This Is Not the Atticus You’re Looking For

Or, my thoughts on Go Set a Watchman.

Before we get into the book, a brief personal history: To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books of all time. Between the number of times I’ve taught it and read it myself, I know the book really well. And I love it.

A brief history of how this book came to be: Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman and sent it to her editor. He said that he liked the childhood stories of Scout better than the adult stories and maybe she should write a book of just those stories. This book became Mockingbird and the manuscript for Watchman was shelved and eventually put into a safe deposit box.

Fast forward to 2015, and the manuscript was discovered and it was decided that Watchman would be published. There’s been some controversy over how all of this went down (some saying that it’s a money-grubbing move by Lee’s caretaker). Lee is nearly ninety years old and some question whether or not she really knew what she was doing when she gave her blessing for the book to be published.

All of that being said, I wanted to read this book because I was most curious about where Lee’s journey of writing Mockingbird began. If the two books are really so different (and they are), how does the one connect to the other? What are the similarities? Was Lee’s voice the same in Watchman?

After reading it, taking notes (hi, teacher), and really letting the whole experience sink in, I have the following thoughts:

1) It’s not a sequel. 

It seems like there were many people who were hoping that since the events of this novel take place after Mockingbird this book would pick up a few years later and we’d get to see what the old gang is up to now. This is not the case.

It’s integral to remember that Watchman was written first, but Mockingbird is ultimately the book Lee wanted everyone to read. This is going to be really important to remember for point three.

2) It’s rough. 

Let’s bear in mind that this is a manuscript. It went through almost no editing (the publisher has said that they did some basic copy editing, but that’s it) and Lee’s smooth voice is most clear in the stories of Scout as a child. There’s a chapter devoted to Scout (now called Jean Louise by nearly everyone) and Uncle Jack. It’s one of the more confusing, convoluted things I’ve ever read. It seems as though Lee is making a point through Uncle Jack but it takes her forever to get there and you’re still not quite sure you’ve gotten it when you get to the end of the chapter.

If you can keep in mind that it’s not meant to be a polished novel, but rather the raw manuscript that it is, you’ll be okay.

3) Atticus is very different, but also the same. 

SPOILER ALERT (unless you’ve read anything in the news about Watchman and then it’s not a spoiler at all):
I think one of the things that has upset people the most about this book is the way that Atticus is portrayed as a racist. I mean, people who have named their children after this character are all set to head down to the courthouse and change their child’s name.

Yes, in Watchman he is a racist. We come to find out the only reason that he defended Tom Robinson (Lee doesn’t mention his name, but she does reference the case) is because Atticus is so loyal to the law that he defended Tom the way he did because it was his job and duty to do so.

BUT, let’s keep in mind that this is where Lee started with Atticus, not where she finished. She wanted to world to see the Atticus that defended Tom Robinson because it was the right thing to do and who told Scout she needed to stand up for what’s right in the world. Even in Watchman, he’s encouraging Scout to stand up for what she believes in — even if that means standing up to Atticus himself.

4) Jean Louise is exactly who she should be. 

Scout is clearly upset by the crumbling of her view of her father. Her whole childhood (and her adulthood up to this point), she idolized Atticus and finding out of his racist views shakes her to her very core. The fact that she is so shaken and knows what he believes is wrong shows us she is, indeed, her father’s daughter in the best way possible.

5) It relates to us now. 

Many have commented on how the race relations of the 1950s can relate to the state of our country today. But, I think the bigger issue we can connect with is the way the idea of states’ rights is handled in the novel. Even Jean Louise comments on how she was upset when blacks were given the right to vote. Not because they don’t deserve it (as Atticus and many others in the South see it), but because the rights were taken away from the states to make the decision themselves.

In addition, Uncle Jack tries to convince Jean Louise to come home. When she wants to know why she should surround herself by people who think things so different from her, he says:

“What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out.

You’ve no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you’ve been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, ‘I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’ You’d better take time for ’em, honey, otherwise you’ll never grow.

… the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right –“

This made me think of how many of us have Facebook newsfeeds that are a little homogeneous and how many people we’ve “unfriended” (or who have “unfriended” us) because of the differing of our views. [Off of soapbox.]

6) There are several parallels to Mockingbird

One of the things I thought was most interesting were the clear literary parallels between the two novels. For example, there were several chapters with paragraphs that were almost verbatim what I’d read before in Mockingbird. There were also a few scenes that Lee seemed to have reworked for Mockingbird. For example, there’s a “coffee” that’s thrown in honor of Jean Louise (by Aunt Alexandra, of course), and it’s pretty clear that this scene turned into the chapter with the missionary tea in Mockingbird. If you don’t remember much of Mockingbird, I don’t know how significant these parallels will be to you, but anyone who’s a fan of Mockingbird will find them interesting.

So, the question  is… should you read it?

If you can keep all of the above things in mind and you can look at it from a literary perspective, it should be a good read. If you’re madly in love with all of the characters from Mockingbird and you’re SUPER EXCITED to see Scout all grown up… put the book down and walk away slowly.

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