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'Go Set A Watchman' And The Reader's Dilemma

Actor Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from "To Kill a Mockingbird," based on the novel by Harper Lee. July 14, 2015 saw the publication of Lee's "Go Set A Watchman," a kind of sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird," which presents a very different Atticus Finch. (Universal/AP)
Actor Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from "To Kill a Mockingbird," based on the novel by Harper Lee. July 14, 2015 saw the publication of Lee's "Go Set A Watchman," a kind of sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird," which presents a very different Atticus Finch. (Universal/AP)
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I’m going to read "Go Set A Watchman."

How can I not?

A complicated and controversial provenance, a lineage that places the book as the successor to perhaps the most revered work of 20th century American fiction -- not to mention the evolution of Atticus Finch from saint to sinner. The novel demands attention, even without the inevitable critical carping.

Race in America is no more a settled subject now than it was when 'Mockingbird' was first published.

But this is the digital age, and opinions are made on the fly. In the case of "Watchman," the critics were descending with sharpened knives as soon as the embargoes expired.

In his review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, for example, Randall Kennedy called the novel “uninspired,” with an “ending that is all too compressed.”

"Fresh Air" book critic Maureen Corrigan was less even kind. The novel, she said, “is kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece.”

Considering history’s own unkindness to first rounds of literary criticism, the jury is still very much out on these reviews and those like them.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the new novel is the reported de facto defrocking of Finch, the beatified lawyer from "To Kill A Mockingbird," whose defense of a black man charged with raping a white woman in the Depression-era South has inspired generations of idealistic American lawyers who saw in Finch the highest calling of the legal profession.

As "Go Set A Watchman" reportedly reveals, however, Finch was, perhaps, less than he appeared.

A member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth, "Watchman" finds Finch an arthritic, 72-year-old eugenicist and member of the local Citizens Council fighting desegregation.

(Harper/AP)
(Harper/AP)

Given this new information about an old hero of American fiction, one might wonder if Finch’s actions in "Mockingbird" are those of a sociopath or, at best, a dissembler.

And maybe, once I’ve read "Go Set A Watchman," that's what I'll think.

But my own theory is that Harper Lee was a woman ahead of her time. When she wrote "To Kill A Mockingbird," America, as the hagiography of the 1950s tells us, had yet to lose its moral compass. It was a country where all Americans had a job for life, the family was nuclear, and blacks and other minorities were happily ensconced on the other side of the tracks.

Of course, we know better. And, "Mockingbird," appearing as it did on July 11, 1960, in the early years of the civil rights movement, cast a stark light on one of the darkest times in American history, an early mile marker at the beginning of the end of the road for the Jim Crow South.

Now comes "Watchman," just shy of a year after the conflagration in Ferguson, Missouri, and mere months after Baltimore nearly tore itself apart.

Race in America is no more a settled subject now than it was when "Mockingbird" was first published.

Sometimes the truth hurts, even in a work of fiction.

That Atticus Finch, the man who saved Tom Robinson from both mob rule and state-sponsored injustice in "To Kill A Mockingbird," can also be a stalwart racist working hard to keep the Tom Robinsons of the world out of his neighborhood or his kids’ schools — that, to me, is an example of a truly 21st century character.

That Harper Lee saw this almost six decades ago, when she reportedly wrote "Go Set A Watchman," confirms for me her astounding talent.

If Corrigan is right, if reading "Go Set A Watchman" will forever change the way we read "To Kill A Mockingbird," then any serious reader of literature needs to take her up on the challenge.

Sometimes the truth hurts, even in a work of fiction.

Related:

Ted Flanagan Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Ted Flanagan is a writer and paramedic from central Massachusetts.

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