Both Sides Now: What We Learn from Go Set A Watchman

July 14, 2015

Because Harper Lee’s “other” book, To Kill A Mockingbird has been read and loved by so many people over the last half century, the release of her Go Set A Watchman has received the hype and fever of a Harry Potter book release.  In a way, that’s appropriate.  One of the themes in J. K. Rowling’s series is how a person’s perception of  people and events changes as they receive more information.  Go Set a Watchman challenges everyone who thinks they know everything about To Kill a Mockingbird.  If you don’t like surprises, shut this page down now.  There are Spoilers Dead Ahead.

Watchman is the story of young adult reevaluating her past.  Jean Louise is Southern by birth but a New Yorker now by choice.   Like others who start adult life in a new location, she finds visiting home a bit difficult.  Still, she looks forward to spending time with Atticus, the father she’s worshiped all of her life.  Then Jean Louise hears the political opinions of her adored  father and falls into shock.  Atticus sees southern black people as a group without the sophistication and education necessary to handle the privileges of citizenship responsibly.  He fears their full enfranchisement and resents the actions of the Supreme Court rather than of admit that continuing injustice made the rulings necessary.  Jean Louise’s task in Watchman is to reconcile the justice loving father she recalls with the flawed, ill man she’s seeing now.

This reenactment of the Oscar Wilde’s aphorism about children loving their parents, then judging them and occasionally forgiving them has created the biggest brouhaha since Rowling announced Albus Dumbledore was gay.  Outraged devotees and twitter trolls are either denouncing Watchman as an imitation of Miss Lee’s work or announcing their intention to boycott the new publication.  The two novels, placed side by side prompt the question: Will the real Atticus Finch please stand up?

Jean Louise’s heartache in Watchman underscores that these two men are one and the same; she and the times have changed.  The Atticus of Depression-era Mockingbird is a member of the privileged minority with the right to hold office, sit on a jury and vote.  At the time, these activities were reserved for white males. From this powerful position he tried to help a vulnerable black man, and won the esteem of his children.  By the 1950’s, the Civil Rights Movement was picking up speed.  Instead of one black man needing Mr. Finch’s help, a entire population of black people are demanding respect and the power to help themselves.  They don’t accept Atticus as an authority and neither does his daughter.  Fear of a future he cannot control has turned a lawyer-saint to a flawed, resentful man. 

Thus, the father remembered by the six-year old Scout is the same man who argues with his grown daughter, Jean Louis.  Her understanding of him expands as she incorporates this negative information.  This process is always difficult when it shows loved ones have serious flaws but it brings a fuller, subtler knowledge of the person and a test: how do we love and honor people who do and say things that we hate. To continue the relationship, we have to accept that we love imperfect people.

The fact is Watchman is as imperfect as the Atticus Finch. It has the same wry observations, the tendency to describe matters in legal terms as Mockingbird but it lacks the incisive storytelling and pitch-perfect prose.  Mockingbird’s phrases and paragraph are blocked out so anyone reading it aloud knows the exact moment to take each breath. Some of the sentences in Watchman don’t know when to stop, and at times, the plot meanders.  Comparing the books, side by side, is a rare insight into the arts of revision and editing.  Yes, Harper Lee’s editor changed the book completely by getting her to shift the focus.  However the result was a novel, adored for its transcendent beauties.

Still, it must have been difficult for the author, in the intervening years, to remember the story she sacrificed in crafting a classic.  The result was beautiful but it removed the author’s original statement about the real Atticus Finch.  For decades she endure paroxysms of praise for a man she knew to be flawed and, because the original manuscript was missing, she had to keep her mouth shut.  No wonder Miss Lee stipulated Watchman would only be published if no one asked her to rewrite it.  The story she really wanted to tell would be heard, for good or for ill.  And, as good as Mockingbird is, it reduced the story she wanted to write to a near allegory.

Perhaps Mockingbird‘s initial impact occurred because of the simplicity in its story.  In the middle of the 20th century, notions of segregation was so ingrained that people only revised their opinions when faced with an scenario that made the answer inescapable.  This kind of presentation is fine but it robs the key characters of the fallibility of real people. Tom Robinson and Atticus aren’t characters as much as martyr and saint.  The same complaint could be leveled Sidney Portier’s character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  His John Prentice had to be the perfect prospective son-in-law in order to underscore the point: no one should be included or excluded based solely on the color of their skin.

So, as beautiful as it is, To Kill a Mockingbird is a story of childlike simplicity, compared to the messier and uneven Go Set a Watchman.   That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to love the first book.  It just means, to grow up, we need to accept real people aren’t as simple as the characters in fairy tales.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the woman who has shown us both sides of her story and who was brave enough to let us glimpse the incredible work involved in creating a classic tale.  Maybe we’re finally grown up enough to appreciate her gift.

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