Guest Post: Our “Go Set a Watchman” moment
By Mindy Farmer
Are white Gen Xers and Millenials having our Go Set a Watchman moment?
Have some of the very people who taught us integrity and morality–who helped shape our essential views on justice, love, and fairness–suddenly revealed their flaws through elections, ignorance, and clear racism and/or bigotry? Are we struggling because the people we held up as super-human idols of integrity are now crumbling under the weight of our hero-worship? Do we now have to decide if those ideals can stand on their own–if we can stand on our own? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you are experiencing a Go Set a Watchman moment.
Many of us grew up with Atticus Finch as an American hero. We learned–alongside Finch’s daughter Scout–about courage, conviction, and doing what is right despite the consequences. Atticus taught us to fight with our heads instead of guns, to see the kindness in others, and to look past our prejudices.
He famously taught us, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what” and we left high school English classes emboldened by his words, certain we understood how to better fight injustice.
Universal Studios took this ideal character from To Kill a Mockingbird and embodied him in the strong, handsome, white-knight form of Gregory Peck. We couldn’t resist idolizing him just like Scout and holding Atticus up as a model of integrity. Then, Harper Collins disrupted this comfortable, classic image of virtue with the 2015 release of Go Set a Watchman.
In the highly-anticipated and highly-debated Go Set a Watchman, Scout–now going by her given name Jean Louise–is an adult living in New York and embracing the ideals learned in her youth. She returns to the South to visit her aging father and he disrupts her perfect image of him by revealing a startling humanity. Atticus is glaringly flawed, racist, and a participant in a a flawed, unjust, cruel system. And this revelation shatters Jean Louise and many of Harper Lee’s readers.
I felt it so deeply and painfully when Jean Louise looks at her fellow churchgoers, who she discovers are also Klu Klux Klan members, and asks, “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.”
And I felt like my heart might burst when Uncle Jack told her of her flawed hero-worship of her father, “As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings.”
This confusion, anger, and hurt is most likely familiar to many white Gen Xers and Millenials who are facing the flawed realities of many heroes in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Many of us fooled ourselves into believing we were “woke” and that “race relations” in the US were improving. We believed that being Atticus Finches would better the world. Like Scout, we’re discovering that we need to change where and how we set our own moral compasses.
What White Readers Overlooked
Go Set a Watchman received a high level of criticism separate from the treatment of its beloved main character. Critics pointed out a plodding plot, poor writing, and cliches. These are valid points, but I think many could not look past the deterioration of a central character who gave us hope and who many white readers could dream of imitating.
A July 2015 article in The New Republic claims, however, that “These Scholars Have Been Pointing Out Atticus Finch’s Racism for Years.” There is an important body of work that discusses racism within To Kill a Mockingbird. The article quotes Katie Rose Guest Pryal, a novelist and former law professor, who says that a closer look at the book reveals Finch’s lack of empathy and the focus on Atticus as the central protagonist, rather than Tom Robinson. The article explains:
“She points out that Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson, a black character accused of rape, is not about understanding Tom Robinson: ‘Neither the jury nor the audience of the novel have learned anything about Tom: where he lives, what his family is like, how he treats his wife and children and others in his daily life.’ His defense of Tom relies instead on convincing them that he, Atticus, is honorable. By playing to white prejudices in a system that consistently benefits whites, his strategy does nothing to ‘disturb America’s racial caste system.’”
The article also quotes Angela Shaw-Thornburg, a literature professor at South Carolina State University, who discusses Atticus’s “paternalistic and downright accommodationist approach to justice.”
With these criticisms in mind, along with a questioning of the relevance of To Kill a Mockingbird in contemporary classrooms, readers may view the “revelations” about Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman in a new way.
Jean Louise Stands On Her Own
While the literary merits of Go Set a Watchman may be debatable, Jean Louise’s experience of having hero’s painful, flawed self revealed moved me tremendously. For most of her life, she looked to Atticus as an example of how to think, behave, and believe. When he is revealed to have prejudices and flaws, Jean Louise feels anchor-less and betrayed. She declares,
““I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference.”
Uncle Jack responds, ““Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.” With this, he challenges Jean Louise to be her own guide and conscience; to be the watchman of her own convictions, even if they conflict with people she loves or she thought should guide her actions.
Becoming Our Own Watchmen
Go Set a Watchman holds a place on my bookshelf because it reminds me that I am responsible for taking the lessons of courage, integrity, justice, and faith I learned in my youth and applying them in my own life. If they are good and true, they can stand alone separate from imperfect people or heroes I’ve leaned on for far to long to be my watchmen.
How do we reconcile conflicts between the heroes we construct of people and the reality of their flawed selves? We move forward with courage and a willingness to let go of comfortable idols and instead challenge ourselves by reading, listening, taking action, and speaking up in ways that are new, uncomfortable, isolating, and even scary.
Resources for Learning About Racism
This document “Anti-Racism Resources” is “intended to serve as a resource to white people and parents to deepen our anti-racism work. If you haven’t engaged in anti-racism work in the past, start now. Feel free to circulate this document on social media and with your friends, family, and colleagues.”
Mindy is a quirky book lover, writer, teacher, feminist, vintage-hat wearer, mom of four, 40-something, who loves a great conversation; written or otherwise.