Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently, you’ve probably heard about Harper Lee’s newest (aka oldest) novel, Go Set a Watchman. If the previous sentence is the first time you’re hearing of this, please leave this page immediately and head to your nearest bookstore. For the rest of you, welcome.
Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is a beloved classic that also happens to be my favorite book of all time. So, when I heard about the release date of a second novel by Harper Lee with the same characters from Mockingbird, I could have died from excitement. My calendar was marked with a countdown and on the morning of July 14th, I was at my local bookstore by 8am waiting to buy the novel. I spent the next 18 hours enveloped inside Maycomb, Alabama with the characters I already knew so dearly and, once I finished, I was surprised to see that the world was such a harsh critic. Many folks, after similarly spending the whole afternoon buried in Go Set A Watchman, were less than pleased and I could not understand why.
As a lover of To Kill A Mockingbird, I also loved Go Set A Watchman; all of the reasons people hated the newest novel were the same reasons I had loved it. And then it hit me, the reasons were the same. In order to love Watchman you have to put the novel into proper context to really appreciate it and those who deemed it unworthy of literary praise were not doing so.
Most importantly, it’s critical to understand that Go Set A Watchman is NOT the sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird. Nor is it a prequel, or an alternate universe. Rather, it is an unedited first draft of Mockingbird. In the 50s Harper Lee was a first time writer, drawing from her own life experiences. After submitting her first draft, her publisher told her that the flashback scenes in her draft were more interesting than the actual novel so Lee went back and developed those scenes, writing what we know today as To Kill A Mockingbird; It took years of rewrites and revisions for the end result of Mockingbird to be published. Go Set a Watchman is literarily amazing for this exact reason – because you actually get to see where Mockingbird started and how Lee chose to develop the characters of Maycomb.
One of the things I loved most about Go Set A Watchman were the inconsistencies. In Watchman, Tom Robinson is mentioned to have been acquitted of his rape charges, whereas in Mockingbird he was found guilty! And, for years, there have been debates about whether Mockingbird’s main moral story was about racism in the south or the struggles of girlhood and this novel clearly proves that it was about both. In their own ways, each novel makes a political statement about the times and racism while still being a coming of age novel about Jean Louise/Scout. Through Go Set A Watchman you actually get to watch the creative process of a literary genius and if that isn’t reason enough to read it, then I don’t know what possibly is.
The change in point of view from Mockingbird to Watchman was something that annoyed me a bit at first. Loving that Mockingbird was from Scout’s point of view, I had a hard time adjusting to the shift in narrative but realized, as the novel progressed, the change to a third person point of view proved 100% necessary. Mockingbird was an adult novel from a child’s perspective, and I hate to break it to Mockingbird lovers, but the truth is that the world never really knew Atticus Finch. We only knew Scout’s idea of Atticus. She saw him as a god, so we saw him as a god (when truthfully he was just human). So in Watchman, when Jean Louise could not handle this newfound version of Atticus her adult self came to find, neither could we. She’d held him on a pedestal her whole life and as such, so did we.
In the most poetically just way, Lee has Atticus take himself off of this pedestal so that Jean Louise can move on and become her own person.
The literary world is all crying over the fact that Atticus is a racist. But while, he goes to a Citizen’s Council meeting and has opinions about the Supreme Court telling the south what to do, he is not going around burning the houses of southern black people nor is he screaming profanities at them down the street. He is what most elderly white men where in that time period and that should not be too harshly criticized. Atticus always loved justice because it followed the rules. He was a firm believer of the Constitution, and he believed that Brown v Board of Education went against the 10th Amendment. That is why his views seemed so different from what Scout knew (and what we knew) in To Kill A Mockingbird. “Justice for all, special treatment for none” isn’t about black versus white – to Atticus it was about the law versus those who put it into affect.
Also worthy of mention, is that if this book had been released shortly after Mockingbird as opposed to 55 years later, I don’t believe people would have been as angry about the “shift” in Atticus’ portrayal; they would have focused more on the beautiful father/daughter relationship this book depicted. But To Kill A Mockingbird was a classic for 55 years. For 55 years, people were read about Atticus, his moral high ground, his representation of Tom Robinson, they used Mockingbird as a compass of right and wrong, and they froze Atticus in an idealized world that was passed down for generations. Unfortunately, people change and that’s just reality; some people are Democrats in their 20s and Republicans in their 50s and this novel brilliantly touches on how people can change (both in and out of novels). Atticus simply shifted with the times and parallels the impossibility of stillness in a changing world.
Now, while the circumstances under which this book was “found” and published are murky at best, and while I do believe Harper Lee never wanted this published, the fact is, it is now public domain. People are boycotting the novel because they don’t want their interpretation of Mockingbird to change or they don’t want to participate in the exploitation of Lee. Bookstores are offering refunds for disappointed readers. But the fact remains that this novel is out there and it’s going to be read and sold regardless of the people who are protesting it and, for that reason, I think it would be a waste to not read and learn from it.
I also stand against the theory that Watchman ruins Mockingbird. Just as Atticus once said,“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it,” and the same is true about this book. You have to read it with the proper knowledge and in the proper context to truly appreciate it.
I believe that Watchman makes Mockingbird an even better classic. It’s like watching the old concept art of an animated Disney classic, not quite the brilliance of the end product, but still interesting to see as the starting point. Watchman was the flu that the 50s wasn’t ready for and Mockingbird was the antibiotic that cured it. In the sense of bringing to light the new laws and changing of an era, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman killed that mockingbird.