I suspect that some have purchased a copy of Go Set a Watchman on account of the controversies. Did Harper Lee really want to release this book to the public? Is Atticus really a racist? Undoubtedly it would have sold a number of copies without added hype. Most of us simply have a soft spot for the Finch family and Maycomb, Alabama or at least the way that Harper Lee is able to talk about these things.
For those of us who are treasure hunters, those who think it would be cool to unearth a time capsule – this is our lucky summer. History has fallen into our lap. A sixty year old treasure has been uncovered. Like archaeologists, we read this discovery and talk about its implications.
The reader should not forget that this book was written at about the time Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery bus. And was written prior the Civil Rights Act signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, prior to the Selma to Montgomery march where unarmed citizens were attacked on the day that has become known as “Bloody Sunday”, prior to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This does not give permission for characters to behave any way they want but it does add some perspective to the story.
I find it interesting that Watchman was released during this summer where race and religion had already made their way to the forefront. Where the way things are in the south and the appropriateness of the confederate flag have been news items. Perhaps it is a testimony to Lee’s writing skill that prompts us to be asking the same questions sixty years later. Watchman reminds us that though we think we are evolving and developing in conscience, we are still much the same in the ways we talk about things and rationalize our opinions.
Many of us were not around when this book was written, yet Harper Lee was. I suspect she created the character Atticus as a realistic man of his time, as a southern gentleman. Nevertheless, while Mockingbird showed he can be noble, Watchman reminds us he is not perfect. I believe that puts him in a group with the rest of us.
Mockingbird and Watchman are both honest about the human condition. Both reveal the complexity that comes with being a part of this race. The point is carried home by narrative in the first book and through dialogue in the latter. Both intend to make the reader think. That some could refer to someone as a hero on one occasion and others refer to the same person as a racist on another occasion is evidence of human complexity.
With all the questions I have heard about the book, the one I have not heard is “What happened to Scout?” While I agree with the position of grown Jean Louise, I find myself wishing for young Scout. What happened to the girl we got to know in Mockingbird? The spunky girl who showed herself in the flashback scenes of Watchman? In fact, these are my favorite scenes. They are almost Mark Twain like and are reminiscent of Mockingbird and a reminder of Lee’s ability to make characters come to life. My favorite is when the children reenact a revival meeting just for the fun of it. Jem plays the evangelist, Scout is a baptismal candidate, and Dill the Holy Ghost. The scene ends with the evangelist showing up for dinner that evening, choosing to reprimand the children during the pre-meal prayer, and Atticus “on the back porch laughin!”
I have daughters and have always considered them to have a little bit of Scout in them. It would be disappointing if they one day returned to Maycomb acting like Jean Louise. We get a glimpse of the old Scout while the rumor was spreading that she and Hank had gone skinny dipping. But these instances are few in Watchman. Instead, the grown Jean Louise comes across to me as a complainer. I want her to stand up for what she believes the way she once stood up for herself with Jem and Dill.
We would not want to see Huck Finn return home and begin complaining about things he failed to notice as a child. We want Huck to remain clever and confident about what he thinks and not allow the opinions of others to cause him to act differently. Likewise, I want a Scout who is playful and feisty as she responds to what others do, no matter how wrong they may be. Of course, Scout may think that I am not taking her situation seriously enough.
For all the Jean Louise’s out there who are complaining about the book, we do well to remind ourselves that Mockingbird would not have occurred without Watchman. I rather enjoyed the book. It is easy to read, moves at a good pace, and will cause me to reread Mockingbird differently.
We will reread Mockingbird differently because Watchman does to us what it does to Scout. (The emotional intensity makes me wonder how biographical this may be). It makes us think about Atticus and Maycomb in one way before taking us into secret meetings where we learn its dirty prejudices. Is Mockingbird more palatable because it views issues of race from a safer distance? Does Watchman leave a bad taste with us because we find out how the residents really feel about one another?
I love the title. “Go set a watchman” comes from the King James Version of Isaiah 21.6. Part of me wishes there were more obvious references to this text given one summer Sunday morning by a Methodist preacher. Jean Louise gives the reference that matters. “I never thought to look into people’s hearts, I looked only in their faces… I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means… I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody.” In recognizing the need for a lookout, i wonder if she is assigning herself the role as watchman for you and I?