When Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman, came out shortly before her death, I got the impression that it was considered a so-so book that probably shouldn’t have been published. It seems that it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and then abandoned as Mockingbird took shape. Having recently completed Lee’s long lost book, I have to strongly disagree with those who denigrated it. In fact, I find it a perfect follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by a young girl from rural Alabama, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. It relates the important events in her home town during the summer of 1936 including the uproar that occurred when her father, Atticus, took on the defense of a black man who was accused of attempting to rape a white woman. In her eyes, and thus through the reader’s eyes, Atticus is a perfect man who is above reproach, and above the racism that was a part of southern society at the time.
Go Set a Watchman is the story of the brief return home of the adult Jean Louise who has been living in New York City for a few years. The story is told in the third person which is significant. We’re no longer hearing about Atticus and others from the point of view of an adolescent child who adores her father. Now we and Jean Louise are seeing Atticus and others in the town from a more impartial view point. That view point is shocking because all of the people we thought we knew so well are no longer what they seemed to be. Worst of all, Atticus is a racist. Understandably, Jean Louise is devastated – and so are we.
As I read this novel I thought about my first English class at LSU many, many years ago. The teacher was a cynical man who told the women in the class that he knew they were at LSU solely to obtain their MRS degrees. Yet this man helped me to mature.
One day he assigned a composition on some subject that I can no longer recall. One thing I do remember is that we were to write about our opinion on the chosen subject. When he returned my paper to me he asked what my source of information was. “My father,” I answered He curtly informed me that that wasn’t sufficient. At that moment I realized that not everyone considered my father’s views on serious matters unimpeachable. My father, though a very intelligent man, was merely human like the rest of us.
I think Jean Louise was going through the same maturation process. In fact, her Uncle Jack Finch, Atticus’ retired, eccentric brother, tells her at one point that she seems to have confused Atticus with God. That was an important lesson for Jean Louise to learn, and for all of us who admired Atticus.
Atticus Finch grew up in rural Alabama in the early years of the twentieth century, and his family was prominent in that area. More than likely his parent’s views, and therefore his, were formed in relation to the society in which they lived. What we preferred to think is that he reflected the enlightened views on race and other matters that are mainstream in the early years of the twenty-first century. That’s highly unlikely, and in Go Set a Watchman Lee confirms that Atticus’s views reflected those of the time and place in which he lived.
In To Kill a Mockingbird we are told the story of an upstanding, and courageous man. He loves his children and respects all the people he encounters regardless of their race or social class. In Go Set a Watchman we are reminded that no matter how high-minded and honorable we are, we all have areas that we need to work on. That includes not only Atticus, but Jean Louise as well.