Atticus is a racist.
When the first heralds reviewing Go Set a Watchman reported this about the newly published novel by Harper Lee, I cringed. I thought to myself, this is why the damn book wasn’t published before. Why? Why does To Kill a Mockingbird–a literary gift that so many have cherished–have to be sullied with a sequel like this?
I do not care that Randall Kennedy writes in the New York Times Sunday Book Review: “Go Set a Watchman demands that its readers abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school lessons about the nobility of the white savior and the mesmerizing performance of Gregory Peck in the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.” Just what one expects from that erudite publication–another condescending opinion that delights in its righteousness and utter lack of empathy with readers.
True, Mockingbird is a treasured cultural totem of white Americans. It allowed many white Americans living in the 20th Century to see themselves in a rose-colored light when our social reality was even bleaker than it is today. But this light had and still has value. This light is a gift of fiction because it provided a way to new thinking. A way. A path readers could take that might give them the perspective needed to imagine a better and more inclusive American society. It represented an ideal sense of the potential for social change.
I remind myself that these are stories, for goodness sake. Novels are not blueprints for social evolution, but who am I kidding. Stories have meaning. That is why they are told and why we listen. I’ve joined that camp here, and so I can talk about them as such. When I read the quote below, extracted from Go Set a Watchman (GSW), a tiny, tiny hope in me returned. Scout (now grown-up Jean Louise) says this about the people in her community:
Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me—these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me.
I haven’t read GSW yet, but now I must. Maybe the way is not closed? Maybe the world hasn’t shrunk down to a cynical atom on the verge of fission? Maybe our Scout is just despairing of the smallness of those who once seemed so great and true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she has lost her way.
We can take some cold comfort in the fact that GSW will never have the literary impact of Mockingbird, but let’s face it, the time is ripe to look at the debris of ideals we once held regarding race and justice and change in America. I don’t think this novel is going to shed much light in that direction, but I still need to know one thing: will Scout remain true to her ideal best self or sink back into the comforting behaviors and sentiments of those she outgrew years earlier?