Not even 24 hours since the release of Go Set a Watchman, many reviewers are already having a hard time swallowing this version of Atticus Finch. Are readers missing the point?
It’s easy for readers and reviewers to shrug off or be disappointed with Harper Lee’s sophomore release, especially given the history. The story goes that Lee actually wrote this “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird first. However, her editor at the time became fascinated with the family and asked that she set Go Set a Watchman aside in favor of telling the story of Mockingbird, set some two decades earlier. The original manuscript for Watchman was believed to be long-since lost or destroyed. And, for decades, Lee fans believed they’d never get another book from Lee as she was concerned it would look like a failure in light of the insane success of Mockingbird. And yet here we are: It’s 2015, rumors pertaining to Lee’s mental health fly around nearly monthly and there’s a new book on the market. It’s not To Kill a Mockingbird. But people expecting it to be would, honestly, be expecting far too much from anyone. If the power of To Kill a Mockingbird were repeatable, it wouldn’t hold its value.
What we were given upon finally being allowed inside the pages of Lee’s first book is a truly wonderful first book. On a publishing level, this is a book that made it to about the fourth or fifth author-edit and then disappeared. We’ve been told that very little editing was done to Go Set a Watchman, which would be far from the case in any other circumstance. Already the publishing and editing flow are incomparable to Mockingbird.
More interesting, though, is the issue readers have with the contents of the book. It seems as though readers are having a hard time wrapping their heads around Watchman‘s version of Atticus. They’re calling it an inconsistency. He’s being written off as a first, less heroic version of the Atticus we fell for in To Kill a Mockingbird. It seems as though readers are so caught up in trying to find their heroes again that they’re missing the biggest theme of Watchman: Change.
Our perfectly endearing narrator, who now prefers to go by Jean Louise, speaks of change from the very get-go in Go Set a Watchman. While traveling by train from her residence in New York City to her home back in Maycomb, Alabama, she sees it in the antennas attached to people’s houses. She speaks of it by dropping the bomb of her brother’s death. She admits to the change in her father from strong, heroic middle-aged Atticus to the arthritis-riddled, often dependent on others old man she’s returning home to visit. The change continues at home when you realize, deeper into the book, Scout isn’t at the home she grew up in but somewhere else. Her home was bulldozed and an ice cream parlor (run by a familiar face) stands in its place. Change runs rampant in town as new people move in and try to “spruce up” the familiar one-trick pony she calls home.
And change, dear friends, comes to Atticus in the slightly disturbing news that he’s now a member of a segregationist group. A visit to the courthouse finds Miss Jean Louise privvy to the railings of a white supremacist bitterly tearing apart black society while her father sits idly by. For a brief moment, we’re even taken back to that moment in Mockingbird when Scout sat in that very balcony and watched her father defend a black man. Our narrator leaves the scene utterly sick from what she’s witnessed and truly boggled by this change in Atticus. And it’s this change that, just like Jean Louise, readers have the hardest time grasping. But make no mistake. This isn’t an inconsistency between the first story and Lee’s second, most famous work. This change is real and deliberate.
At the heart of the change, one thing remains the same between Mockingbird and Watchman and that’s a father-daughter relationship. Not often explored but always present is the fact that, just as kids grow up, become their own people and change their minds about things a million times over, so, too, do parents. How many of our Tea Party-joining parents once voted for President Clinton? How many Dubya lovers once protested the Vietnam War? Our parents change, almost always to the surprise and dismay of their children. Go Set a Watchman illustrates that part of life beautifully. Atticus went from his daughter’s hero to her biggest unsolved puzzle. Atticus changed. Like Scout. Like Maycomb. Like the world around us. Not by accident, but with deliberation. Atticus changed. And it makes perfect sense.