Believe it or not, this one’s not about the school board. At all. Really.
It was with no small amount of trepidation that I plunged into Go Set a Watchman. I had preordered it from Barnes and Noble a while ago, all English-teachery excited. Then I read The New York Times and learned that Atticus—yes, Atticus Finch—is a racist in this book. Say it ain’t so, Scout!
I was going to start reading it the very day it came out, but drugged out of my mind for a medical procedure, I slept the day away. The delay meant that I only just finished it today.
Though I was born in North Carolina, I’m not really Southern, because we moved when I was two. My father was, and my mother, born in Washington D.C., moved to Florida as a teen. I have deep Southern roots. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t shocked or appalled by the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman. He wasn’t at odds at all with the Atticus I felt I already knew so well. To be sure, this book reveals an aspect of Atticus unexplored in Mockingbird, but it is not antithetical to me.
My grandparents, contemporaries of Atticus Finch, were racist. All of them. For the purposes of understanding Go Set a Watchman, let’s focus on my father’s mother. My father’s mother was one of the truest Christians I have ever known in my life. She lived her faith in humble service of the Lord and the patch of earth He gave her and her husband to farm in rural Florida. She raised 5 good children who raised good children of their own. My daddy was the best of men due to her kind, yet strict, influence. I admired her so much that I named my only daughter after her. God commanded her to love her fellow man, and she did. She did not hate Blacks. They simply weren’t part of her world, and in the world in which she grew up and lived out her life, it seemed ordained that it should be that way.
Racism is evil, but not all racists are evil. Most especially those from regions or eras where there were so few influences in any other direction. Our grandchildren will be flabbergasted that our generation could fail to see such an obvious thing as White privilege. It will be a given to them looking back. And if any of us go to our graves still denying it, those grandchildren will love us anyway, despite our blindness. They will understand that we, like all generations before and after, had our virtues and our vices, that no one is perfect, nor is anyone, to quote Corpsman Dey in Guardians of the Galaxy, “100 percent a dick.”
Go Set a Watchman would not be what it is without To Kill a Mockingbird, but anyone with Southern roots will understand that Mockingbird’s Atticus is not at all diminished by Watchman’s.
Addendum: Since people have asked what I thought of the book, itself, here are my two cents: As a first draft, I would say that it was clear Harper Lee had talent. That said, it is also clear that Tay Hohoff was a gifted editor. Without Mockingbird, Watchman wouldn’t be worth publishing. Lee refers briefly to people and events that are, in our minds, fully fleshed out, so they work now in Watchman. For example, both Dill and the Robinson trial are mentioned in Watchman, but without Mockingbird, they would have zero meaning or impact. I cared about Scout only because I had seen her come of age (many times, over several years of teaching Mockingbird). There is no Boo Radley in Watchman, and that’s sad. Even if she’d only mentioned his death, as she does Jem’s. As a writer, I am in awe of Tay Hohoff’s contribution to literature, something we would never have understood without Watchman.