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, then there’s really nothing left for me to spoil: Atticus is a racist, and that’s the main cause of nationwide collywobbles.

I was surprised to find that this isn’t just a dilemma of 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 rooted in segregation and bigotry (She could still change his name, right? The kid’ll never know). And Hewitt’s not the only one with such a precipitous investment in Atticus’ integrity—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’s like when all “those Germans in the 1930s named their boys Adolf.” People are really upset about this. And Americans aren’t the only ones grieving: the devastation made ripples worldwide. In 2006, To Kill a Mockingbird was considered by British librarians to be more important than the Bible (Am I the only one wondering why British librarians resonate so passionately with the American south?). On a level closer to home, some of my best friends have been known to reread Mockingbird during times of trial—and everyone’s wondering if the beloved classic will ever be the same again.


But I guess I should be honest and admit that I wasn’t that excited when DZ asked me 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—I did enjoy it more than most required reading, but it mainly just brings back memories of ninth grade puberty and that one particularly emphatic classmate who wouldn’t stop talking about “Attishus Finch.” To Kill a Mockingbird nevertheless possessed something that, for example The Scarlet Letter or Heart of Darkness, never had. It’s probably a mix of things: fun characters, a compelling plot—but also a kind of inspiring and glittery moral standard, embodied primarily by Atticus. Kind, just, wise, he has, in many ways, been a cultural stand-in for God.

And if Go Set A Watchman is in fact published as it was originally written, Harper Lee is nothing short of a prophet. Watchman illustrates man’s need to worship something; and it seems that Lee knew all along that, while Atticus was not perfect, he was a viable object of reverence. And that’s the main point of Watchman. Jean Louise (formerly known as Scout) is, like all of us, shocked to find out that her father is a flawed man. Her uncle explains,

“…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 dropping truth like bombs: all of us are imperfect. Even if we don’t see the mistakes ourselves, all of us make them. She’s giving us a low anthropology—a depiction of man’s sinful condition.

Early in the novel, before her father’s darker side is revealed, Jean Louise asks herself, “What would Atticus do?” That’s right: WWAD. Harper Lee, even before To Kill a Mockingbird, predicted that Atticus, always a member of the human race, had the potential to be venerated as a god. Watchman is an effective warning against high anthropology; or maybe more precisely, it’s an empathetic comrade for any young adult who realizes 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 applies more than ever to those of us who revered Atticus’s veneer of moral perfection.

The critical reviews for Watchman 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.” Considering it’s just a draft, Watchman employs far better-crafted writing than almost all of today’s bestsellers, even if it is a disappointment next to Mockingbird. Even so, on a purely critical level, I really did enjoy it. 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.

While Mockingbird is much more plot-heavy—a lot happensWatchman focuses less on the external conflict and more on the internal one, turning the microscope on Jean Louise, Atticus, and their own hearts. Stylistically, it is more in line with other character-driven stories, like Joyce’s Ulysses, in which nothing really happens, but the inner-workings of one man are explored in (probably too much) depth. Similar structures are found in movies like 2011’s The Descendants and 2014’s A Most Violent Year, in which a few really messed up people try to figure out how to live the good life—and isn’t that us, too? Watchman is about the increasingly complex people of Maycomb County as they begin to cope with just how bad they really are. And let’s be clear: Despite what you may have heard about ‘the new Atticus,’ he’s not the only one who fails to meet today’s racial standards. All fall short, Jean Louise included. On page 242, she definitively agrees that African Americans are “backwards.” I’m therefore not sure why, in most reviews, Atticus is regarded as the evil antagonist and Jean Louise as the headstrong moral conscience. The low anthropology persists throughout, even (and maybe especially) if Jean Louise takes the opportunity to praise her own morality.

We ourselves live in a culture that relishes talk about ‘flaws’ and ‘brokenness’—we sing about ‘perfect imperfections’ and latch onto buzzwords like ‘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 wholly descriptive all in all. Watchman is what I would consider no more or less than 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?).

In the end, it’s very possible that Harper Lee is being grossly exploited by capitalism and the general public’s greasy-fingered greediness, mine included. And you yourself may wonder if it’s truly right and meet to read this book. But at least now you know that when faced with a moral dilemma, it’s no longer advisable to wonder, “What would Atticus do?” Instead, you might consider Christ, the real one—or for those of you with your wires crossed, the real Atticus—who poured out both justice and mercy on the cross. Luckily he’s not relegated to a required reading list, and his judgment is flawless. “And this is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world.”