It’s a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird
Why Go Set a Watchman Doesn’t Deserve the Hate
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
I was thirteen when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. For as much depth and insight I had at thirteen years, the book’s genuine look at justice, courage, and childhood struck a chord with me. I loved how it addressed social issues profoundly, but didn’t sacrifice story lines for the sake of melodrama. When I was fifteen, my grandmother and I bonded over our identification with Scout and our love of the novel. At eighteen, that same grandmother passed away. So, when news of Go Set a Watchman’s release came around, I was ecstatic; I was so excited to pick up my copy, I accidentally walked into my local Barnes & Noble and demanded the book a whole day too early.
I devoured the novel within a week, but my excitement was marred by the heavy criticism the book received. Some were disappointed with Atticus Finch’s fall from literary heroism. There were reports that publishing the book was a fraud and exploitation of nursing home-confined Harper Lee. Starting the book, I didn’t know what to think, and was franky scared I’d be dissapointed. But after finishing the book and marinating in its major “lessons”, I can’t understand why the book continues to get such flagrant criticism. One article compared it to a “bad Tinder date” and a bookstore in Michigan is even offering refunds for disgruntled readers.
While I understand that books, just like everything else in life, are subject to opinion, I want to offer a few reasons why, in my opinion, you shouldn’t be demanding a refund from your local bookstore any time soon.
Note: Spoilers ahead.
1. It was a first attempt.
Some critics say that Watchman reads more like a draft, not a novel. Well — what were you expecting? Lee wrote some of the book before Mockingbird as her first foray into the world of novel-writing, and eventually developed her well-known literary classic from drafting — and redrafting — parts of Watchman. It was Lee’s editor, not the author herself, that even ignited the idea of publishing the manuscript, and not even until it was found amongst Lee’s belongings in recent years.
So, why are we expecting more? I still found the writing genuine and profound, if a bit choppy at times, but still in the beloved style of Mockingbird. Reports say it was only lightly copyedited at best, so I don’t see why people expected this to be the next Pulitzer Prize winner right out of the gate. It’s like expecting a dissertation from a middle schooler. After reading criticism of the book, I cracked open the cover with an understanding of the context in which it was written, which helped me dampen the shocks and awkwardness of the work of a first-time writer.
2. Atticus Isn’t the Hero
For some reason, Atticus Finch has become the figurehead of Mockingbird, perhaps because of Gregory Peck’s superb portrayal (I admit, 13 year-old me crushed pretty hard). I never really understood why — to me, it was always strikingly obvious that Scout was the protagonist, even if a young one.
That’s why those who were quick to criticize the entirety of Watchman because of how “racist” Atticus is portrayed in the novel confused me; Scout is quick to rebuke him and becomes physically ill when thinking about her father on the traditionalist town council — isn’t that what we want our hero to do? Yes, it’s dissapointing to see kindhearted Atticus seemingly fall into the folds of Southern racism. Scout, the focus and hero of the book, stands up for what she believes in, and in my opinion, shows even more character insight and maturity from Mockingbird. Atticus isn’t the hero of Watchman just as he wasn’t in Mockingbird, and mourning for his character is displaced.
3. It’s the author’s voice, not ours
The original manuscript was postmarked in the 60's, and the time in which it was written was probably years before. Race relations and the social climate has changed dramatically in the United States since, yet critics still seem to expect Lee to have the insight of an educated, culturally-aware writer in 2015. Although I wasn’t alive at the time, I’m sure issues of race and justice were perhaps even more in the gray area then than they are now, and even so, it’s still hard to muddle through the peculiarities of racial bias in America even in modern times.
Again, the issue of context goes completely out of the window; the complexities of how racism is portrayed in Watchman are understandable for the time in which it was written. Those claiming that the book doesn’t “confront” racism as it should fail to remember that, for the time in which it was written, this text presents ideas that would, for a lot of society, be revolutionary in fiction writing. Yet again, I find myself confused and frustrated by the seeming discontent with Lee in Watchman; although Lee has a writer’s insight, she’s not psychic. Why, then, should we expect her writing to fit within the context of contemporary race relations?
4. It’s honest to the time period
Alexandra Alter, in a review for New York Times, wrote:
If “Mockingbird” sugarcoats racial divisions by depicting a white man as the model for justice in an unjust world, then “Watchman” may be like bitter medicine that more accurately reflects the times.
I think the above sums up many readers’ discomfort with the book; Mockingbird had, for the most part, a resolved “happy” ending, leaving us all to believe Atticus lived on to always champion total equality and justice, and that maybe Maycomb was ultimately better for it. Watchman turns this assumption on its head, showing a future Maycomb that is much different than many readers probably imagined it would be.
But looking back at how I, at least, thought Maycomb would end up, I feel silly for forgetting the many years of American history I learned in grade school. Do a simple Google search for “race relations in the 1960s” and it’s clear that they were anything but harmonious. Even with recent discussion of the Confederate flag, it’s clear that many, especially in the South, still see issues with race relations (and their symbols) as “heritage and tradition”.
Atticus makes it clear in Watchman that he is on the town council (along with Klansmen, much to Scout’s disdain) because he wants to “preserve the town’s way of life” and do what he believes is best for those that live there — an argument many today still make for the Confederacy and the Civil War. So what would be more truthful: a sweet southern town in the 1960s, totally unaffected by the time’s racial issues and the bright shining advocate for social justice, or a place where southerners attempt to address questions of race with the arguments they’ve always been exposed to?
Yes, learning honest truths about our not-so-distant past is uncomfortable. But, even if the medicine is bitter, it is still necessary to take; not only does the accurate portrayal of the time show us how far we’ve come, but most importantly, demands that society reconcile with how far we have to go.
5. The writing still shines
Watchman has been called an “apprentice effort”, “simple”, and even a “vomit draft”. The bookstore offering refunds for the book is doing so because they find the book “disappointing and frankly shameful”. Can you imagine if bookstores started offering refunds for every book that readers found disappointing or happened not to like?
I would have happily jumped on that offer for more than one book I’ve read, but surely not Watchman. Outrage aside, I personally found the writing to still have some — if not all — of Lee’s genuine voice, wit, and profound insight that made Mockingbird a literary treasure. That’s only my personal opinion, but here are some of my favorite quotes from Watchman to hopefully convince you of the same:
“You deny them hope. Any man in this world, Atticus, any man who has a head and arms and legs, was born with hope in his heart. You won’t find that in the Constitution, I picked that up in church somewhere. They are simple people, most of them, but that doesn’t make them subhuman.” — Scout
“Don’t you study about other folks’s business till you take care of your own.”
“When you get past all the boa feathers, every woman born in this world wants a strong man who knows her like a book, who’s not only her lover but he who keepeth Israel. Stupid, isn’t it?”
“I can tell you. In New York you are your own person. You may reach out and embrace all of Manhattan in sweet aloneness, or you can go to hell if you want to.”
“She looked at Maycomb, and her throat tightened:
Maycomb was looking back at her.”
6. Being offended is the whole point
For those of you who missed it (or have yet to read it), Atticus never reconciles differences with Scout, nor is he restored to demigod-of-justice status by the end of the novel. Instead, the novel ends with Scout’s separation with her father — both physically and morally — and a lesson I believe many who are offended or disappointed by the book completely missed.
The lesson “Watchman” begs us to learn is that every human must learn to think for his or herself; and when they do, they must face the reality that comes as a consequence.
Although some readers think that the ending is a cop-out, the book ties up its ends without a sugarcoating and teaches an important lesson on the way out. It is clear that Atticus, and probably Maycomb, will not change the way they think, and a cliche “happy ending” would only come accross as disillusioned. Instead, Lee shows how we as individuals must evaluate our own way of thinking about the world around us, and that this may result in some uncomfortable breaks with the familiar. Although Scout finds herself frustrated with her father’s ideals, Atticus reminds her that this frustration is natural and necessary, as it signals that she is finally growing up and into her own person that is no longer dictated by the character of her father.
Just as Scout comes to this revelation, so should we as readers; Lee wants readers to abandon the middle school idealism that justice will always prevail, issues will always be black and white, and heroes will always be pure. The offense many take at Atticus’ racism shows how the text pushes readers into the uncomfortable realm of looking at that which was learned in intellectual infancy in a new, adult light, powered by culture and experience. And although this new reality is uncomfortable, it is not only more truthful, but indicates our ability and desire to think for ourselves, even if it goes against truths we once held. Lee wants us to change, as Scout did, from small children idolizing that which they’ve always known into human beings capable of questioning, thinking, and understanding ways to move society forward.
“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.”