The subset of people who have read ‘Go Set a Watchman’ but have not read’To Kill a Mockingbird’ must be pretty small, and until this week included me, embarrassed although I am to admit it. Yes, until this week I had not read this the ultimate American classic. I had seen the film, of course, and the stage play, but somehow never got round to the novel, until now.
I can completely understand why the novel holds its place in the affections of American readers. It captures a lost America, and shows that while its passing is on the whole a good thing, particularly in terms of civil rights, something has been lost as well.
I wanted to address the question as to whether ‘Go Set a Watchman’ has in any way had a negative effect on the reputation of ‘TKAM’. I think this debate is based on a false premise, namely that ‘GSAW’ is a sequel to ‘TKAM’. Certainly it was published later than the original novel, and is set around 20 years later. In the later novel, Atticus is no longer seen through the innocent eyes of a young daughter’s hero-worshipping eyes, but from those of a mature, travelled woman. Of course he is no longer on a pedestal, and a lifetime of living in the deep South has taken its toll on his tolerances. Civil rights had not stood still in that time either, and what was once a liberal position had become reactionary, simply by staying still as the world moved on.
But. I think that it is important to remember that ‘GSAW’ is, in terms of composition, the earlier novel. It is in fact the first draft of ‘TKAM’. Looked at that way, Atticus doesn’t become more reactionary, but more liberal and tolerant as he developed as a character in Lee’s imagination. We also owe thanks to Lee’s editor for this metamorphosis.
There is a charming innocence to ‘TKAM’, achieved in large part through Scout’s narration. She is disarmingly honest, kind, and in the main unspoiled by the prejudices and racism around her. It has still taken its toll, of course – she uses the n-word and other insulting racial epithets freely, and would prefer Atticus to have refused to defend Tom Robinson. Tom’s tragic, off stage death doesn’t seem to trouble her, although neither does Bob Ewell’s at the end of the novel. Lee never seems entirely sure whether the trial at the heart of the novel is her focus, or the story of the agoraphobe Boo Radley which is more prominent at the novel’s opening and close. She manages to weave the two stories together at the death but it is not so much as climax as an end.
I suspect the other primary reason for the novel’s enduring importance is that it contains so many platitudes. Children believe that all the problems of the world can be solved if only people were nice to one another, and that is the principal sentiment of the novel. I started to keep a track of the platitudes, but gave up after a while:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
“real courage is, instead of … a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.
I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”
“Atticus, he was real nice.””Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”