South at the time dedicated to preserving segregation.
The revelation shakes Jean Louise to her core and leads to a confrontation with her father, who first espouses a belief that sounds like modern-day Conservatism.
“I’d like very much to be left alone to manage my own affairs in a live-and-let-live economy, I’d like for my state to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP, which knows next to nothing about its business and cares less.”
But on the very page, Atticus reveals his true self: “Then let’s put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
(That sound you hear is millions of hearts breaking.)
Let it be said that “Watchman” is no “Mockingbird.” It is overwritten. The characters do not feel as fully formed. A fact sheet HarperCollins Publishing sent to reviewers with the book notes that it was not edited, save for a “light copy edit.” Too bad; it feels like it needed the editing that “Mockingbird” got.
Having said that, it is a very good and very important book, but like almost every other book, it has to suffer by comparison with the revered “Mockingbird.”
The obvious question then is: Should it have been published? Isn’t it easy to now understand why Lee never approved of its release before she was weakened by age? Wouldn’t we be better off thinking of a world where the more pure version of Atticus Finch is possible?
The answers to those questions are as complicated as the relationship between an adult daughter and her father, after she discovers he is not a god. But instead of being devastated, we could be reassured to know that a literary paragon of goodness and virtue is imperfect, with imperfect views about race, just like the rest of us.
We live in a complicated world, maybe just as complicated as those depicted in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Go Set a Watchman.” Ask the residents of Ferguson, Mo., or of Charleston, S.C., or Boston or Chattanooga or even Buffalo. When it comes to living with and understanding each other, nothing is ever as simple as we want it to be.
Maybe now was exactly the right time for us to learn that even Atticus Finch is not the hero we thought he was.
Bruce Andriatch is The News’ Features Editor