Jessica Hooten Wilson
The reviews of Harper Lee’s new old novel Go Set a Watchman have centered on the controversy about the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch. Fans have been disappointed by their idol’s fall from his pedestal. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is a noble champion, the embodiment of all that is right. But in Go Set A Watchman, although still a Southern gentleman, Atticus is a racist and a staunch segregationist. Yet, that is not the purpose of the story. The sights are set only peripherally on Atticus; the focus is his daughter Jean Louise—called “Scout” in Mockingbird—who is now 26, returning from her life in New York, and trying to come to terms with a home that is no longer her home. While reviewers are having a field day with the racial issues of the novel and attacking the craftsmanship of the piece, they’re neglecting the pleasure of the story, the flashbacks of Southern life that are richer than buttermilk pie, and most significantly, the religious questions which undergird all of the racial problems.
I have a confession: I vaguely remember To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it in high school and watched the movie during class, so I have sparse memories of Boo Radley and racial injustice. Unlike the thousands of Americans who have been devoted Harper Lee fans for the last half-century, I picked up Go Set a Watchman because of its novelty. A novel with this interesting of a backstory begged to be read. Not only that, but I was working in Birmingham, Alabama, only a couple of hours from Lee’s hometown. A professor friend shared the details about the book and its controversy, and within minutes, I pre-ordered it on Kindle. The next day while visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, I sat on the stone steps, facing the park where hundreds of children had marched during the 1963 crusade, and I read the book screen to screen. Sitting in the middle of a city saturated by a history of racial tension where the ghosts of children are immortalized in bronze statues all around me, I understood the gravity and reality of the racial concerns that Lee discusses in her novel. Although I agree with a number of critics who point out how prescient to our own time this new novel can be for its message about racial equality, I didn’t read it for its message. I read it because it made me laugh out loud. And, I read it because there were sentences of such beauty and stories of such goodness that I didn’t want to put it down. Granted, this second novel (first draft though it may be) is not deserving of the Pulitzer as its predecessor was, but I recommend it for the reasons I mentioned, but also with a caveat—there is even more at stake than the racial controversies or its aesthetic value.
The title Go Set a Watchman comes from Isaiah 21:6, a verse upon which the Maycomb pastor Mr. Stone preaches the first Sunday of Jean Louise’s visit: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” Jean Louise becomes the watchman in the novel, seeing changes in her hometown that she wants to remain blind to, especially changes in her father, Atticus Finch, who has not really changed except in her eyes. All her life, Atticus has been Jean Louise’s watchman. Like those who question, “What would Jesus do?” Jean Louise admits that she has always asked herself, “What would
Jean Louise reflects that Atticus stands apart from all other men, for “where most men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss, no fanfare, and no soul-searching. His private character was his public character. His code was simple New Testament ethic . . . ” Her description of the great man sounds so convincing, until you read it closely. Men choose “codes” to live by, and Atticus has “his” own code based on “New Testament ethic.” It reminds me of Dostoevsky’s warning about “Christian socialists,” those who used Jesus Christ as a teacher of ethics. Or to choose a Southern comparison, Atticus sounds like William Alexander Percy—Walker Percy’s uncle—who believed the New Testament was the best of books, a great guide to moral living. Yet, the elder Percy was also a segregationist. Such tidy Christian humanism is too weak to face the cultural mess
I hope it’s not a stretch, but I cannot help thinking of another story of a watchtower and its watchman written by Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome (sidenote: this novel too is often accused of lacking literary merit). Having posted himself in a tower to watch for fires, the lunatic priest Father Smith sees not literal signs of burning but spiritual warnings. He tells the protagonist Dr. Tom More to be wary of those who love mankind and have theories about mankind but who do not know Christ. What you end up with, he audaciously claims, is a Stalin or a Hitler. Percy stole this logic from Flannery O’Connor who writes, “In the absence of [Christian] faith, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.” In other words, Smith says in echo of O’Connor, tenderness without Christ leads to the gas chambers.
No one wants to call Atticus Finch Hitler . . . except his daughter, who does just that in the novel. In her self-righteous speech at the conclusion of the book, Jean Louise denounces Atticus: “You are using frightful means to justify ends that you think are for the good of most people.” When she calls him Hitler, he responds with a smirk. After all, such name calling shows her slippery slope thinking; she’s being fallacious, ridiculous, and probably not thinking at all but having an emotional outburst, as the phrase goes. Yet her rage is on target. Her fury over injustice recognizes the problem with Atticus’s virtue; for all it’s worth, it is not enough. By living according to his own laws of right and wrong, Atticus allows for un-virtuous means to justify his noble ends. In this story, he suppresses the Negroes around him to vouchsafe the Southern way of life; he has convinced himself that he is protecting what is best in civilization. Like Jean Louise, many readers are going to find the two versions of Atticus inconsistent, but they align all too naturally.
As the grand conclusion of the novel, Jean Louise commits the same ideological error as her father. The story is supposed to be a coming-of-age tale in which a young woman, after being disenchanted of her hero worship of her father, discovers how to think for herself, to be her own watchman. As Jean Louise is floundering about wondering what is going on in her once peaceful hometown, she begs, “I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference.” By the end of the book, her eccentric Uncle Jack explains that each person has a watchman; it is our own conscience. This is a rather anticlimactic conclusion. Isn’t Atticus failing to be virtuous because his conscience is misguided? Why is Jean Louise’s conscience any better? What she needs is a watchman who sees clearly, who always says what he means, and who not only knows that there are not two kinds of justice but also is justice himself.
While the novel misses the answer, it asks big questions, ultimate questions, and it does so in a way that is beautiful, humorous, and worth reading. To catch a glimpse of the joy of reading this book, I’d like to share an excerpt from when Jean Louise visits church in Maycomb:
“Any sense of isolation she may have had withered and died in the presence of some two hundred sinners earnestly requesting to be plunged beneath a red, redeeming flood. While offering to the Lord the results of Mr. Cowper’s hallucination, or declaring it was Love that lifted her, Jean Louise shared the warmness that prevails among diverse individuals who find themselves in the same boat for one hour each week.”
Harper Lee writes honestly about the strange sensation that occurs in church when different people somehow become one body. Although my favorite religious scene is when the young Scout and her brother Jem put on a fake revival in the backyard and get caught by the minister who has come over for dinner, this passage better captures the mysteries of the Christian faith.
While the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman may be a letdown for devotees of To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise is not. And, nor, for that matter, is Harper Lee. There is too much good in the book to be reduced to any lesson or artifact. Although I hope that Go Set a Watchman will become a book that is taught and studied, it also deserves to be read on a summer’s day in the park beneath the shade of a magnolia and thoroughly enjoyed for what it is, another great American novel.
Jessica Hooten Wilson is an assistant professor of literature and creative writing at John Brown University, where she also serves as Associate Director of the Honors program and Director of the Giving Voice Writers Festival. She has published articles on Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Dostoevsky and is a contributing reviewer to Books and Culture.