The literary Internet—and some of the not-so-literary pieces of it—has been seized with a kind of collective hysteria about Go Set a Watchman, the so-called "pre-sequel" to To Kill a Mockingbird released by HarperCollins last week. In The Washington Post, Alexandra Peti insists the book should never have been published. Chris Taylor on Mashable suggested Harper Lee might just be trolling us all. When I asked the girl next to me on the Red Line rereading Mockingbird if she had read Watchman yet, she burst into tears, flung herself to ground and drummed her heels on the floor while wailing, "Atticus, how could you do this to me?!" (Not really, but she did say she was afraid to read it.)
I admittedly think all this feverish emoting on the topic of a fictional middle-aged white dude is a teeny bit overwrought. Here’s why:
What’s this I hear about Atticus Finch being a racist.
The book sold over a million copies in less than a week on the shelves, at least partially on the back of the ongoing controversy over the portrayal of Atticus Finch as a segregationist and a bigot. This originally sounded really interesting to me—"the 1950’s equivalent of a Fox News-watching Atticus Finch," as Taylor imagined him in Mashable—but unfortunately, there's little nuance in the development of that character. Atticus just kind of… believes what he believes about black people (and the heroic intents of the Klan, the NAACP's evil intention to brainwash and the unconscionable infringement of the 10th Amendment in Brown v. The Board of Education. Also that Yankees are rude).
Perhaps most frustrating from a pure plot perspective is that Atticus seems to maintain these troubling beliefs without a lot of personal conviction: When Scout cusses him for it, he smiles benevolently and proudly at her for expressing her own opinion, but leaves the actual engagement of the subject to his brother Jack, who prevails upon Scout to see things from her father's perspective by smacking her in the face. There's some pseudo-intellectual talk—"mansplaining of racism," as Peti so aptly describes it—and then book ends with Scout descending into a kind of complacent apologia that isn't too far removed from Atticus'. It’s a fuckin' mess, guys.
From a literary perspective, the book is chiefly disappointing not because the beloved marble pillar that is Atticus Finch is a racist, but because it doesn't honestly address (whether in defense or compassionate attack) any of the apparent moral debates of the book. All of Atticus' arguments are almost painfully familiar to any establishment-raised white Southern kid. We've been trying to parse the states-rights logic since our adolescence (or at least, some of us have). To have seen those arguments thoughtfully and compassionately engaged by a writer at the height of her powers would have been a welcome addition to Southern literature, but instead, we got Scout vomiting in disgust a couple of times, then throwing her hands up. (I'm referring to literal regurgitation. Maybe I'm emotionally repressed, y'all, but rarely do I eject the contents of my stomach in reaction to a bad feels. This happens to Scout multiple times in Go Set a Watchman.)
Wasn’t there also some controversy about Harper Lee maybe being senile and a scurrilous lawyer.
Maybe. The circumstances under which this book came to light are extremely murky. Lee's lawyer reportedly unearthed the manuscript in a safety-deposit box last year, although that account has since been disputed. Some people weren't sure Lee—who is now 89—was mentally able to make the decision to publish the book at this late date. There's also what The Atlantic called "the squirminess with which the publisher, HarperCollins, has presented the novel as a newly discovered manuscript rather than a rejected first draft of Mockingbird or a failed sequel."
Wait, so this isn't even a sequel. *Is* Harper Lee trolling us.
No, dude. All that literary dribble above about engaging with the text is kind of academic, because this book was likely never intended to see the light of day. In 1957, Lee sent off the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, which ended up in the hands of editor Tay Hohoff. Hohoff saw exactly what the rest of us are seeing right now: An ill-conceived/complete-lack-of plot, overwrought prose and some flashes of inspiration. Basically, a first draft. So she wisely advised Lee to rewrite and eventually, Mockingbird was born. If Mockingbird is a parable in which good is good and evil is evil, Go Set a Watchman is an internal debate disguised as a novel—a debate that Harper Lee apparently settled with herself when she re-envisioned Atticus Finch as the center of moral thought in Mockingbird.
Or maybe not: Hillary Busis argues in Mashable that Watchman forces a critical re-reading of Mockingbird without the patina of nostalgia—that in fact, the morally-unassailable Atticus never existed and Lee deliberately created a fantasy that fixed the things she thought needed to be fixed about the South. Similarly, Taylor suggests Lee may be "directing us to see Atticus as he likely would have been at that time of extremism, to see history as it really was. Let's not get wrapped up in the sentimental side, the book says. White Southerners got scared and turned ugly during civil rights. Here's how it looked when you weren't a child."
What's unnerving about much of the interactions in Watchman is that they are eerily resonant of the conversation in 2015. There's still a faction that holds up the 10th Amendment as a kind of moral shield for perpetuating social injustices, for example. In a way, that's what’s most disappointing about Watchman—that it wasn't good enough to execute its incredibly challenging mission: To honestly and compassionately address racial prejudice in the South. (I think I've used "compassionate" about eight times, but I think it's central to Lee's message about understanding the South, and underscores an argument I often make that it is possible to empathetically treat the South as human while still condemning its flaws.)
Had it the elegance and power of Mockingbird, Watchman could have been a tour de force. This iteration of 26-year-old Scout (Jean Louise in Watchman) could have been the vehicle for the execution of such a vision. As Sophie Gilbert remarks in The Atlantic, "When Scout [as a child in Mockingbird] asks how the world works, her curiosity is admirable, but when Jean Louise [as an adult in Watchman] does the same, she can seem more naively blinkered than she realizes, and her own prejudices emerge in fleeting glimpses throughout the novel." Great fiction is not always a parable—sometimes it is the tale of flawed people who are in their own way grappling for enlightenment.
But, alas, Go Set a Watchman wasn't that good. The writing is so cumbersome in places that I made actual sounds out loud while I was reading. (Sounds like: "HNNNNNNG.") The book relies on painfully self-aware dialogue to drive home its arguments. Lee does this weird thing where she switches to a first-person transcription of Scout's interior monologue at the end of every (third-person) chapter, usually so Scout can obliquely reference something awful that's just happened to her in a way that reminds me very much of Anastasia's emotionally representative "inner goddess" in 50 Shades of Gray.
The latter-day publication of Lee's first draft of her Pulitzer winner is interesting to burgeoning writers and editors as a record of the evolution of a great novel, but this isn’t a true sequel. It is the first draft of a great novel—a first draft that was arguably more ambitious than the final product, but a draft that was ultimately a failure. So you can continue to love the Atticus we know in Mockingbird without worrying you’re secretly a big racist. (I don’t know, maybe you are anyway, but it’s not because of Atticus.)