Of all the mysteries surrounding Harper Lee’s second novel, the question of whether it’s a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird is the one I was the most curious about. We won’t ever know if Harper Lee is a mentally and physically frail old lady who was duped into publishing a second novel for the enrichment of her family and circle of caretakers. And actually, we can’t ever know for sure what Go Set a Watchman was really meant to be written as, but there are clues in the text to two paths.

The first path, and the most widely accepted, is that Watchman is a sequel to Mockingbird. Scout is all grown up, and she comes back to Maycomb to discover that everything she thought she knew about her father and his goodness and decency is wrong. He is a hypocrite, the worst kind of hypocrite, because he taught her differently and she believed him, and to find out as she does that he is thoroughly racist, a benevolent bigot, is almost unbearable to read. The last quarter of the book is Jean Louise in physical and spiritual pain over everything she has lost — her love for her father and her image of him as a good and just man.

“You cheated me, you’ve driven me out of my home and now I’m in a no man’s land but good — there’s no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I’ll never be entirely at home anywhere else.” Scout Finch, in Go Set A Watchman

Scout’s anguished cry is echoed by the outrage of readers who remember Atticus Finch from the books, and more likely, the movie. Reading the last segment of the book was painful*, and I’m not even a huge Mockingbird fan. Atticus Finch is a beloved literary figure who has become a part of our culture of redemption. Atticus is a part of the story of the US. When race relations in the US dip to all-time lows, as they currently are, Atticus is a beacon of light in the darkness.

If Watchman is a sequel, then it’s a sequel that takes away a big part of our cultural complacency and replaces it with uncertainty. If Atticus Finch is a bigot, where does that leave us? And if Lee wrote him that way, what does she mean by it? Mockingbird is a pretty simple albeit well-written book, which is why it’s given to thirteen-year-olds to read. It’s probably the first “serious” book many of them have read, and it’s an introduction to US literature. And here’s where I go on a speculation binge — could it be that Lee wanted Watchman to re-set a course? Had she seen what she had created, this impossibly sainted Atticus Finch, and she wanted to bring him to earth? By puncturing a myth, we can take a hard look at the truth. And the truth is, we weren’t done with race in the 1950s, and we aren’t done with it now.

There’s another school of thought on Watchman, that the lost novel was the ur-text of Mockingbird. This story goes that Lee’s editor told her to just write the bits about Scout being a tomboy. And indeed, the Scout flashbacks are pretty funny, although they don’t have anywhere near the power of the rest of the book. Lee also talks about Atticus’s famous trial, but it’s not shown, it’s merely referred to as further illumination of his character, and it’s all the more searing because he no longer lives up to that image.

I haven’t read Mockingbird in a long time, but this path doesn’t read true to me. Watchman doesn’t even include the events that take place in Mockingbird, and two of the main characters — Jem and Dill — don’t show up in Watchman except by mention. I think it’s a sequel, and I think Lee wrote it deliberately and with some forethought to, as I said, re-right the course that Mockingbird took.

Or at least, that’s my speculation. We can’t know, can we?

From the moment I read about the discovery (or “discovery”) of Go Set A Watchman, I knew I had to read it. As I said, I’m not a monumental Mockingbird fan, but this book is work by a major cultural figure of the 20th century. Can you imagine a lost manuscript of Dickens, found in the twilight of his life? Or Jane Austen, or Mark Twain? Harper Lee is one of the signature voices of her age, and Mockingbird has never lost its relevance. I believe that in the coming decades, Watchman will be more than just a curious bookend, an asterisk or a footnote to history, but it will take its place next to Mockingbird as the right and fitting conclusion to the story.

It’s a sequel. It turns Mockingbird on its head, and even if Lee was conned into publishing it, as sad as that scenario is, it would have been worse if Watchman had never come to light.

Because now we can have a different conversation about Atticus Finch, and maybe it will be a more realistic one than the hagiography of Mockingbird. It’s not that we shouldn’t have heroes, and that they should always be torn down, but Watchman reveals that Lee also had something more to say about Atticus, and it’s fitting and right that she gets to say it, and the conversation gets to continue.

*Atticus’s defense is the tired defense of states’ rights and Southern culture and individualism, and also that Negroes are not ready for full equality. Remember, this book was written in the 1950s, before the Confederate battle flag was plastered all over the South, on public buildings and the like. And the way he defends himself is so paternalistic and sickening. It’s shocking to read.

 

 


2 Comments

Wampus Cat · July 21, 2015 at 11:32 am

Thank you for this, Patrice. It’s similar to my take on the book.

I think this sequel asks some difficult questions. As a person who grew up in the South when school desegregation was taking place, there were many people like Atticus Finch – wrong about racial issues, flawed, but still capable of sometimes good and even noble behavior.

The simple noble Atticus of Mockingbird is easier to hold in our minds. But this Atticus is much more real.

Patrice Sarath · July 21, 2015 at 12:01 pm

Thanks. I agree — this book does not make it easy. And the simplified reaction of critics/commentators to say, “oooh, Atticus is “bad” now” really does the book an injustice.

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