I didn’t like Harper Lee’s To kill a Mockingbird. As an amateur literature fanatic, I had to find myself avoiding mention of the book in literary conversation and wondering if my disdain for the Pulitzer Prize globally revered novel was a consequence of my own ignorance. In 2006, British librarians ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one “every adult should read before they die”. It was not the prose nor the themes that caused my dislike, and I don’t even particularly feel it has ‘aged-badly’ as much as other white-written midcentury stories on Black America have.
To kill a mockingbird takes place in Alabama during the Great Depression, and is narrated by the main character, a little girl named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. Her father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer with high moral standards. Atticus decides to take on a case involving a Black man named Tom Robinson who has been accused of sexually assaulting a very poor white girl named Mayella Ewell, a member of the notorious Ewell family, who local people refer to as “trash.” The Finch family faces harsh criticism in the heavily racist town because of Atticus’s decision to defend Tom, but Atticus insists on going through with the case because his conscience could not let him do otherwise. He knows Tom is innocent, and also that he has almost no chance at being acquitted, because the white jury will never believe a Black man over a white woman. Atticus wants to reveal the truth to his fellow townspeople and encourage them to imagine the possibility of racial equality. Despite all this, Tom is still found guilty, and though the verdict is unfortunate Atticus feels some satisfaction that the jury took so long deciding. Despite all this, Tom is later shot to death trying to escape court. Meanwhile, Mr. Ewell threatens Atticus and attempts to attack Scout, but she is saved by a neighbour whom they had previously taunted for his reclusiveness. The story of Tom, along with that of the neighbour provide a moral tale of non-judgement and ‘doing right’ which is relayed to the children by Atticus. Atticus and his teachings set him as the hero of the book and despite dealing with the serious issues of assault and racial inequality, the novel is renowned for its warmth and humour.
55 years later in 2015, two years before her death, Harper-Lee published Go set a Watchman. The book is a somewhat sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird but is understood to be a first draft/alternate edit of the classroom staple. Those who queued all night for the 2015 release of the book had polarising opinions of it. In The Spectator, Philip Hensher called Go Set a Watchman “an interesting document and a pretty bad novel”, as well as a “piece of confused juvenilia“; author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote “Harper Lee was a good writer…, for all its faults and omissions [Go set a Watchman], asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades.”. The book was certainly a shocking recontextualization of To Kill a Mockingbird and it was in unpacking that shock that divided critics and readers so harshly. For me, the book illuminated the very reasons I found To Kill a Mockingbird so difficult to love.
Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, from the previous novel, returns to her hometown for her annual visit to her father Atticus. She finds a pamphlet titled “The Black Plague” among her father’s papers. She follows him to a Citizens’ Council meeting where Atticus introduces a man who delivers a racist speech. Scout watches in secret from the balcony and is horrified. Her uncle lectures her on the complexity of history, race, and politics in the South, in an attempt to get Jean Louise to come to a conclusion, which she struggles to grasp. She is confused and devastated by her father’s positions as they are contrary to everything he has ever taught her. She returns to the family home furious and packs her things. Her uncle encourages her to process what she has learnt over the past few days in the context of the world and of herself as an individual, not as a citizen of a world created by centering her father as a hero. Before she leaves, she goes to tell her father that she loves him, as she follows him to the car, she silently welcomes him to the human race relegated from the hero he once was to her.
The shock to be had in this novel is not that Atticus is a racist of any upstanding position as many seem to interpret it, but rather that he is like many white people were within the era. He was not a hero, nor a champion of Black civil rights, just a dogmatic lawyer and a man scared of change to sad selfish consequences. It was this revelation that brought such deep discomfort to so many of the readers who themselves had grown up with Atticus Finch as a hero. To me, however, it was a revelation of why To Kill a Mockingbird never resonated with me: it was because it was only the surface half of a story.
Whilst Go set a Watchman came out in 2015, which makes this review admittedly a little late. However, events of 2020 helped me understand my own position in the world and provide vocabulary to describe my previous and current views on Lee’s work. I am not Black, that is very important to state here, but I am a part of a racial minority who have a history of long exploitation within the US. The courageous Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has had immeasurably positive impacts in arming racially oppressed groups with the words, dignity, and confidence to resist our oppression. It is through this that I came to realise truly why I couldn’t find the captivating magic within To kill a Mockingbird that so many people did: it was because my position in the world and the realities of racial minorities in America, past and present, was too much to be pushed aside for the sake of a good story. I am not the first to call this out, even before the publication of Go set a Watchman the book was heavily criticised for its “white saviorism” and how it relies on a fictional white man to be the hero of a very real racist affair. What Go set a Watchman did however was provide a real answer for this in a way that feels both like justice and brilliant dynamic storytelling. Undermining such a treasured character in this way has changed the way in which To kill a Mockingbird will be remembered forever more, giving the story a context and integrity fitting for its place in the hall of literary fame. When I revisit To kill a Mockingbird now, I can enjoy it for many of the same reasons those growing up with it did: the childlike mischief, the wholesome family and the lessons of suspending judgement that the story ultimately calls for. What Go set a Watchman did is shine a light on the darker parts of To kill a Mockingbird so that we may go on the same journey as Scout Finch in reassessing the adoration of Atticus and become mature and weathered keepers of our own lessons and philosophies in a way fit for the real world.