As I started Go Set a Watchman, Harper’s Lee’s highly anticipated sequel that is now being labeled as a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, I tried to manage my expectations. Early reviews and quick takes from the chapter released online a few days before told me that Atticus Finch wasn’t quite the beloved everyman hero that we all grew up with, and that Lee’s writing wasn’t exactly of TKAM standards. And of course, there’s all the controversy just over the actual discovery and publication of the novel – how could I not go into this without some sort of bias?
Upon finishing the book, two things were very clear to me: 1) yes, this definitely had the markings of a first draft that was then reworked and revised into what became TKAM, a novel that many call the greatest American novel of all time; and 2) adult Scout’s revelations about herself and her father quite closely mirror those of Americans during the Civil Rights Era – and if we’re being honest with ourselves, all the more today. If what they say is true, that Lee’s publisher thought her first draft of Watchman was too harsh and too real for those times and that’s why she vigorously edited it for a softer landing, one would think that in reading Watchman now, we would be ready and welcoming, rushing to give ourselves pats on the back for overcoming racial tension and accepting the federal government’s interference into our lives for the purpose of equality. But based on some reactions, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
There’s no need to spend a lot of time discussing the stylistic merits of Watchman. I plan to reread TKAM to remind myself of that masterpiece, but I do think Watchman misses the mark in a few spots. Filler and backstory take up too much time, and some of the extended flashbacks don’t seem to serve a purpose to the larger plot, which doesn’t start to get moving until late in the story. Then all of a sudden, there’s an explosion of dialogue, lots of yelling, and a somewhat unsatisfying ending. The entire book takes place over the course of three days: a short amount of time to have a second coming-of-age journey and major life revelation. Despite all this, Lee’s distinctive details shine through, and old characters come to life again, even those who only appear in flashbacks, like Dill or Jem.
So what’s the real fuss about? Watchman comes during a pivotal time for Americans, while we are still absorbing months of seemingly unending racial unrest and injustice. At its heart, Watchman is about reevaluating our heroes – whether they are parents, police, politicians, explorers, innovators, sports champions, or characters on the page and screen. TKAM is written from the point of view of 5-year-old Scout who adores her father with the rest of us; she’s blind to his faults, and blind to the world beyond Maycomb, perhaps even beyond her own front yard. Watchmen shows us Atticus Finch and the world from the eyes of an adult; Scout goes by Jean Louise, and she’s no longer innocent, naïve, or completely enamored with her father and her hometown.
Jean Louise’s experience isn’t anything new. Haven’t we all experienced a second coming-of-age at some point, in which we realize that the people that we once perceived as perfect in nature and in principle are actually flawed and susceptible to change? The people who make us laugh, who inspire us to be great and to go the distance, who make our world a bit brighter (and perhaps more rose-colored) – many of them eventually let us down as they fall victim to human foible and or give in to pressures from society and themselves, for better or worse, right or wrong. Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, and the Founding Fathers; all revered for their strength, wit, leadership, ideas, or courage, and yet all examples of (and in some instances, certainly not excusable) the capriciousness of the human spirit. Atticus Finch, to our dismay, now falls into that category, but are we truly surprised?
Humans love to watch people rise and fall, but they often deny their involvement in the process, even if that means turning a blind eye or a deaf ear, only to be indignant after the fact. We have always searched for individuals we can prop up on pedestals engraved with titles of our choosing: hero, warrior, champion, leader, genius, changemaker. And yet, we are unwilling to recognize that these labels are only a part of what makes them who they are, and that they are vulnerable to displaying their other, not so well-liked attributes just as easily as we are. So when it does happen, we are shocked, or perhaps outraged. But are we more upset that our hero messed up or that our carefully tended ideals have been tarnished by the realities of life? Or is it, like in Scout’s case, realizing that we won’t always believe the same things as the ones we loved and learned from? Is it not realistic that a younger Atticus Finch could defend a black man and promote racial equality, yet grow jaded and even prejudiced over the course of 20 years as he faces tremendous change in his life? While we may hope that everyone always changes for the better, we must recognize that it is hardly representative of what actually happens. A week’s worth of news is example enough: just when we feel we have taken a step forward as society, embracing tenets of love and tolerance and progress, we take two steps back and are inundated with rape and murder, hate and treachery.
Reading Go Set a Watchman does not have to destroy a long-held image of a favorite character (and by the way, he’s just a character, not a real person), nor does it have to alter our view of Harper Lee, who for many years was known as a one-hit wonder. Watchman has given us a chance to look behind the scenes at what it takes to write a brilliant and enduring work of fiction. TKAM can still stand on its own, whether or not you read Watchman and whether you love it or hate it. But more importantly, Watchman also invites us to take a closer look within ourselves to discover what we believe and stand for as individuals, who we look up to and stand by and why, and how we can find a way to meld those two together to bravely go forward in this world.
Have you read Go Set a Watchman? What did you think?