Jim's Journal

Thoughts on Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

Reading the review in the NYT of the lost novel Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee it was obvious to me what was going on, at least in my mind or point of view. In fact I had just watched a PBS documentary on Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird a week ago.  The novel was lost years ago after initially being submitted as the manuscript for publication as her first novel. As the article points out – the publisher had a different idea. And that makes sense, for the 50’s were a different time – Harper Lee was on the edge of social norms in her point of view.  She was already thinking like a child of the 60’s with freedom and equality, calling out social fallacies, and even pointing to the people she loved and respected in her world that were just plain wrong.

The biography painted the picture of her dad who was a public defender that stood for right and justice; in the case of Mockingbird a wrongly accused black man in a deeply racial southern town. She reminded us in one book all that is good about small towns and all that is bad about small minds.  Kids have been reading this novel for decades and it was a fantastic tool for the times, gently pulling people in to the mind of a young girl and her idealized father to smack us in the face with the reality of hate and bigotry.  So, now there are all kinds of idealists who are angry this new, darker novel was published. It’s not as well written, it was a draft – Mockingbird was edited and re-written again and again over two years. This was a manuscript found in a box – unclean and might even be difficult to read. So should it have been published?

Yes: Flash forward to 2015 where we have a black president and people think it’s all “hunky dory” good, no more racism – this is the time to revisit the juxtaposition of a man like Atticus who was  like many of the people of that time. He defended a man accused of hateful crime in a system that culturally sustained racism.  But probably became as weak as the rest of them when he realized what he had unleashed.  That scene in the movie with the black citizens on the balcony honoring him, was replaced years later with the reality that hundreds of years cannot be erased from a man’s heart and mind with one simple epiphany.  He is now in this latest novel a man Scout is unhappy with – as he supported the rationalization of segregation and the insanity of justified suppression of people simply because they look different. It’s in fact the same rationalization that was already in the text books about the Civil War separation but ignored for decades as well. I believe in people, with all their flaws and obsessions. The way they grow and fail and rise up and stumble. The cultural inconsistencies this country’s freedoms create. It is art, it is what drives greatness, it is what creates change.

I look forward to reading both of these novels back to back and considering not just the stories but the context of their creation. What an opportunity for a heroic and intelligent teacher.