Today I am posting a fantastic guest blog from my friend Rebecca (WhiskeyMistress on Litsy). She is a political science graduate, Doula, and an absolutely voracious reader. She didn’t read GSAW when it first came out and so, had a very different view on it when she read it recently. As most know, GSAW was surrounded by controversy and many TKAM lovers hated it upon first read, myself included. But I urge you to read her thoughts and reconsider! She completely changed my outlook. Enjoy!
When one begins to attempt to approach a “sequel” (dirty word, dirty thought) of such a classic as “To Kill a Mockingbird” (henceforth referred to as TKAM), it is already with a sense of doubt, almost of betrayal. TKAM is a MOMENT, a MOVEMENT, one that everyone with a literary bend, and even those without, can point to and say “I remember this.” This book is a colossus, which runs as a connecting thread through millions of longsuffering American middle-schoolers, well into adulthood, to the point that it is the fall-back “favorite book” in answer to the query of social media or dating sites. We were told since childhood “this is it” “Harper Lee will never write another” and then there was another. And how to take this “other” has been a mixed bag.
I myself got into the book a little late. Three years late in fact, and that lateness may have made a difference in the way I viewed the book, as the summer of 2018 feels much different from the summer of 2015. Things have changed, tensions deepened, and rifts widened, or at least these things were more highlighted, brought to the surface.
The controversy surrounding the publication of Watchman was genuine, upsetting and perhaps a very real violation of the wishes of the author herself. The story goes thusly: Lee presented her editors with the manuscript of Watchman, who told her they wouldn’t publish it, BUT they really loved the parts flashing back to Scout’s childhood. After many rewrites, and some great editing help, Watchman morphed into TKAM. Many sources have spoken to the fact Lee never intended Watchman to even be read by anyone after it had birthed TKAM. The book ended up being published against objections, and quite possibly in a money grab that benefited Lee not at all, as she passed away shortly after publication.
Regardless of how one feels about the means by which the book was published, it was, hurriedly and in need of perhaps a more keen editing eye. It reads as a first novel, at times clumsy, stilted, the dialogue not QUITE right. This book has also created a very visceral reaction among fans of TKAM, from those who steadfastly insist the characters are all wrong, that isn’t who they are, as though they are living breathing people, and not merely a character on a page. However, the idea that this book was written in 1957 (BEFORE TKAM) is the thing that stands out. Lee wrote this in the time period the events of the book were taking place. She wrote this from the place of Jean Louise, not from the place of Scout. This is always who those characters were, we just didn’t care to know it.
We forget that neither of these books are about Atticus. He is a side character, an important one of course, but not our hero. Unfortunate for us that so many think of him not as the bookish, intellectual, semi-absent but still involved father, but as the handsome, still young, virile Gregory Peck, thundering against injustice as he rides the White Horse of the law triumphantly over the base evils of racism. We see him not as dad but as “daddy”, we want to date him, we want to confer sainthood upon him, we want to FUCK him. And yet, the story is not about him. And it never was.
From the very beginning of GSAW our beloved cast of characters is askew, thrown into shambles, without so much as a by-your-leave. Jem is dead, no heroes death here, simply fell over, dropped dead of a heart attack on a sidewalk. Calpurnia has also taken off, into her retirement. Dill is… somewhere… Italy perhaps. The very HOUSE is gone, pulled down and an ice-cream parlor standing in its place. And so we are left with the person we are supposed to be focused on, the person who we are supposed to relate to, Jean Louise. We feel her stretching, pulled in different directions, in a world she doesn’t quite fit into. No mere housewife she, yet stuck in a June Cleaver world, one of hats and white gloves and proper Southern Ladies.
And then Jean Louise gets hit with it, the real hard smack, that her beloved little town has a dark seedy underbelly, and front and center of this group of angry white men are both her long-time beau and her beloved father. The moment when it hits her, as she watches from the courtroom balcony, stands out as an amazing moment, because it is the first time I, as a reader, have ever felt almost the exact same emotion as the character I am reading about. The betrayal and the frustration, the disbelief that people could think those things, say those things. And not just people, but Atticus, a character we all grew up with, we all loved, put on a pedestal, just as Scout had. That was her grounding, her attachment, the thing that kept her hanging onto her past, her childhood, and all at once it is changed, the pedestal smashed right in front of her. The genuine shock, the grown-up shock, at being no longer “a part”, is something that is tangible and real, that should resound with all of us, who remember the first time we felt like we had grown up, out, and apart, from our old lives.
The damndest part of the whole thing is you want to paint him over with a brush and cry RACIST, you can’t. Because PART and I emphasis only a part, of Atticus was right. The part that believed in States rights, and the letter of the law, and the fact that the Supreme Court at that time did something many didn’t agree with. Do we look back, through the lens of time, and protest “but the Court did what was right!”? Of course. But Atticus didn’t have the lens of time. Atticus had the Law. And the South. And neither thing agreed with that particular decision.
No one has perhaps ever hit the idea of the South so squarely on the head as Jean Louise’s uncle, Dr. Finch. She goes to him to try to find some sense in everything, to try to get him to explain what has happened, why the world seems to have gone crazy. Dr. Finch explains the nature of the beast, one that still exists today. If you can get people to blame their problems on the “other”, to imagine themselves superior in some way, even if that is solely based on skin color, then you can control them. Round and round it goes, meet the new boss, same as the old boss…
Of course the 2018 part of us shouts “No Scout, stay away, fight against, RAIL AGAINST THE DYING OF THE LIGHT!” But that is the 2018 part of us that belongs to the group that voted for Hilary. The other part of us should realize the hard, rough truth of what Dr. Finch imparts to Jean Louise. The part that whispers “they need you”, the part that understands why Trump is President. The part that agrees, yes, they are wrong, but they have reasons WHY they believe so strongly in their wrong, and us screaming and preaching from the sanctity of our white towers of privilege will never sway them. How many of us turn away in disgust that our little Scout could possibly forgive Atticus, to continue to associate with him, but at the same time we sit uncomfortable at Sunday dinner while our own fathers drone on about the immigrants stealing jobs, and the necessity of walls, all peacefully unmolested by any protest from us.
Go Set a Watchman won’t be replacing TKAM on required reading lists, or even on many lists of favorite books. But the message, written from the ‘50’s, is eerily relevant to today. Scout’s growing pains as she becomes Jean Louise and leaves childhood behind, painfully separating her identity from that of her father, echo those we ourselves are forced to endure, as we discover who we are and what we stand for, sometimes at the cost of realizing those we care the most about, may not stand for the same things. Be your own hero. Listen for your watchman.