Teaching History

My Raw Reaction to Go Set a Watchman

On Saturday my husband agreed to go to the bookstore with me, and unsurprisingly we didn’t come home empty-handed. We picked up Harper Lee’s now old-news Go Set a Watchman. I heard that she made Atticus Finch a racist, and I thought it might be interesting to assign to a second half survey class sometime. I finished the short novel this morning and it left me reeling. I immediately went to the internet, looking for some reviewer to suitably explain to me the feelings that I couldn’t articulate. Something within me was uneasy, and I needed their Ivy League help to figure out why. But their reviews only made me more upset. I did the only thing I knew to do—I went to my reading notes notebook and started to write. What emerged was quite possibly the most unprofessional and unhelpful response to a book that I’ve ever composed. There’s little analysis, and everything is entirely too self-aware. Taking a page from Lee, I’ve decided to toss this raw bit of writing out into the public sphere. It makes me feel better to think that, maybe someday, an uneasy Watchman reader will come across it and find an intellectual companion.

Below are my reading notes with very little in the way of editing, and less in the way of conclusions:

I just finished reading Go Set a Watchman (plus some reviews of it) and I don’t know what to do with myself! I knew that Atticus was going to be a racist (that’s common knowledge now), but I was surprised by the racism of Scout, and by Harper Lee’s seeming defense of states’ rights ideology conveyed through her. Scout and Hank agree that truckloads of blacks shouldn’t be driving around at night—even though they are doing the very thing she and Hank are doing. She and Atticus agree that the Supreme Court should’ve stayed out of “that case.” She even concedes that most blacks in Maycomb County are poor and ignorant, many/some(?) even lazy and shiftless. Yet she makes bold claims in the name of justice, rails against her father in the name of equal rights—only to seemingly take it all back at the end when she decides to stay rather than leave.

What is so upsetting to me? That Scout’s “bigotry” against Hank and her father is in many respects my own! I’ve always felt an affinity for Scout, not because I’m just like her (I’m not), but because we seem to share some personality traits. I’m a coward compared to her. But I can’t help seeing Scout as autobiographical of Lee—I mean, Atticus was homage to Lee’s father. I’m inclined to believe that Lee whitewashed that story [referring to To Kill a Mockingbird] with the intention of correcting the record later. But her distaste for public life (and perhaps for the public’s interpretation of her book and its moral agent, Atticus?) set her against writing. How is it that none of the reviewers seem to see that, regardless of when exactly this manuscript was written, it is the direction Lee would’ve gone in her writing? She wanted to smash Scout’s innocence (childhood), then smash her idealism (young adulthood), too. The stuffy reviewers can’t handle it, so they claim Lee never wanted it published. Maybe not—maybe she was manipulated; but the shortcomings of the writing and composition don’t/can’t change the fact that she wanted to communicate this to America. That is, before she found out how Americans would respond to her work. Maybe she would’ve been happier if she’d smashed Atticus in front of all the world sooner. I can’t help but think that her aversion to the spotlight and Mockingbird arose from disappointment that she was somehow being misunderstood, that we were clipping her wings. Maybe, then, she did want this. Maybe this was her middle-finger to American readers on her way out. She never liked us readers anyway. Don’t they [the reviewers] get it? She didn’t think we could handle this—and maybe we can’t.

One of the reviews brought up the shortcomings of Atticus in Mockingbird. He was flat and passive, and too willing to accommodate the Cunninghams of the world. Moreover, he never showed emotion about Tom’s fate, only took Tom’s case by order of the judge, and then only did a good job in order to return the town to its pre-trial status quo. How did we miss that part of the story? How did we not anticipate that one day Scout would see the truth about her home and her father and have to find a way to keep on loving them? Perhaps there was some Hank in Lee’s past, perhaps this novel explains why she moved back to Alabama, and why she never quite fit anywhere. And she guarded us from it—kept all of us from smashing our idol of her and Atticus. Ironically, the reviewers who pooh-pooh it are no different than Scout when she leaves her father’s office in Watchman. Who will slap them, feed them whiskey, and explain to them that bad must be accepted alongside good?

The journalists didn’t seem to get it, so I know why the reviews upset me; but I am still trying to figure out why the book upset me so much. I moved around as a kid, didn’t really grow up in the Deep South. But I learned to read, to differentiate summertime from the school year, and first learned about death in Mississippi. And over the past month I’ve been confronted by my affinity for the idealized rural life. I had a lame childhood, and I don’t know when I grew up—perhaps at age twelve when [unnecessary bit of personal information]—but I cling to the idea of a country life, rural childhood, small-town living, the feeling I get listening to country music while driving on a two-lane highway. Why? My longing for that coexists alongside a fear of rubbing shoulders with soft-core racists. I felt it just last week in [small town] when [local official] made those comments about Mexican immigrants, at [restaurant in different small town] last month when that man started talking to me about “mixed marriages.” And both times, when confronted by these attitudes (and with skin in the game) I chose to appease rather than fight. My instinct was to cut and run—drop the country idyll because I don’t want to touch the disgusting side of it. I, too, feel disillusioned with my parents (though I never held them in the esteem that Scout did Atticus), and it makes me want to cut myself off. But Lee would have me do the harder thing—love them still, and find a way to forgive. She would have me tolerate their intolerance, and cling to the country idyll all the more! She is speaking to me, telling me to grow up. Lee has slapped me in the face, fed me whiskey, and told me to act like an adult by taking the bad in this world with the good. Can I do it?