Matters of Conscience – Reactions to Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman"

I ordered Go Set a Watchman for myself back in February, as excited by the reported “discovery” of the pre-quel as the rest of the nation seemed to be.  To Kill a Mockingbird stands a beacon of American literature and a guardian of the virtuous American Southern identity which it helped to forge.  The shadowy figure of Harper Lee, so evocative of her mysterious character Boo Radley, continues to stir the imagination of the public.  Is it any wonder that the possibility of another Lee masterpiece stirred the blood of readers who cut their teeth on her original work?  We desired the new manuscript like candy.  Even breaking news, which suggested that Lee’s “release” of the book might not have been as legitimate as her lawyers and publishers maintained, did little to dampen readers’ enthusiasm.  As for me, I was reminded of Virgil’s Aeneid, another story published without the consent of its author.  Should the world have refused to read it in order to maintain the integrity of author’s rights?  If so, then Virgil’s epic should have been lost to history.  Thus I reasoned; thus, I read.  Lee’s book was released on July 14th with all the attendant fanfare.

In the days that followed the book’s release, however, reporters noted that some readers refused to finish the story, disappointed, even furious with Lee’s portrayal of her hero, Atticus.  Reviewers remarked Atticus was a gross disappointment, and the public was deeply offended by Lee’s depiction of his racism and radical states’ rights orientation.  Book critics began publishing damning reviews of the story in spite of its number one rating on the NYT best-seller list.  Michiko Kakutani of the NYT writes, “The novel is the story of how [Scout]returns to Maycomb, Ala., for a visit – from New York City, where she has been living – and tries to grapple with her dismaying realization that Atticus and her longtime boyfriend, Henry Clinton, both have abhorrent views on race and segregation.”  Kakutani does a thorough comparison and contrast of the Atticus Lee portrays in each story, noting unambiguously the offensive nature of his portrayal in Watchman.  She concludes that both stories seek to inspire empathy in the readers:  “The difference,” Kakutani suggests, “is that Mockingbirdsuggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, while ‘Watchman’ asks us to have understanding of a bigot named Atticus.”  Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker weighs in:  “Once the dust has settled, Watchman will be seen for what it is:  a literary curiosity and a fascinating illustration of the mysterious pathway of the creative imagination.”  In my own, private conversations with other readers, I’ve been surprised to note harsh criticism:  The characters are undeveloped.  The story line is facile.  Lee lacks skill and talent.  Where is the fêted author America expected?  And the racism – aren’t we all mortified?!

In light of the fact that Lee herself is incapable of responding to her turncoat public and in the spirit of her beloved hero-lawyer, Atticus, I shall endeavor to defend this 89 year old author and to uphold the value and integrity of this Watchman, her exploited brain-child.  Let me begin with this:  I object!

After participating in the hype of Go Set a Watchman for months leading up to its release, the scornful and dismissive public response to Harper Lee’s novella seems as unfeeling and inhumane (not to mention misguided) as the purported exploitation publishers undertook in manipulating its release.  I ask you to remember that Watchman was never published by Lee when she had her own wits about her.  She seems to have buried the manuscript on purpose.  If we really must have Lee’s unfinished work, shouldn’t we also read it with a gracious eye?  If it was, as some hypothesize, an early version of what became Mockingbird, it was little more than a rough draft.  What novelist publishes their working drafts?  Undeveloped characters?  Well of course.  They were characters in progress.  A facile plot?  Certainly.  Most plots begin pretty flat and gain their texture and dimension as authors develop characters to create motivations and sub-plots.  Remember what you’re reading, people.

What’s more notable within Lee’s draft are the literary firstfruits of what would come to symbolize Southern Americana in the flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood with Jem and Dill.  One scene in particular, in which the children reenact a revival ultimately baptizing Jean Louise in her altogethers before an unanticipated audience of pastor and father, foreshadows the brilliant and sunny scenes that would eventually captivate readers of Mockingbird.  Lee’s voice is present, even in this, its infancy.

The public’s reception and response to Watchman in regard to issues of execution and craftsmanship, however, pales in significance to the more troubling matter of their interpretation of the book.  Disappointingly, every review I’ve read identifies the story’s subject matter as that of race and segregation. I wonder, have we forgotten how to read?  Has our own zeitgeist so affected us as to leave us incapable of anything but racial interpretations of story?  True, Watchman is set against the backdrop of Southern racism and segregation struggles.  But what if that were merely the setting of Lee’s story, a backdrop which occasions a more central narrative?  What if Watchman isn’t really about racism at all, but is rather about the coming of age of Jean Louise Finch, child-woman whose hero worship of her practically perfect father is bound, like all hero worship, for disappointment?

Watchman begins with a twenty-something Jean Louise returning to Maycomb for a visit.  She cavorts with her childhood friend turned sweetheart, Henry Clinton, contemplating marriage.  She challenges her neighbors’ sensibilities by wearing trousers, rather than skirts, taking midnight swims in mixed company and generally refusing to comply with the social niceties of her community, even as she’d done as a girl.  When Jean Louise follows her father and Henry to a political meeting in town, she discovers her hero in cohort with personalities whose public reputation for racial extremism and intolerance are incompatible with virtue.  Furious, she spends the rest of the novel sorting through her disappointment and visceral disgust.  Atticus has failed her.  Robbed of her childlike hero, she is forced to examine the flesh and blood alternative.  Atticus the hero is replaced with Atticus the man.  What will Scout do?

Ironically, the story of Jean Louise’s experience mirrors that of readers.  In a real sense, we are all Atticus’s children, come home for a visit; he has failed us all.  In a tribute to Lee’s evocative power, readers feel with Scout her disappointment, fury, and hatred.  They reject, with her, the unsavory elements of the Atticus placed before them.  Like Scout, they too, would bolt, leaving their hero with the red marks of their open palms upon his face.  Yet, Lee doesn’t leave things there.  Instead, readers are propelled with Scout to a place of empathetic acceptance of Atticus, should they have the stomach to read to the story’s end and the ability to listen to Lee’s true narrative.  Heroes are men, her story seems to argue.  Far from perfect, they must be forgiven to be understood.

This, I think, is the reason most readers dislike Lee’s story.  It presents an Atticus too real.  It asks readers to acknowledge human imperfection, and to measure a man not by the worst thing he’s ever done, but the best.  To acknowledge that all men are mixed bags, so to speak, combinations of virtuous heroes and depraved and limited sinners, is the first and necessary step toward living in relationship with one another.  That the main character, Scout, encounters this in the person of her father contributes to the universal dialogue about the nature of parent/child relationships.  Even the best of parents are sinners, bound to disappoint.  Enduring with Scout the disappointment and fury Atticus’s failure provokes, mindful readers likewise discover with her that the very fact of his imperfection makes his better self all the more remarkable.

That this story is set against the backdrop of racism and segregation simply broadens the scope of its theme.  Atticus emerges, a symbol of the South, speaks for it and presumes to preserve and defend it.  Limited by his nature and cultural context, his attempts are often misguided and largely misunderstood, even by those that know and love him best.  How much more a nation?  Lee, through her Scout, demonstrates the empathy and grace necessary to preserve relationship between the generations as the cultural idiom changes.  (These changes, incidentally, are a result of the ever-increasing light of reason and justice in adult children, who learned, like Jean Louise, to prize these virtues from their own flawed ancestors.)

To love a hero is the stuff of childhood.  To love a man is the mark of maturity.  Lee’s Jean Louise matures in Watchman to love her fallen hero.  Will the nation Lee wrote for have the maturity to do likewise?  Or will it retreat in self-righteous scorn, dismissing Atticus because of his humanity and rootedness in the geographic and moral gridlock of his time?

Watchman is specifically a study in the maturation of a parent-child relationship.  More than that, however, it is a study of human relationship.  With the candor and sensitivity we’ve come to expect from Lee, Watchman recognizes the fallenness of all men and holds out grace and love, love that covers a multitude of sins, as the only prescription for continued hope and relationship for individuals and for society.