To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman


I finished Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee weeks ago, and I've struggled with what I would write about here since the moment I read the last word on the last page. Truthfully, since about halfway through the book. In the weeks since, I've reread the last several chapters of Watchman and pored over several important chapters and speeches in Mockingbird while trying to sort through what I think of Watchman. If you have any inclination to read either novel, please indulge me for a while--

To Kill a Mockingbird is both my favorite book to read and my favorite book to teach, and I've done both more than a dozen times over the past five years. The first thing to understand is what Go Set a Watchman is alleged to be (and especially, what it is not): while the book's cover is misleading, calling Watchman "a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird," the book shouldn't be read as "Lee's new book" or as the next installment of Mockingbird. Some sources claim that Watchman is a rough draft of Mockingbird, others that it was an experimental extension/version of the novel that Lee never wanted published.

The promise of a rough draft to Mockingbird inspired such literary lust in me that I chose to overlook the potential ethical dilemmas surrounding Watchman's publication and pre-ordered my copy. I let my eyes linger on the words "FIRST EDITION" printed on the publication page and, truthfully, felt my heart flutter when I read in the first few chapters that Jean Louise attended a women's college in Georgia (Could it be? Jean Louise Finch a fictional fellow-Scottie?). My hopes that reading this novel would be akin to watching a child wobble on her feet as she took her first steps, then learned to walk and then to run, soared. I wanted to hear whispers of who the characters would become in Mockingbird. While I found a few of those whispers and wobbles scattered throughout the book, especially in the descriptions of Maycomb, I finished Watchman with many more questions than moments of recognition, and with a much greater worry that readers who haven't read Mockingbird since middle or high school (or at all) won't remember the magic of Lee's original masterpiece.

If you wish to read Go Set a Watchman, read To Kill a Mockingbird,  too. (If you don't read Go Set a Watchman, read To Kill a Mockingbird anyway.) When I teach Mockingbird, we read and discuss the novel over the course of a month--there truly is that much to discuss! I've read the novel more than a dozen times, and each time, I find a new detail to ponder and admire. If you're intrigued, here are my top 5 things to think about as you read (no spoilers, I promise):

  1. After one particularly difficult incident of prejudice occurs, Atticus says, "They've done it before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again and when they do it--seems that only children weep" (Lee 231). Think of Mockingbird as a novel about racism (and other forms of prejudice) written for those who either stand by or are oblivious to the prejudice that exists around them. In her novel, Lee exposes the hypocrisy of a community through the eyes of a child, which I think was her best weapon against a society of prejudiced adults. Think about how easily you might let down your defenses, how you might, for a moment, think of the world differently when you strip away the complications of adulthood to answer a young child's simple question, "Why?" (Hint: pay attention to when characters weep!)
  2. Lee doesn't merely expose the hypocrisy of a prejudiced society, she reveals the consequences of prejudice (watch how characters learn/replicate the prejudiced behavior they witness) and proposes solutions to move the community towards tolerance. Many look to Atticus in Mockingbird as the model for tolerance, but don't forget to also look for wisdom in Scout and Jem--in many ways, this novel is about their transformation from innocent, and at times ignorant, perpetrators of learned prejudice to tolerant, compassionate people.
  3. Speaking of transformations, one reason I love this book is that Lee doesn't seem to leave any character untouched by the events of the novel. If you pay close attention, you'll notice moments of change in the minor characters as well. (Hint: Dill Harris, Mr. Underwood, and Heck Tate are my favorites.)
  4. Scout and Arthur "Boo" Radley. To say any more would give it away.
  5. This piece of symbolism that, year after year and class after class, convinces my students that literature is awesome (or that English teachers are crazy fools...). Let's see if I can keep this simple: in many cultures, the right (side/direction/hand) is associated with good, luck, and moral correctness while the left is associated with evil, wrongdoing, and misfortune. Even the etymology of the words left and right lead back to the concept of morality. Lee incorporates this pattern into the novel symbolically: pay attention to when left and right (hands and eyes especially) are mentioned throughout the book and let me know what you think!

Back to Go Set a Watchman: If it is true that Watchman is the seed from which Mockingbird  grew, then there are many drafts in between the two versions. In Watchman, Lee falls into a common writing trap: she relies on telling (mostly through rants and speeches) rather than showing (see #1-5 above). If Watchman is the seed, then it is interesting to read Jean Louise's horrified reactions to the hypocrisy she discovers in her town and in her loved ones as what I would imagine Harper Lee wanted to shout at her readers, and then to read Mockingbird as what she nurtured in her readers instead. In this way, it seems that, through revision, Atticus Finch (who, in Watchman is more racist human than tolerant hero) became the person Jean Louise needed him to be and the person that a community of readers needed him to be in order to rise above their roles as bystanders to or perpetrators of prejudice.

Some reviewers have stated that Watchman is too far from Mockingbird to be a plausible draft, and that it is more accurately described a different attempt at writing a novel about racism. They say that the Atticus of Watchman is not and was never meant to be the same character as the Atticus of Mockingbird. Others say that Atticus and Watchman will forever complicate readers' views of Mockingbird, which, gauging from the outrage many express in response to his character, is a true statement; I have seen discussion threads in which commentors declare they will never read Watchman because that is not the Atticus Lee meant for the world to see. 

I propose reading Go Set a Watchman and Atticus's character as a way to explore a different side of racism and prejudice. Through his conversations with Jean Louise in Chapter 17, Atticus presents an educated racist's argument. In conversations about racism and prejudice, it is easy to point to a person who degrades another human to a lesser-than status (Bob Ewell and Aunt Alexandra in Mockingbird) and say that he or she is wrong. However, it is far more difficult to recognize racism in a respected, educated person's plea for individual freedom (for him or herself). In a way, Watchman is a crude sketch of the kind of racism and prejudice that persists in our society today. Atticus's failure is that he is more concerned with the preservation of the rights of those with power and privilege than the extension of rights and privileges to those who have been systematically denied them. And, as Jean Louise points out (admittedly, in a problematic way, which exposes the limitations of Lee's tolerance and, likely, the limitations of her decade's tolerance), to deny a group rights and privileges, to deny a group even the hope or possibility of rights and privileges, is to "deny that they're human" (Lee 251). 

I'm going to take the risk here of broaching politics, which is a vulnerability I usually avoid--I suppose I am a bit of a Heck Tate in that way; I would rather let someone else shoot the gun (Mockingbird, Chapter 10, if you're interested, and if you're interested, you should re-read chapters 21 and 30 after). Consider the stories of police violence against African Americans that are frequently in the news, and the controversies and criticism that emerge in the aftermath. Consider the problems of racial disparities in prisons, consider the positive correlation between the socio-economic patterns and test scores, attendance, and graduation rates within a community. Consider the controversies and criticism surrounding the extension of marriage rights to homosexual couples and the competing perceptions of gender and sexuality in our society. Our reactions to these issues as a society and as individuals shine a light on implicit biases that many of us don't realize that we have; they are biases fed to us unconsciously by our friends and family, by the books we read, the movies we watch, the toys we see on the store shelves. Often our confrontations with our prejudices are traumatic, which is why literature can play such an important role as mediator: through literature, we can begin to discuss prejudice in a context outside of ourselves as a bridge to introspection. 

Read To Kill a Mockingbird and pay attention to Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem, Dill, Mr. Underwood, Heck Tate, and Boo Radley to see what a hero needs to think and do to be great. Fall in love with the book and the characters, as I have, and put them on as high of a pedestal as you wish. Then read Go Set a Watchman and let your heroes fall a bit. Look for your own prejudices in your reactions to controversy and in the assumptions you make of others. It will be painful. But, as Jean Louise declares as she tries to sort through her own confusion, "'Atticus, the time has come when we've got to do right--'" (Lee 241).