Go Set a Watchman
When the rumors began to circulate that a lost Harper Lee novel had been discovered, I was over the moon. Like so many others, To Kill A Mockingbird was one of my favorite novels as an adolescent. I loved Scout in all her awkwardness, I loved Maycomb county and all its characters, and I wanted to either be Atticus when I grew up or marry him. What could be better than another book by the genius who crafted this masterpiece?
Then it was released. And people started writing reviews. So many fellow bibliophiles and Lee-lovers were up in arms Mud was slung, tears were cried, babies’ names were changed to protect them from this new, diminished Atticus. All of this and I moved this summer, so I didn’t actually take the time to read Go Set A Watchman until last month. Here are my thoughts.
First, I’m a big believer of putting books in their context. As real as the Finches and the rest of the folks in Maycomb county were to me (and perhaps you) we have to remember that they were not real people. The Atticus of Mockingbird did not, in fact, grow into old age and become the Atticus of Watchman. Actually, the Atticus in Watchman (the one hipsters regret naming their baby after) came into existence before the soft spoken, just, sharp shooting Atticus of Mockingbird. I know, it’s hard to keep it all straight. So….understanding all of that, I choose to think of Watchman as the work of a younger Harper Lee, instead of the portrait of an older Atticus. Lee and her perspective changed as she wrote Mockingbird and, consequently, so did Atticus.
The thought I was left thinking after finishing Watchman was this: we are so maddeningly prone to creating for ourselves idols out of the people around us. Most notably, children do this with our parents (as Jean Louise did with Atticus) but I think we all do this with a myriad of folks in our lives. We set up our spouses, our friends, our siblings, our pastors, as idols who stand on pedestals and we hold them to an impossibly perfect standard. Then, when they fall, which they always do, we are devastated. We are smashed to pieces along with them and we wonder if anything we know to be true really is.
That, in essence, was the lesson I learned from Scout and Harper in Go Set a Watchman. Atticus, backward racist though we may think him when we read with our 21st century eyes, was a kind and good father because he allowed himself to crash down off of the pedestal upon which his daughter had placed him. As Dr. Finch says, “He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being.” The conversations between Scout and her uncle are my favorite parts of the book. I think Dr. Finch was telling his niece, when we take humans and try to put them where only God should stand, it always ends badly. But when we pick up the pieces and see that the humans we loved are still lovable, fatal flaws and all, we can heal. Honestly, I think that if we could ask Harper Lee she would tell us that she had to write Watchman first in order for there to ever be a Mockingbird. Perhaps she was smashing some of her own icons in the process.
So, if you want my advice, read the book. Just beware that if you have put Atticus Finch or Harper Lee up on a pedestal of perfection, they may have fallen off by the time you read the final page. And that’s a good thing.