Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

There’s Atticus Finch, and there’s the myth of Atticus Finch. There’s what he is, and what he’s come to stand for. What he is (and I say this with great affection for To Kill a Mockingbird) is an ur-text for the white savior story: a depiction of history that lets white folks today feel good about themselves. If we’d lived back then (we think while reading), we would not have been Bob Ewell. We would be Atticus Finch. (Or the commander in Glory or Skeeter in The Help — or, or, or.)

It’s a problem for minority groups, of course. It privileges a white story over the real stories of black folks organizing and fighting and saving themselves, but let’s put that to the side for a second. Smarter people than me have gone in on the white savior trope (the straight cisgender savior trope too!), and you should read what they have to say about it.

There’s another problem here, though, because — as is so often the case — oppression is toxic to its beneficiaries too. (Though not in a, you know, getting murdered in the street kind of way.) As Alyssa Rosenberg smartly observed recently, racism exists in a lot of fiction so that white heroes can fight against it — and so white audiences can feel smugly aligned with the right side of history. It cripples our ability — which was never strong to start with — to sit with the cognitive dissonance that a racist society creates: that you can be a good person who recycles and gives to charity and signs up to be an organ donor, and still say and do racist things, because racism is the water we’re all swimming in.

Which brings me (at last!) to Go Set a Watchman. It’s not, and I should get this out of the way up front, a good book. That somebody read this draft, saw its promise, and ultimately managed to get To Kill a Mockingbird out of its author is an impressive testament to the brilliance and value of the publishing industry (not that I’m bragging). The second half is all speeches in which the characters painstakingly spell out what’s happening emotionally and how it affects their character and their actions.

Although the book isn’t good, and is cringingly bound to its time (Scout calls herself color-blind and merrily dismisses the idea that a white person would ever want to marry a black person), it does demand a level of moral complexity about the mythological Atticus Finch. It forces the reader to see that racism doesn’t have to look like Bob Ewell, who is fundamentally trash and bad and his racism is only one manifestation of his essential ugliness of spirit. Go Set a Watchman reminds us that racism often looks like Atticus Finch.

I say demands and forces, but of course it’s optional to read it that way. So many readers don’t want Atticus Finch to have racist ideas, because we got attached to him in our ninth-grade English classes. Many people have looked at this book and said, This isn’t Atticus Finch. But here’s the thing: Atticus Finch can be both. He can tell Scout not to use racial slurs, and he can defend a black man in a rape case, and at the same time he can dislike the NAACP and oppose Brown v. Board.

We want perfection from the people we admire, whether they’re civil rights activists or star football players or our parents, and we don’t want to confront the fact that human beings are not perfectible. We were imperfect when we came into this world, and as we move through it, we are shaped by a painfully imperfect society.

What we are is flawed. What we do can change. We can say a racist thing, and then we can read and listen and learn, and apologize for the error, and do better next time. Hiding from the truth of what a racist society hath wrought — even, woe! in someone like Atticus Finch! — only protects and prolongs its racism. Acknowledging it, confronting it, those things are a step towards change. If readers could take that away from Go Set a Watchman, it would be a powerful legacy for this very imperfect book.

  • MumsyNK

    Beautiful, insightful post. It’s not often that l comment as your mother qua mother, but you made me very proud today.

  • Agree with so many things in this post. I was nervous before I picked up Watchman, but I’m so glad I read it. Like you said, it’s not a great book, but I think it’s good as a reminder in so many different ways.

    • I agree. I do wish it were a better version of itself, though. I wish it had come to light sooner, at a time when Harper Lee might have been able to work with an editor to shape it into something good in and of itself, rather than something that’s merely valuable as a cultural document.

  • Care

    Thank you, great post.

  • Jeanne

    I don’t believe in reading fiction for a real-life message. A person can read history to see that something like racism would have been easily rooted out if it looked like Bob Ewell, but that it’s the kinder people who have, often unknowingly, perpetuated it.
    I also believe that it takes a while for most adult children to be able to see their parents as people, and that the struggle with that is often less interesting, in fiction, than Lee’s use of Scout as a naive narrator.
    Reading an early draft of something that became great can be interesting, but this sounds like a mess if the second half is all speeches.

    • Oh it IS a mess. It is a speechy hot MESS.

      As to reading fiction for a real-life message: Hm. I mean I would differentiate between reading fiction for that purpose, and finding elements in fiction that you have read to be applicable to your own life. I didn’t read Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock to find out that the biggest part of being a hero is ignoring how silly you feel, but my God, has that proven true. And I think when we see something in fiction, it can make it easier to see it in real life too, which is to me one of the benefits of its existence, to give us eyes to see things we haven’t or can’t. No?

      • Jeanne

        Good points. Yes.

  • Barb @ Leaves and Pages

    Best post I’ve yet read regarding Go Set a Watchman, and the larger implications of its reception. I read it nodding and nodding and nodding – YES! Thank you.
    Barb @Leaves and Pages

    • Thank you so much for your kind words! I’m really glad the post resonated with you. 🙂

  • I do believe this is the first post that has made me want to read Go Set a Watchman if only to learn the lessons you mention. Excellent post!

    • Thank you! It’s not a very good book — I wouldn’t judge anyone who chose not to read it. But there’s certainly some interesting stuff there.

  • etudesque

    This is such a GREAT post. People raged at the fact that Atticus wasn’t the perfect savior they wanted to resonate with, and he let them down. You can be a “good person” and also be racist. He really is what racism looks like. No matter how liberal and progressive some people like to think they are, they still either 1) swim in their own subtle prejudices or 2) are completely ignorant of their white/cisgendered privilege.

    • Yep, exactly. It made me sad, too, for a bit, and then I thought about it some more and decided it was a truer version of Atticus Finch than the one I’d been believing in all these years.

  • sallyjanevictor

    Terrific post. Thanks to Barb@Leaves and Pages for sending me here.

  • Katy

    Fantastic article. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time, and I’ve always liked your writing, but this post showcases what a truly impressive writer and critic you have become over the years. Definitely the best analysis of Go Set a Watchman I’ve seen yet.

  • A resounding “YES” to this post. It’s insightful and well-written, thank you for writing it.

  • When I first heard about the different characterization of Atticus in this book, I thought right away of people in my family who taught me that everyone is equal and that I shouldn’t treat people badly because of the color of their skim but who ALSO held to some pretty terrible stereotypes and probably would have been seriously uncomfortable if I’d dated someone who was black. I don’t think they would ever have wanted Tom Robinson to do to jail, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them disapproved of the NAACP, and some of them did use the N-word. So, yeah, this version of Atticus is no big surprise to me.

  • Alley

    GREAT great great post! I’ve gone back and forth about reading this for a number of reasons (I don’t Atticus to not be perfect! Also I’ve heard it’s not great and there’s a reason editors are a thing) though I likely will once the hype dies down a bit. I can’t remember where (Bookriot maybe? Probably) but I read somewhere someone describe the racism in TKAM was the racism for children while GSAW is the racism for adults.

  • Harriet

    Excellent post. I actually think it is rather a good book, but totally agree with everything else you say here.

  • Aarti

    I 100% agree with all the things you say here. I think the book could have been amazing if it had showcased just how easy it is for people to stand up for one person but not for a whole group of people. Or, I guess it DID do that, but not very well. And I agree about the second half of the book. I think you put all my thoughts into much more concise words – well done!

  • Very well done! I agree with Katy! :–)

  • Sarah Says Read

    Yes yes yes to all of this post. I’m going to try to read it this week (got in Overdrive, woohoo), but more to be able to talk about the themes, happenings, etc in and surrounding it rather than out of desire.


    Although I can’t quite shake off the feeling that Go Set a Watchman is a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Best review of the book I’ve read yet! 🙂

  • Wonderful review.

    “Go Set a Watchman reminds us that racism often looks like Atticus Finch.” Very very true.

  • litlove

    What a sensitive and intelligent review, Jenny! Excellent job!

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