In an attempt to better myself and to give myself a regular feature to make blogging at least 2x a week easier, I’ll be doing the 52 books in 52 weeks challenge this year. Will it go better than my first attempt at NaNoWriMo? Here’s to hoping.
I started the year with a problematic inhabitant of my to be read pile: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Billed as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it came out in 2015 under a firestorm of controversy. I wasn’t as upset by the portrayal of Atticus as a bigot (more on that in a bit) as I was by the shady circumstances that led the book to be published in the first place. I avoided this book not because I didn’t want to watch Atticus come crashing down from his pedestal, but because I didn’t want my money to go to the shameless swindlers who engaged in elder abuse for fun and profit.
(Full disclosure: if you decide to buy TKaM or GSaW from either of the links above, I get a small cut. A blogger’s gotta eat, after all.)
Last summer, however, I found a used copy at Recycle Bookstore. Curiosity finally won out. At least my money would go to a business I’m proud to support, right? It languished on the top of my TBR pile of Pisa for months before I picked it up this week.
Thanks to my long morning and afternoon commutes, I was able to finish it in the space of a day. I couldn’t put it down. Only once did I consider quitting: page 13, because Atticus is slowly being crippled by arthritis and Jem is dead from a heart condition we later learn was the cause of his mother’s death. Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. Or Maycomb. Even if we actually are. Whatever.
After that, no matter how horrifying, disappointing, and heartbreaking the events of the novel were, I couldn’t stop. That’s a testament to the compelling nature of Lee’s writing, especially when you consider that this isn’t a sequel at all, but an abandoned first draft.
Okay, there’s no avoiding it any longer: Yes, Atticus is racist in this book. There are other things I found it hard to come grips with in this book—like Jean Louise’s hapless suitor, Henry Clinton—but that’s primarily what I’ll be focusing on here.
I may get a lot of grief for saying this, but GSaW’s Atticus is an… understandable kind of racist. He doesn’t hate black people, but he’s disturbingly patronizing towards them and doesn’t want to mix with them socially. He doesn’t think they’re ready for the full benefits of citizenship and takes a manslaughter case involving Calpurnia’s grandson so that some uppity NAACP lawyer doesn’t take the case and make a big fuss over it. It was incredibly uncomfortable to see his in one of my literary heroes, but in a man of that time and place, it’s an understandable attitude. Not right, but it makes sense in a man of those times. This Atticus is a far more realistic character than the improved version in To Kill a Mockingbird.
TKaM’s Atticus is a paragon on a pedestal and the moral center of the book. But in GSaW, after Jean Louise sees her beloved father at a white citizen’s council (hiding in the colored balcony she last set foot in during Tom Robinson’s trial), her whole world comes crashing down because it was built upon one question.
In GSaW, he’s never meant to be worshiped. In fact, Atticus and Uncle Jack worry about Jean Louise’s adoration of her father and know that no good can come of it. Since we’ve all read TKaM and hold Atticus to those same standards of decency, Jean Louise’s disappointment and disillusionment is ours, too.
As much as the book hurt to read, I didn’t hate it until the end. After confronting her father’s racist beliefs and swearing that she never wants to see him again, Jean Louise rushes home to pack and make good on her promise before Uncle Jack comes by and smacks some sense into her. Literally. Uncle Jack backhands Jean Louise hard enough to make her bleed from the mouth, gets her some whiskey, and then mansplains his brother’s bigotry away.
The book ends with Jean Louise and Atticus reaffirming their love for one another, which is stronger than ever now that she accepts her father as a flawed man instead of a benevolent demi-god. There might be something to be said for accepting your loved ones in spite of their flaws, but the paternalistic way that it happened left a bad taste in my mouth.
But here’s the thing: because this is an abandoned draft, you can pretend that Atticus the genteel bigot never happened. You can pretend the whole book never happened. Harper Lee certainly did. Tom Robinson’s trial gets brought up in GSaW, but it’s mentioned that Atticus won. In TKaM, Atticus knew he was going to lose that trial and defended Tom to the best of his abilities anyway. Lee took that victory away from Atticus, but in doing so she created the beloved character we knew for years.
Don’t let Go Set a Watchman ruin To Kill a Mockingbird for you. It’s an interesting look at what could have been, if not for a clever editor who told Harper Lee to focus on Scout’s childhood. If we’re going to consider Harper Lee’s first draft canon just because HarperCollins got greedy, then every single shitty first draft that any writer’s ever written is fair game. We should all know better than that.