Harper Lee’s newly released book titled ‘Go Set A Watchman’ has been much anticipated and much talked about over the last month. Much has been made of the unpalatable portrayal of Atticus Finch as a segregationist. Would this spoil our illusions about him? Would it change our feelings toward ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’? I try to avoid reviews of books and movies I haven’t seen, preferring instead to make my own judgments. I admit that I approached the book with trepidation based largely upon the fact that ‘Mockingbird’ is not only my favorite book of all time, but also, a classic. What book could ever follow that? It was a little like finding out they’d made a remake of ‘Citizen Kane.’
Nevertheless, I did pre-order a copy and immediately sat down to read it. I finished it the day I started it. Now, I will tell you what I think about it.
First of all, I liked the book. It is certainly not as well-crafted as ‘Mockingbird’—it is not linear in style, but it is clearly written by the same author. Some of the techniques she uses—stream of consciousness, overlapping thoughts and flashbacks—are different, but effective for the story. She is a very intelligent and gifted writer, and I’ll admit, I had to look up a couple of words in the dictionary that I had never seen before.
There are a couple of things that one should know before one even picks up the book. First of all, it is about a small town in the South coming to terms with the rise of the NAACP and the Court ruling in 1954 of ‘Brown v. Board of Education.’ White Folk in the South looked upon the NAACP as a group of Northern black rabble rousers determined to rile up Southern Blacks who were, as the Whites saw it, not ready for such dramatic changes. They also saw the Supreme Court decision as another example of the North imposing its will upon the South. There were constitutional issues as well. Did the Supreme Court violate the 10th Amendment and the separation of powers by imposing a law that should have been made through the legislative process? This is an argument that people are still having today. Different decisions, same arguments. Second, the language will be uncomfortable for a generation brought up with much more liberal sensibilities. I was brought up during the early ‘60s and I found the language to be uncomfortable. Which brings me to third and most important point: This book is not just set in the 1950s; it was written in the 1950s and as such must be viewed through the eyes of history. ‘Go Set A Watchman’ is actually a very valuable lesson in the history of the civil rights movement in America, particularly in the South. It offers us as Northerners a different perspective on Southern attitudes at the time.
Twenty-First Century readers will also find the entire ‘heated debate’ somewhat alien. In an age before political correctness, people used to speak their minds. Those who had opposing ideas frequently debated with each other, often to the point of exhaustion. It was not always possible to convince someone of the rightness of a point of view, but it was expected that the point of view be allowed to be expressed. Arguments and debates often ended (usually when it was time to go to bed) with an agreement to disagree. ‘You believe what you want to believe, and I’ll believe what I want to believe.’ I had many such disagreements with my elders, my friends, even my teachers in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Any argument was respected that could be backed up with proof or anecdotal evidence.
Finally, you may need a dictionary to look up the words bigotry, prejudice, and racism. They are not interchangeable. We tend to jump right to racism these days without regard to the fact that there are other words more suitable. I would also like to caution against judgment of the South by Northerners. We need only look back to the ‘70s to see how well Bostonians handled the ruling requiring bussing to knock us down off our collective High Horses. As a country, we have come a long way since then, regardless of what we are being told everyday by our media or our politicians. That does not mean there isn’t room for improvement. There is always room for that.
To sum it up, I liked the book; it is one of those books that people will either like or dislike and many will not fully understand it; but people will talk about it and that’s a good thing. I did not lose my respect for Atticus, though I was disappointed, much as Scout was. It has not ruined my love for ‘Mockingbird.’ I felt compassion for Jean Louise (Scout) when she realized she no longer had a world to live in, being an alien in the North, and a pariah in her hometown. But, she will likely be a force for good if she stays. And, ultimately, I did not see a huge dichotomy between the Atticus of ‘Mockingbird’ and the Atticus of ‘Watchman.’ Atticus Finch will still do the right things regardless of his reasons.