Sunday, August 9, 2015


How can any thinking person not read Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman?

Now that I have read the book, I believe that: 1) Harper Lee wrote every word of it; 2) no one coerced her into having it published; and 3) she did so to help us, like Scout, lose our innocence. I believe I have. And it hurts.

For what we get in Lee’s other novel is a true portrait of the South during the 1950s. Also, an unvarnished look at the conscience of Southern liberals. This is the South as it was, not as we might wish it had been.

In Watchman, Atticus Finch, the hero of a novel that has become a sacred text, is unmasked by his own daughter as a flawed human being. Scout’s loss of innocence about her father mirrors our own, while forcing the reader to reconsider everything we ever believed about To Kill A Mockingbird.

I’m relieved to say that, for me at least, Harper Lee’s masterpiece survives unscathed. I’ve always wanted to believe that a white lawyer in small-town Alabama in 1936 would take on the whole white world to defend a black man charged with raping a white woman, even though I never truly understood where Atticus got the courage to do so. In an odd way, I find Atticus’ stand in Mockingbird even more noble now that I know his whole soul, not just a part of it.

Even after all the spoilers from the opinion makers, this reader was stunned to discover that sixteen years later Atticus Finch has become a member of the Maycomb County white citizens council. We learn that the county’s most respectable men are members, whether or not they subscribe to the vile racial epithets spewed at meetings.

Even worse, though, is that Scout’s beloved, perfect father once was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Only to find out who his enemies were, we’re told, but what a fall was there.

Far more damning, alas, is Atticus’s current blaming of the NAACP and the Supreme Court for fighting Southern bigotry. It is truly nauseating to hear Atticus and Scout agreeing that the nebulous doctrine of state’s rights justifies segregation and all the evils attendant upon it.

After a soul-wrenching struggle with her conscience, Scout still loves her father, despite his flaws, for he is otherwise an exemplary man. But we understand why Calpurnia, the African American woman Scout loves as a substitute mother, now distances herself from Scout and the whole white world.

Once again, at the end of her long life when orthodoxy cannot reach her, Harper Lee has blistered our souls with her honesty about America's ongoing struggle with racism.

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