So, as not to bury the lead, let me start with the fact I really, really liked Go Set a Watchman.
I am certainly no literary critic. But I am, like many of you, a person who was deeply influenced by To Kill a Mockingbird. I was born in the South. I currently live in the South in the same community where I was raised. I am a criminal defense attorney. And, if I ever question the advisability or nobility of that profession, I think about Atticus Finch.
Like many, the pre-publication bad press about Watchman had me a little lukewarm. Did Harper Lee really have the mental capacity to green light the publication of this book? And . . . what the what? Atticus is a racist? But I had pre-ordered it anyway. So when it arrived from Amazon on the Wednesday after its Tuesday release, I decided to read it and judge it for myself.
Per some reviews from actual literary critics I have read, the book had some portions that dragged a little. Such as long descriptions of the ins-and-outs of a Methodist worship service or a tea for Southern ladies. And this may be true. But, my question, stolen from Scott Van Pelt of ESPN fame, is "how good is your good?" I do not care if every page is awesome. I want a few chapters, or at least a few pages, that give me chills. And Watchman delivered.
I will try to explain why without giving you the plot blow-by-blow. But, if you want no spoilers, it is best to stop reading this now. If published reports are to be believed, Watchman was written first. Then, upon the advice of her publisher, Lee revised it to produce Mockingbird. However, given that, Watchman reads like a sequel. Scout, who goes by Jean Louise now, is twenty-six years old now. She lives in New York now, but the book is about a trip home to visit her father.
The conflict at the heart of the book (which has been well-leaked, so I don't feel bad repeating it here) is Jean Louise discovers that Atticus has some beliefs about race that are not quite as pure as those of the Atticus we knew from Mockingbird. In fact, some of the views he espouses are downright disgusting to the ears of someone living in 2015. So, I want to offer to you a few answers to that question. How in the world can we not hate a book that sullies the name of one of the purest and most noble figures in literary history? And how can said book not screw our love of its predecessor, which was perfect?
You have to understand the perspective of this book. Though Mockingbird is written in first-person, and Watchman in third-person, each is narrated entirely from the perspective of Scout/Jean Louise. When you read Mockingbird, you were seeing Atticus through a child's eyes. When you read Watchman you are seeing Atticus through an adult's eyes. The fact that Jean Louise perceives her world and her father differently is only natural given the setting of the book.
Whatever you want to yell angrily at Atticus, Jean Louise does it for you. Do not worry that Atticus's disappointing views on race go untested. Whatever angry thoughts you had when you first read about the new Attticus in Watchman, Jean Louise has ten-fold. Keep reading and you will reach the point where she provides you the catharsis you desire.
In my humble opinion, Atticus is now more human. I understand how perfect, how noble the Atticus of Mockingbird was. And I understand how both comforting and empowering that can be. But no one is that perfect. As Jean Louise's uncle finally has to explain to her, "you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man's heart, and a man's failings B I'll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes 'em like all of us."
Did you really believe that Mockingbird showed us the whole of Atticus? Mockingbird showed us Atticus in a pretty specific context; standing up for a wrongfully accused man. And he does that amazingly well. Did you really believe that he (taking the leap now to treat a literary character like a real person) did everything that well? Do this exercise for me. Think of the most noble, selfless, near-to-God thing you have ever done. Then think of the most despicable, selfish thing you have ever done . The distance between those two is a pretty long trip, isn't it? It is for all of us. We are made with the mark of the Creator on our souls, and at the same time born into sin. The distance between our best and worst is immense for all of us.
If all else fails, you can view this as an alternate universe. Some facts are changed. In Watchman the facts of the rape case in which Atticus defends an African-American man are different, as is the outcome (we are told in Watchman that he wins the case). So, if this new universe is really too much for you to handle (and if it is, also really, really examine your life; it is a book we are talking about), then imagine this is an alternate universe. You know, the way there are fifteen different Supermen stories these days.
Like the book or hate it. But if you are a fan of Mockingbird, at least read it. Whatever led to its publishing, I have not heard anyone dispute that these are Harper Lee's words. If you read it, at least you will have the ammunition to tell me why I am mistaken for liking it. Or maybe, just maybe, you will agree that every once in awhile a great novel does have a great sequel.