GO SET A WATCHMAN Will Break Your Heart (And You Should Read it Anyway)
I have always craved more Atticus Finch. He’s become a household god, of sorts, in the lives and literary sensibilities of many Americans. We want our South served Atticus side up.
Then came the news of a new book–more Atticus! And behind that news: the other shoe. The Atticus Finch of Go Set A Watchman is no god, and we gain no new reasons to afford him our awe.
Atticus uses the n*word. He has a Klan past. He does not rail against privilege, he does not take complicated court cases for all of the right reasons, he does not caution that Othering people of color makes those behind the apartness common.
Atticus sits in a courtroom–the very courtroom in which he implored the jury to hear Tom Robinson’s truth, in the name of God, to hear the truth and abide by it–and listens to a white supremacist rail against the “negro race.” He does not contradict the speaker. By the end of the novel–hell, by its middle–we’re not sure we know him at all.
I have never identified with Scout Finch so much. At the moment Atticus becomes a man who can abide racism, I, too, wanted to throw up my lunch. I, too, went from asking “what would Atticus do?” to watching, in horror and disbelief, as a god came down from the mountain. I felt her sense of betrayal. I cycled through the stages of mourning with her. I, too, am unmoored.
But damned if that awakening doesn’t end up being precisely what Go Set A Watchman is about.
I’ve spent some of today wondering if To Kill A Mockingbird wasn’t intended as the sugar that makes the pill of Go Set A Watchman easier to swallow. Though I hated the taste of much of it, I’m ready to call Watchman the medicine we all need to take.
Forget avoiding this novel to preserve your sense of who Atticus is. Don’t tell yourself that there’s no continuity between the Atticus we’ve always known and the Atticus who was in the Klan. They’re one in the same. And that’s okay. It hurts like hell, but we’ll survive it. We’ll come out on the other side stronger for the pain.
If To Kill A Mockingbird was a novel about a man apart from his community, in a time when standing apart required incredible bravery: Go Set A Watchman is equally about how people who do good things have flaws. Maybe a lot of flaws. Maybe so many that we want to scream and rail and tell them to take their imperfections straight to hell (but we’ll keep what good they’ve done here with us on earth).
Mockingbird is the feels. Go Set A Watchman is the truth.
Scout learns, while smashing her idols to bits and rearranging all of her truths, that she is not truly herself, or capable of being a locus of positive change, until she becomes the hero of her own life. She was not a grown up while she still worshiped at her father’s feet. Heartbroken, without the idea of him as perfect, she has a chance to be.
To Kill A Mockingbird has to be reconfigured in my own heart and mind now. I will always love it, but in the end: it’s a child’s dream of the world. It is the glittering surface of a soap bubble notion of who we are and what we stand for.
Go Set A Watchman is a call to wake up.
Honest, hard working, thoughtful individuals do contribute to continued inequality. They do it without intention, perhaps: by clinging to privilege even while abhorring it, or by fighting wars that Aren’t About That, even if “that” is people, and those people are hurting. They do it by the company they keep, even if they keep it just to know what’s what.
They do it by claiming to be colorblind, dear Scout, when none of us are, or by arguing for states’ rights against human rights, even as they’re forming a personal ethic based on fairness. They do it by evading self-examination and refusing to grow. By turning to gods, real or imagined, prayerfully, instead of themselves working to actualize their hopes.
I loathe so much of what Atticus says in Go Set A Watchman, but he’s the same Atticus. He’s just real now. We didn’t want him to be, but we need the realism of his deep imperfections. We need this reminder that change is about more than paying lip service to virtue. The god-Atticus has to be slain before we can do the work we thought he was doing for us.
I no longer think I know what Atticus would say about the lowering of the confederate battle flag across the South this month, or about the gutting of the VRA, or about expanded marriage equality. In fact: I’m a little afraid that I do know what Atticus would say. I’m not sure I want to hear from him on those subjects any longer. Or Scout, even–because even in her righteous progressivism, she’s wrong about some things. I don’t want to be her exactly, either.
That realization alone is worth reading Go Set A Watchman for. It pushes us to grow past the Finches. At its end, we’re left cradling not what the Finches know to be right, and true, and good, but what we know is right. We’re forced to become our own watchpeople. Harper may destroy us emotionally in the course of the lesson, but she’s a good teacher after all.