“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”
I just finished crying, so I might have different feelings about this in five days, a month, three years from now, but right now, I just finished Go Set a Watchman and instead of being a ruiner, I want to praise the elaborate genius of Harper Lee. I will be writing another blog on this book after I have to time to soak up my feelings, but right now these are my initial thoughts.
Late last year, on hearing the news that Harper Lee was going to publish a second book (actually the book she wrote previous to Mockingbird that was not taken so hot by publishers) I wrote this blog. In that blog, I discussed the controversy surrounding the book and the way I felt that this book had to be read, even when I didn’t really want to take the plunge. In the car just yesterday, after preordering my copy on Kindle (in the belief that I would hate this new Maycomb history so much that I could delete the book from my device after finishing it and pretend that it never happened to me), I told my boyfriend that this is like when JK Rowling wrote another book (except bigger). It will never meet the expectations of Harry Potter, of Mockingbird, of the small town of Maycomb with neighbors that bake cakes, and trials that compound history into single moments.
I was wrong.
That’s not what this book is, and that’s not actually what I needed from it.
At this exact date, I’m lucky enough to be a year apart from the narrator, Jean Louise Finch, in Go Set a Watchman. I know the feelings that she’s having, even if they are feelings familiar to the 1950s when this book is suggested to have been set. I come to it with a wide range of lessons from To Kill a Mockingbird, from reading it in high school to reading it one summer before I was expected to teach it to ninth graders who had below grade level reading scores, and teaching it to those exact ninth graders who spoke passionately and resolutely in discussion about the power of Atticus as a character, racism, and the coming-of-age for each child in the story, Dill, Jem, and Scout. This is just to say that my angles are guided with an idea that nothing can top the “classic” that is To Kill a Mockingbird.
like I said earlier, it turns out that I didn’t need Watchman to top Mockingbird. I just needed it. Period. I needed it for so many reasons that I can’t quite explain without being a ruiner of someone else who should be reading this book. Most readers at this point have seen the headlines that Atticus has become a racist.
- Fans React to Racist Atticus Finch @ USA Today
- Atticus Finch’s racism in Watchman vs. Mockingbird @ Slate
- Watchman features a racist Atticus @ NY Daily News
All I can say is that these headlines aren’t quite right. A little right, but not quite. Atticus is a man of his time in this collection. He is still the upstanding father of Mockingbird. He is still a man of his word, a man of promise, a man of high conviction. He still wants similar ends to the means that Scout wants who is the heroine of this new generation of Lee fans. And I am entirely jealous of these new fans.
New readers will read both of these books together and I think that will create something brilliant in their ideas about who can be a hero, and who can be just, and how justice can be both color blind, and color-varied. Justice can come in shades, it is not one or the other, the way our world categorizes everything. Every villain has a mother that loves him, and every essentially good man has once let go of his end of the bargain. And this is what we learn of both Atticus and Scout in Go Set a Watchman. Mostly, we learn that Scout must develop for herself a set of morals, a set of personal justices, and be her own voice. I would argue, like Lee, that this doesn’t just happen in your twenties, but it’s constantly happening. Your friends change, your heroes change, your ideas about the world change and you move, and become.
In Watchman, Scout is a girl who has left Maycomb and explored the ideas of people in a different city, with a different climate, and a different manner and moral system. She knows the ways of two worlds, and has to develop the finery in order to live in both. In Maycomb, like all girls returning home, she is the child of her father, the girl who is a bit reckless, and wears her overalls haphazard, and once broke up a jail fight when she interrupted a circle of men in a lynching mob. In NY, she is a woman that values independence, she isn’t afraid to push a stranger, and realizes in fact, that in NY she must push the stranger to actually take part.
In between these two worlds, she is living on a set of morals that she hasn’t quite developed because no one has ever asked her to. She’s always been able to rely on the morals of her father. On his history books, closing arguments, on his dusky walk back to the house, and his push through on the death of her mother. The way he laughs when something is determined rude because his children are still children. To Scout, Calpurnia is a mother, and yet in Watchman, Cal is a woman that can’t look Scout in the eye. The second most devastating moment in the book for me.
History has changed these people, the way we’ve watched history change the people we love. When Marriage Equality passed, Facebook saw a mass unfriending (I’m assuming, the way I watched people argue back and forth about the politics of today). This is what has happened in Maycomb. No, Atticus is not the moral high ground character that we once saw him as, that America believed he was, but how many of those people do we actually know? Do we actually love each other when we constantly agree, when we “birds of a feather flock together?” Or do we secretly thrive on the arguments, the differences, do we love each other more because we’re exactly the same or because we’re unique individuals built from different platforms, with different motives, and our own sense of what the world should look like, and feel like.
Today, we’re also at an impasse. Millennials go into the world thinking their the new “color blind” generation. When in fact, they have just covered their colorblindness with absence of discussion. They have stopped seeing race as a factor, as a point to start a conversation, (we I should say as I’m a member of this group). We want to hide it behind closets, like other battles we’re currently having in politics. We want to be appalled when Donald Sterling makes comments that we’ve heard in classrooms, or dinner parties, but we’ve never actually faced up to them because … it’s simply no longer there. Well, maybe Watchman will change this. And this idea is explained so well by Scout in chapter 13:
“Blind, that’s what I am. I never opened my eyes. I never thought to look into people’s hearts, I looked only in their faces. Stone blind… Mr. Stone. Mr. Stone set a watchman in church yesterday. He should have provided me with one. I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference” (Scout, Go Set a Watchman).
While we need watchmen, we need to follow her uncle’s advice and realize that our watchman is our conscience and without sharing this conscience, discussing the inside speeds, and tracks of this conscience, what it feels about justice, about race, about equality, about freedom, then we can’t even get close to “right.”
“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”
I think readers who come to this book thinking it’s a sequel to Mockingbird might be disappointed. I think those coming to it thinking it’s a rough draft of a woman who is now unable to edit her own stories and in LIFE Magazine interviews made clear that she’s said all she needed to say with Mockingbird might also be disappointed. This book is somewhere between those. This book deserves its own quasi-justice. It is almost a singular chance for readers everywhere to see their characters in a new time, a new historical perspective and period, and a new mindset of growth. The characters have changed, as we all do, with time. At one point, Scout says:
“My aunt is a hostile stranger, my Calpurnia won’t have anything to do with me, Hank is insane and Atticus — something’s wrong with me, it’s something about me. It has to be because all these people cannot have changed.”
But that is what we do. We change. These characters, most importantly, are forced to meet each other in this new time. Scout is forced to look at her father, not from the eyes of a child, but from the eyes of a woman who has found her singular personhood. Watchman is where Scout meetss Jean Louise.
“His use of her childhood name crashed on her ears. Don’t you ever call me that again. You who called me Scout are dead and in your grave.”
They have grown into people who see the world, still not as a bubble, but see the world as themselves. And that’s really all we can ask of them. To come to the page from one story, and to tell how it impacts this new story, in the singular, and the whole.
I would argue that this book has an equal amount of humanity as does Mockingbird. It’s a very different side to humanity. And I would also argue that after writing this, I can see the development of Mockingbird. Mockingbird is in these pages as clear as the bird sings. These characters are still living off of these stories, they are still expected to be these people in a town that has also grown and changed with the times, but is trying to decide whether to take a step forward or a step backward. Like in Mockingbird, people fail each other, and people go on with it. The one truth that resides in each of these books though, is the truth that the strength of an inner compass can rise above the strength of a collective mob.
There is so much more I have to say about this book, about the inner workings of it, the things that she repeats or has changed from Mockingbird, the plot, but I will wait until more readers have had a chance to digest it and then work that in somewhere.
***In order to comment, please click the blog title. AND PLEASE COMMENT. I need someone to discuss this book with SO much.