Go Set a Watchman: Why I Will Be Reading Harper Lee’s New Novel

Go Set a WatchmanA recent article in the New York Times has a number of folks a bit bent out of shape. I’ve been blogging about Go Set a Watchman for weeks now, largely unnoticed by my friends and family, but suddenly, with new news coverage about the fact that Atticus has apparently being portrayed as a racist, everyone is asking me about Go Set a Watchman.

The Comments about Go Set a Watchman that Caught Me by Surprise

I sat awestruck after the first comment came across my Facebook Messenger app Sunday night. “I heard Harper Lee is making Atticus a racist! Why? He was not that in the first book!” I won’t name the friend who sent it, but she was extremely distraught at the thought that Atticus might have fallen off his pedestal.

A similar comment from a colleague resounded, “I planned to read the book until I heard about Atticus.  This is my all time favorite book and movie. I’ve been counting the days for this book. Now, I probably won’t read it.”

These are smart, thoughtful people, and they aren’t at all happy with the reports that Atticus is no longer the man we knew in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Does Go Set a Watchman Rob Us of a Hero?

As those sorts of comments keep coming, I’m beginning to understand that it’s not as much about the book, as how much we don’t like giving up our heroes, and Atticus Finch, is just that—a hero. Where the real men we know have fallen short of our expectations, and in a world where those who are sworn to seek justice and uphold morals sometimes refuse to do so, Atticus Finch has remained for years a beacon—hope that there are still good men in the world. Atticus is one of those characters we hold onto because he is indeed the ideal. Spit on, belittled, facing an angry mob, he stood for all that was right in the world.

Go Set a Watchman
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus becomes—at the very least—more complicated. So, now what?

I was working through that dilemma when a comment from author Reese Reed (which I believe I have now quoted no less than three times) hit me like a brick. “Maybe,” Reese said, “This is Nelle’s way of pushing us out of the nest.” Maybe she’s right, I thought, maybe we’re all about to grow up with Scout in a big way.

Why I Will Be Reading Go Set a Watchman

I’ve also gotten some thoughtful comments, like one from my own father, Patrick Burnette, who taught me to love books and take them as they are without regard to what others think—it’s a discussion we’ve had more than once—for instance, when books like Catcher In the Rye and The Chocolate War were assigned in my classes. After me sending him a link to the NY Times article, this was his reply:

“Having read the article, I now feel compelled to read Go Set a Watchman. Being familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird, as is every other person who took a literature class in high school, I am prompted to re-read it in conjunction with this new work, and look forward to doing so with great anticipation. Will it change my perception of Atticus? Perhaps.”

This is a man who encouraged me to read first, and judge later. He didn’t like the idea of schools banning books any more than he liked the idea of me not reading one because of someone else’s bias. Had it been sixth grade lit class, he’d have made a special trip to the bookstore to put this book directly into my hands.

Reasons You Should Consider Reading Go Set a Watchman

So, will I read the book? Of course. Absolutely. Should you? Here are some of the reasons I will, and some reasons you should consider it, too:

There is historical value in Go Set a Watchman.

I know that Go Set a Watchman was an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird and I understand the historical value of that, in and of itself. This is the book from which To Kill a Mockingbird resulted. These were Harper Lee’s original thoughts on the subjects about which she later wrote so eloquently. I want to know where Harper Lee started, and that’s one reason I want to read Go Set a Watchman. If you are interested in the historical significance of literature, this is a book you should read.

Harper Lee has been hailed as a masterful American writer and this book is something into which she put a tremendous amount of time and effort.

Like so many, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, the only book Harper Lee ever published until now. Go Set a Watchman is now a part of the legacy Harper Lee will leave us, and I want to experience this part of her gift. Could I have survived if she published nothing beyond Mockingbird? Yes. However, because she has published Watchman, I will be reading it, too, and I am glad that she is leaving us more. If you are a Mockingbird fan, this is a book you should read.

We all grow up.

Mockingbird will never change, regardless of what lies between the covers of Go Set a Watchman. There is some comfort in knowing, though, that even characters from classic novels are multi-dimensional, that even heroes have their weak moments, and that there is a great, big world beyond the one we all knew as we read from the point of view of six-year-old Scout Finch. If you want a greater understanding of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, this is a book you should read.

No one should allow one reporter’s view of the book shape their feelings about it.

I am certain that Michiko Kakutani, who wrote the article for the New York Times, is smart and thoughtful and has some wonderful insights into Go Set a WatchmanHowever, I’m an avid reader, and a Mockingbird fan, and I’m thoughtful myself when it comes to great literature. I’m also fairly certain there may be themes with which I connect in the new novel that she didn’t discuss in the Times. That’s the way good books work—different people benefit from them in very different ways. If you want to understand this book as it’s written, instead of through an article, this is a book you should read. I, for one, want to seek out those additional themes and garner what I can from them, and—guess what? I can’t wait.

I’m curious…Have you decided not to read Go Set a Watchman based on the New York Times article and other reviews? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. Brenda Aliff ·

    I have been on pins and needles waiting for my pre-ordered copy of GO SET A WATCHMAN because I can hardly wait to hear what else Harper Lee has to say. I know that it will be a good read.

  2. Angela ·

    I will definitely be reading it as soon as I get my hands on a copy! I feel it is important to realize that no one, not even Atticus, is perfect, and we all make mistakes. Scout is an innocent in Mockingbird, and she idolizes her father. We see the story unfold through her eyes, and if she misjudges another character, we are likely to do so, as well. It will be interesting to see Scout as a young woman, and how she handles the changing world around her!

  3. Jean Thomas ·

    I just finished the book and did not allow NY Times reviews deter me. I evaluate myself and am totally not critic dependent. Accolades to Watchman; TKAM has its place in literature, and I think Watchman will as well, just five decades later! Hats off to everyone who made this publication possible. OCBS, I received my copy of Watchman July 17, 2015, and I am proud that I purchased it from OCBS in Monroeville, Alabama. Thanks again.

Leave a comment: