“Go Set a Watchman” A Late Review of a Summer Novel

I finally finished Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s (To Kill A Mocking Bird) 2nd novel that released earlier this summer to fans disheartened by the revelation of Atticus Finch’s racist beliefs.

Many cling to his old legacy, arguing that GSAW is “just a first draft” and that the Atticus portrayed in each story are not the same.

I understand the controversial history behind this novel:  it was the long lost manuscript that was the first draft from which Lee developed her iconic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Though the characters draw great inspiration from each other and character traits and history of TKAM’s Atticus and GSAW’s Atticus definitely overlap, certain details don’t exactly line up (details of the rape case and Scout’s history don’t match), I acknowledge that this could be the same Atticus, or Lee could have completely changed is personality in GSAW to make for a better story at the influence of her editors.

But none of that is important, in terms of the social issues. Regardless of the way Lee intended to portray the characters, the people who can’t accept the new portrayal of Atticus are having a hard time believing that “noble” lawyer Atticus and the conservative Atticus can be the same person.

More than race or social issues, I found this is a story about identity.  It forces readers, along with protagonist Jean Louise aka Scout, to examine humanity rather than champion the legacy of an individual or commitment to a one sided belief. But a lot of people are getting stuck on just that.

Beyond Atticus’ beliefs, this novel brings up an excellent conundrum between Jean Louise’s beliefs and that of her town, her family and acquaintances; they operate under the deep south standards of race and gender relations that are incredibly applicable more than 50 years after the book was written with southern “heritage” on full display in the news this past summer (the Confederate flag and the Charleston shooting).

But this story allows for more humanity that most other polarized analysis we have regarding the south and race relations. This story forces readers to listen to the points of view of deep seated racists and watch a protagonist come to terms with those points rather than try to topple them.

It doesn’t take sides. It humanizes racism and dismantles the pedestal that once held up Atticus’ and scout’s own self-righteous liberal beliefs. Scout’s Uncle Jack (Atticus’ brother) points out that she is in fact a bigot in the true definition of the term (a person who is intolerant toward those holding different opinions). Jean Louise’s identity is so parallel to that of many white (and sometimes non-white) liberals today. It challenges those who live in an idealistic world; those who combat injustices on a surface level not understanding the nuances of neither the racists nor the people being they claim to be fighting for.

There is a grave danger in that mentality. Uncle Jack calls her colorblind- a criticism of modern liberals who claim to support all people while failing to see the distinct vibrancies of people’s cultural identities. And that same often well–meaning but self-righteous attitude gets bounces around the echo chamber before landing on anyone who disagrees with them without a fair chance of dialogue and examination. Even those with beliefs we detest deserve a chance to voice their opinion, and until we understand each other, problems will not get fixed. Without dialogue, nothing is learned; the gap between the prejudiced and those combating it grows wider with a river of hatred flooding over.

This, according to Uncle Jack, makes Jean Louise just as much of a bigot as the people she criticizes. (and remember this was written in 1957)

“You’ve no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you’ve been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, ‘I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’ You’d better take time for ’em, honey, otherwise you’ll never grow. … You’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially.”

This Mashable article proclaimed that TKAM is the fantasy, and GSAW is the reality. As a literary work in Lee’s saga, that might not be the case, but in terms of social justice, it rings possible. This imperfect novel goes beyond the all too common hero complex of TKAM and unravels the flaws in humanity when it comes to race and society.

“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”


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