Rumors upon rumors over many years pointed toward another Harper Lee novel, a novel that went beyond To Kill A Mockingbird. Now we have Go Set A Watchman, a novel that may predate Mockingbird. Its developmental history seems murky. I read the novel as having a life of its own, separate and somewhat independent from Mockingbird. In that reading, I found a harsh beauty that evoked Flannery O’Connor.
Here the narrator is a woman much more mature than the six-year-old girl we meet in To Kill A Mockingbird. No longer is Atticus Finch the noble icon seared in the memories of readers. Here we meet an Atticus Finch racked with arthritis and who holds to certain traditions in the midst of cultural change. No longer is Jean Louise Finch, once known as Scout, the innocent child curious about Boo Radley and who sees her father as a near-god. Now we meet a Jean Louise who sees flaws in her family, her father, and her community, and as most adults do, she makes a peace with that.
Many reviewers panned the novel, making angry comments about the author’s original intent or about the literary agent or the publisher for taking advantage of the aging Harper Lee. That anger seems overwrought to me, causing me to wonder if these reviewers felt more hurt by the new book than they would admit. No longer is Gregory Peck the sole purveyor of Atticus Finch. As readers, we grow with Jean Louise in seeing an Atticus Finch anew, meeting the family and all the community from a different perspective. Harper Lee’s novel causes us to read with more mature eyes, and I suspect that causes the angry response of many reviewers.
Go Set A Watchman takes nothing away from To Kill A Mockingbird. Mockingbird will remain a book that presents a hero who stands for justice in the midst of community injustice. As such, that novel will continue to help form our own understandings of wisdom and justice. Watchman shows human frailty, finitude and fallibility. We need both books so that we may see ourselves. ghd