I want to defend Go Set a Watchman, because I loved it, and because I’m tired of reading superficial OMG Atticus is a racist slams by people who aren’t even commenting on the story itself.
Nikki Gemmell’s column To mock a masterpiece in the weekend Australian magazine a fortnight ago said of Watchman and its author: “It’s a dated mess of a book and damaging to her legacy,” as well as “Watchman is nothing more than an off-cut, a scrap of cloth from the sewing room’s leftovers basket.”
I couldn’t disagree more.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all-time favorite books, and I re-read it often, simply to spend time with Scout, Jem and Atticus (who I’ve always had a crush on). Go Set a Watchman picks up the story when Scout (Jean Louise Finch) is 26, and yes, it is replete with ramble and unnecessary diversions into the culture of the time (which, by the way, I found fascinating). So it could have used a structural edit. However, I found its commentary on human nature profound – and despite the ramble, I consider it to be a far more mature and hard-hitting book than Mockingbird. In fact, I felt as if Scout was a grown up in Watchman, forced to confront the grey areas of life that were studiously avoided in Mockingbird where everyone turned out to be either “good” or “bad”.
I know Watchman was written first, and Lee’s editor told her to write another version of the story where the characters were younger. I can’t help wondering if this was because racism is so baldly exposed in Watchman, and perhaps that was too much for the readership of the time to cope with. So we got the watered down version, Mockingbird.
Either way, I understand that readers who adored Atticus Finch would be shocked to discover he’s a racist. I was stunned to discover that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father.
But I got over that, and I’m sure readers of Watchman will get over this too.
So here’s another slant on the story. Maybe Harper Lee intended readers to be shocked by that revelation, and every bit as angry as Scout is when she yells at Atticus about it. But I also suspect that we’re supposed to listen to Uncle Jack when he points out to Scout – none too gently – that by not trying to understand her father or her fiancé, just railing against their attitudes, she’s being a bigot. I might be missing something, but it seems to me that every reader who carries on about Atticus being a racist (when they are not) is likewise being a bigot. And it’s not as if Atticus wants Scout to be a racist. He’s fine with her being “color blind” as Jack calls her non-racism.
Atticus isn’t a monster. At the end of the day, he will always uphold the law, so he’s not about to let Klan members beat up on anyone. For those readers who bothered to finish the book, the point Lee was making wasn’t that racist = bad, because that’s self-evident. The point was that bigot = unhelpful.
In this particular moment in history, I honestly feel we need this book, because bigotry is so widespread. It’s about time we stopped saying to racists, “You’re wrong and you have to stop,” (displaying our bigotry). Instead, we could try to understand why they might think that way – unpack the baggage and see if there’s a different discussion we could be having, because You’re wrong and I’m right isn’t fixing racism, any more than it fixed sexism, religious intolerance or speciesism.
Go Set a Watchman is a raw read. There’s none of the gentility of Mockingbird about it. But I liked that.
This book isn’t for everyone, but I would ask you to read it for yourself. It changed the way I think about bigotry. I thought bigots where those people who didn’t believe the right things (the things I believe in). I was wrong. I hope to see more grey in the future.
And I would LOVE to hear your opinions of the book and the hype around it in the comments below.