Why Harper Lee Is a Prophet

The overall response to Harper Lee’s newly published novel of sketchy origins, Go Set a […]

CJ Green / 7.23.15

The overall response to Harper Lee’s newly published novel of sketchy origins, Go Set a Watchman, has been nothing short of hysterical. This review contains spoilers, but if you’ve Googled Watchman at all in the past week, there’s really nothing left to spoil: Atticus is racist.

I was surprised to find that this isn’t a dilemma of just literary proportions: The turn of events has real-life implications, as when, only a month ago, bombshell Jennifer Love Hewitt named her newborn son Atticus, thereby suffering an actual bombshell when she realized his namesake is firmly rooted in segregation and bigotry. (She could still change his name, right? The kid would never know.) Hewitt’s not the only one with such a precipitous investment in the integrity of Atticus Finch—all across the country, legions of other moms felt their stomachs drop as their sons’ namesake was plunged into the mud. One report lamented that it was like when all “those Germans in the 1930s named their boys Adolf.” Americans aren’t the only ones grieving: in 2006, To Kill a Mockingbird was considered by British librarians to be more important than the Bible. Closer to home, some of my best friends have been known to reread Mockingbird during hard times. Everyone’s wondering if the beloved classic could ever be the same again.


But I guess I should be honest and admit that I wasn’t that excited to read Go Set a Watchman, and maybe that’s why I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was never the biggest fan of To Kill a Mockingbird. Though more enjoyable than most required reading, it mainly brings back memories of one classmate who emphatically pronounced it “Attishus.” To Kill a Mockingbird has compelling characters, a good plot, but also a kind of glittering morality, embodied especially by Atticus. Kind, just, wise, he has, in many ways, become a cultural stand-in for Christ.

And if Go Set A Watchman is in fact published as originally written, Harper Lee is some kind of prophet. It seems she knew all along that, while Atticus was not perfect, he might be admired as if he were. That’s the main problem Watchman sets out to unravel. Jean Louise (formerly known as Scout), like all of us, is shocked to find out that her father has been attending KKK meetings. Early in the novel, before all of this is revealed, Jean Louise asks, “What would Atticus do?” That’s right: WWAD.

“…you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings—I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us” (265).

We may not like it, and it may not be easy, but Harper Lee is underscoring low anthropology—an honest depiction of our sinful condition. All of us make huge mistakes even if we don’t see them, or accept them as such.

Watchman tells of a young adult realizing her parents are just people. It’s a powerful message, and it’s the one that Harper Lee wrote first. Amazingly, almost sixty years later, it’s a particularly hard hit to visions of moral perfection.

If you’re looking for a book about childish antics in a tire swing, a nail-biting rape trial, and the near murder of two adorable kids, you should probably just reread To Kill A Mockingbird. Because Go Set A Watchman is nothing like that. The critical reviews are unanimously thumbs-down. The New Yorker calls it a “failure as a novel” and “a string of clichés.” The Guardian designates it “the unwanted, unloved elder sibling of To Kill A Mockingbird.” Even so, it’s just a draft, and Watchman employs better-crafted writing than most all of today’s bestsellers.

While Mockingbird is much more plot-heavy—a lot happensWatchman focuses less on the external conflict and more on the internal, turning the microscope on Jean Louise, Atticus, and their hearts. Stylistically, it is more character-driven, about the increasingly complex people of Maycomb County as they begin to cope with just how bad they really are. Despite what you may have heard about ‘the new Atticus,’ he’s not the only one who fails to meet today’s standards. All fall short, Jean Louise included. On page 242, she definitively agrees that African Americans are “backwards.” It’s unclear why, in most reviews, Atticus is glossed as an evil antagonist and Jean Louise a headstrong moral conscience. Low anthropology persists universally, even (and maybe especially) when Jean Louise takes the opportunity to praise her own morality.

We ourselves live in a culture relishing ‘flaws’ and ‘brokenness’—we sing about ‘perfect imperfections’ and latch onto ‘authenticity’ and ‘honesty.’ But when we are given something truly flawed and authentic like Go Set a Watchman, we feel like puking on it. Watchman forces us to look square-on at an issue that cannot and rightly should not be glamorized.

HARPER-superJumboThe tricky thing is that To Kill A Mockingbird is really quite prescriptive, and that’s what everyone loves about it. It projects a standard of good moral living that many were expecting, but did not receive, from Watchman, which is more or less a valuable and timely snapshot of one time and place in history: the characters don’t resolve racism (have we?), and they aren’t good (are we?).

It’s very possible that Harper Lee is being grossly exploited by capitalism and the general public’s greasy-fingered greediness, mine included. You yourself may wonder if it’s right and meet to read this book. But at least now you know that it’s no longer advisable to wonder, “What would Atticus do?” Instead, you might leave that to Jesus.