Harper Lee’s recently published novel, Go set a watchman was likely one of the most highly anticipated books of 2015, and was met with some of the most highly controversial reactions. Readers and reviewers of this book have hated it, loved it, been disgusted by it and even refused to finish reading it. I chose to ignore the reactions and reviews and wait to read it for myself and form my own opinion. Having now done that, I can honestly say that I am glad that I read it and I will admit that I found it utterly fascinating, while at the same time still felt slightly horrified and disillusioned.
I believe that most people are aware of the story behind the publication of this novel. Supposedly Go set a watchman was the first book that Lee presented to her publisher, who then suggested that she “revise” it. This suggestion then resulted in To kill a mockingbird which grew to become a beloved classic. The manuscript for Go set a watchman was then lost and was only rediscovered in 2014. When reading Go set a watchman, the reader needs to be aware that it was Lee’s sophomore effort and hence is not as polished as To kill a mockingbird. The reader also needs to remember that it was written in the 1950’s in the Southern States and it is largely representative of that time and place.
The biggest controversy surrounding Go set a watchman is the discovery that Atticus Finch is not the honourable defender of civil rights that he was portrayed as being in To kill a mockingbird. Instead we discover, along with Jean Louise (aka Scout), that Atticus is a racist and a bigot and a member of the Maycomb Citizen’s Council; essentially a group self-tasked with keeping the negroes “in their place” and not allowing them the civil rights that were being fought for during that time. Scout’s horror at this discovery leads her to verbally condemn her father and question her entire childhood and upbringing. The reader feels that same shock right alongside Scout as well as a deep sense of betrayal. While reading the book though, I wondered if some of that feeling of betrayal stemmed from the magnificent performance of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and not from Atticus himself. Just as in all movies, the actors and director choose what aspects they want to focus upon, and I am left wondering if a closer re-reading of To kill a mockingbird is now in order. Perhaps Atticus’ moral code is not as clear as I recall.
Putting literary merit aside, Go set a watchman forces readers to remember exactly what was happening in the South during the 1950’s and the time of the civil rights movement and this makes us uncomfortable. Harper Lee reveals truths that many people would prefer be left unspoken, but using Scout’s voice, she obviously reviles those truths. Scout’s condemnation of her father and of Maycomb reflects our condemnation as well, but Scout comes to realize that her father is not a paragon of virtue and a champion of civil rights, but merely human; a man who has tried to make his way during a time of deep civil change, raise his motherless children, practice the law that he loves and keep his home intact. We definitely may not agree with him or even entirely respect him anymore, but like Scout, we should realize that Atticus Finch is not and never was perfect.
Go set a watchman may very well make the reader feel uncomfortable. To me though, a little bit of discomfort while reading a book is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if it makes one think and question. We are not required to enjoy this book, or even read it for that matter, but it is still a “book of its times” as well as a book written by a beloved author and for those two reasons, among many others, I feel that at the very least it is a book that should not be ignored.