Go Set A Watchman, Atticus Finch & Killing Your Idols

The outpouring of interest in and hostility toward Harper Lee’s unpublished first draft (billed as a sequel) of To Kill A Mockingbird raises the question of why it is so generally loathed by enthusiasts of the original. Go Set A Watchman, at its core, is a good novel–one that, at best, far outweighs most of the slop modern writers are putting out today and, at worst, one that is clearly rough-hewn.

So what is it that’s truly plaguing readers? Like Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch, they are grappling with the notion that Atticus Finch, moral compass extraordinaire, is not the man of ironclad principles presented in To Kill a Mockingbird. Now in his seventies, Atticus doesn’t necessarily look different to his daughter upon her return home from New York for a visit, but there is something she automatically inuits as being off kilter. After their longtime housekeeper and caretaker, Calpurnia, has moved out of Atticus’ house and been replaced by his sister, Alexandra, an archetype of the uppity Southern hen, it’s almost as though–at least as far as Jean-Louise is concerned–Atticus has forgotten entirely what she once meant to them. This is evident in his approach to taking on Zeebo, one of Calpurnia’s children, as his client after he accidentally runs over a drunk white man crossing the street in the middle of the night. His reasons for doing so are not out of kindness, but obligation.

Although his protégé (and Jean-Louise’s longtime love interest), Henry “Hank” Clinton (a nonexistent character in TKAM), is the one who will be handling the brass tacks of the case, Atticus’ is still running the show, with his reasoning (and seeming lack of compassion) behind defending Zeebo stemming from his ardent desire to keep the NAACP out of it. Set during the height of the tension spurred on by the Supreme Court decision regarding Brown v. Board of Education, Jean-Louise is appalled at Atticus’ cold statements about the black population. His antiquated views on “Negroes” are summed up with the belittling sentiment, “Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life. They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet.”

And yet, Atticus is not a bad person, just an old school one–and a stickler for doing things that are right not because he feels they are, but because the law deems it so. At one point in defense of his segregationist ways, Atticus tells Jean-Louise, “The only thing I’m afraid of about this country is that its government will someday become so monstrous that the smallest person in it will be trampled underfoot, and then it wouldn’t be worth living in.”

Jean-Louise, who feels that either she’s changed too much after living in New York City or everyone else has transformed into a monster behind her back, can’t believe that both Henry and Atticus are so utterly unemotional about the racism running amok in Maycomb. Indeed the timing of Go Set A Watchman‘s release is eerily apropos to the rampant racial divide that continues to torment the South. Regardless of the allegations against those who published the book supposedly against the wishes of Harper Lee, a sweet, good-natured person who has lost many of her senses in old age, there is something almost kismet about the timing of its release–as though the world needed to be reminded, yet again, of its own prejudices.

As for other shocking revelations about Atticus, well, he was apparently involved with the Ku Klux Klan back in the day, a bomb that Henry drops on Jean-Louise at the height of her rage over the state of Maycomb and one that Henry explains by noting, “A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them.” Jean-Louise, described as a bigot herself by her Uncle Jack because of her dictionary definition actions of “one obstinately or intolerably [being] devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion,” realizes that in cutting Atticus down to size with her verbal lashing, she is the one who has exhibited a closed mind. It is only through killing her ultimate idol–her watchman–that she is finally able to see things as they truly are. As Harper Lee writes, “Sometimes we have to kill a little so we can live.” In destroying the vision of the Atticus she kept on a pedestal, Jean-Louise is finally able to move forward with her own life, her own conscience. And maybe, just maybe, so are the devotees of To Kill A Mockingbird.

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2 Comments

  1. I’m currently about 2/3rds through the book and suspect, as literature, it may be better than TKAM. Certainly, it’s obvious why she couldn’t get it published at the time; it’s just too brutally (painfully?) honest. That’s probably at the root of today’s criticism — after all, we now live in an allegedly ‘post racial’ society.

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  2. […] Even more than J.D. Salinger, Lee proved to be an enigma in her later years, particularly after the controversial release of Go Set A Watchman, an original version of her seminal and only novel To Kill A […]

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