Unless you’re a reader of The New Yorker, it’s rare to see a news story or headline focused on something having to do with literature. If you don’t count instances in which books are banned or highly controversial, I personally can only think of two literary events making the uncommon ascension to popular news: 1) the publication of the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography in 2010, which came 100 years after his death; and 2) the publication last Tuesday (7/14/2015) of Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman.
It’s hard to think of an American text that is taught or read more than To Kill a Mockingbird, at least in the United States. As someone that has lots of friends that don’t normally read literature, Mockingbird is usually the one text that I can pretty much assume that everyone’s read. If a question about literature or writing or a certain literary device comes up in normal conversation (which, granted, is an amazingly rare thing to happen), it’s great to have Mockingbird to rely on as a source of characters and references that will actually resonate with most people. “Well, a foil is a character that basically stands as an opposite of another character. For instance, Mr. Ewell is a foil for Atticus, and his role as foil functions as a way for Lee to accentuate the positive aspects of Atticus’s character. Whenever we see the lack of dignity, decency, and goodness on behalf of Mr. Ewell, we are actually further reminded of just how decent and good Atticus really is.” But let’s be serious: it’s a large stretch that the literary use of the world “foil” would ever come up in a normal conversation. Still, the point remains: in this country, pretty much everyone has read To Kill a Mockingbird.
Not only has everyone read it, but Lee also pulled a pretty unheard of move after it was published: she never published anything else. Mockingbird won the Pulitzer, it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie, and–like I already said–pretty much every American kid between the ages of 10 and 14 began reading it basically as soon as it came out. And how do you follow up a book like that? You don’t. At least not for 50+ years. And, honestly, I don’t blame her. How could you possibly follow a book like that? It reminds me of J.K. Rowling following up the Harry Potter series: was there really any way for her to write a book that wouldn’t immediately be compared to HP and, in turn, be shred to pieces by critics and fans? When a text reaches such heights as those reached by Mockingbird, its author undoubtedly reaps all sorts of benefits and also consequences, including forever being compared to their previous masterpiece. Maybe Harper Lee found the loophole: you wait 55 years to publish something else.
Go Set a Watchman is a phenomenon for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the number of copies it’s already sold. The back story to its publication is fascinating in many ways. It was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, which is particularly interesting if you’ve read both texts and think about some of the overlaps–and major differences–in some of the characters. For me, the most phenomenal aspect of the text is the unique reading experience it allows considering the incredible things surrounding it, including the various things I’ve discussed above. I can’t remember another time when I’ve approached a text with such an unsure feeling of how exactly I was supposed to approach it. I had tried hard to not hear anything about the book before I read it, but I still knew bits and pieces going in. Most importantly: I had heard bits and pieces about Atticus being a racist, which has clearly been the central topic of conversation surrounding the book since its publication. But even beyond this, I was a bit hesitant about reading it. Did Harper Lee herself really even want the book published? I know the controversy about whether or not this was the case, and this was problematic for me. And, to be honest, my biggest concern had to do with the quality of the book itself. What if Watchman simply wasn’t any good? What if it casted doubt on the quality of Mockingbird?
Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m still a bit unsure of how I feel about it. Fortunately, some of my hesitations were proven wrong: I no longer am worried about the book being bad, and Watchman does not cast doubt on Lee’s skill as a writer or on the quality of Mockingbird. The story of Watchman is not nearly as engaging or intriguing as Mockingbird, and I must say that the book itself almost seems more like a classic dialogue rather than a novel. I use that term lightly, because I don’t mean that it reads necessarily like a conversation between two characters. Instead, I reference dialogues just because the book is so light on plot and, really, any sort of story. Instead, Watchman is a cultural critique and reflection in the form of a short novel. There are characters, and things do happen, but these are clearly secondary to the moral and ethical conflicts that Lee is trying to take head on. With this in mind, I’m not quite sure exactly how I felt about the book as a novel because, to be honest, now that I think about, hardly anything actually happens in the text.
I’m also unsure about how I feel about it in relation to Mockingbird. I don’t like the fact that I’ve compared the two texts, and I told myself that I would read Watchman as its own text rather than a sequel to the other. But it’s basically impossible to do that considering the fact that Scout Finch is the main character of both, that both of them take place in Maycomb, Alabama, and that so many of the characters from Mockingbird play important roles in Watchman, including Jem and Dill (in flashbacks), Calpurnia, and, of course, Atticus. I simply don’t see how it’s possible for someone that has read the first book (which, like I said above, is pretty much everyone) to not constantly think back to it as he or she reads Watchman. And the reason this is problematic for me is that the two books, just like their characters, are actually vastly different. On top of that, the world in which we now live is also much different from the one that existed 50+ years ago when the text was actually written.
And yes, we learn that Atticus is a racist. He is a bigot. The unflappably perfect man from Mockingbird turns into a somewhat typical old Southern man in Watchman, complete with rantings against the NAACP, the inferiority of black people, and a fundamental nostalgia for the traditions–both good and bad–of the South. The book is nothing more than the story of Scout’s realization that Atticus feels this way, along with basically everyone else in Maycomb. All of the people that helped raised her, all of the people that stand as beacons of the love she feels for Maycomb, end up representing this “separate-is-equal” view of race. Her father, her aunt, and even the man she planned on marrying. Theirs is a more typical form of racism: they don’t hate black people, and they don’t support lynchings or deny their humanity. Instead, black people are simply inferior, different, and separate–and that’s just the way it is. The book depicts Scout’s realization of this, followed quickly by her disgust, and then a few long conversations with the people closest to her, most notably her father.
Watchman crystallizes and solidifies Lee’s views on racism and the South. In Mockingbird, racism and bigotry are just pieces of Scout’s coming-of-age story, and Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson is secondary in relation to the overall story of a 10-year old growing up in Maycomb during the 1930s. But in Watchman, there is no Boo Radley or bildungsroman; the book is a pointed examination of racism in the South, and its focus is solely on uncovering the realities of the subtle, dangerous ways that this racism actually plays out in the hearts and minds of seemingly good-hearted people. Scout takes Atticus to task head-on, and the last 100 pages of the book produce some rather memorable scenes of Scout confronting Southern racist subtleties.
Watchman walks a dangerous line at the end, and Lee puts her reader in a troublesome spot. What are we to do whenever the people closest to us exemplify beliefs and tendencies that we see as morally reprehensible? To put is simply, what do we do if our sister, or aunt, or father is a bigot? For Lee, you still love them. You hug them, you eat meals with them, and you help them when they need help. And this is the difficult part, because as hard as it is, I think that Lee has the answer right. The only way to defeat bigotry is through love, or at least that how it seems to me. And by the end of Watchman, Scout’s only recourse is to keep loving her father. “I think I love you very much” are the last words Scout says to her father in the book, and it seems as if a certain level of peace has been reached between the two. But this scene isn’t as peaceful for the reader, at least not a reader in 2015. It’s not as easy to confront bigotry with love in our world, and doing so is something that we seem to rarely see. And, unfortunately, the racist tendencies that Lee investigates in Go Set a Watchman–a book set in 1950s Alabama–don’t seem to have changed much 55 years later. I’m not saying that lynchings and flat-out racism are still the norm, because they aren’t. But this isn’t the type of racism that Lee is looking at in the book. She’s looking at the more common types, and these are the ones that are still around. So the questions she raises in the text remain. What are the various ways in which racism takes residence in a person’s heart? How exactly do we, as a society, do the work of eradicating these various aspects of racism, especially when so many of them seem to be so deeply born into people’s subconscious? And how do we respond to these instances of racism? How do we, as a society, find some sort of peaceful outcome between all parties involved, in which individual agendas and preferences are secondary.
My favorite line in the book comes from Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother. He tells Scout, “Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.” Will Watchman will be taught in schools? I don’t really know, and if it is, it definitely won’t reach the level of Mockingbird. It’s a much different book, and it’s really not even a book for young people. It’s a serious book that looks at serious things in our world. Would it have been published today if it hadn’t been written by Harper Lee in the 1950s? I seriously doubt it. But there are parts in there that threw me aback in terms of how applicable they still are today. And I can’t think of a more astute assessment of human nature’s ability of purposeful denial of present realities as the one made by Uncle Jack above. And it is here where I think Watchman gives us its most important lesson: rather than spending time acknowledging the mistakes we made in the past, perhaps we should be more focused on identifying the mistakes we are making right now. Maybe this is the way for us to “get along,” as Uncle Jack says. Lee was ahead of her time, and I for one am glad that Go Set a Watchman finally found its way to publication.