In the month since the passing of legendary American author Harper Lee, we have seen a great deal of turmoil, as a nation and as a world. Political unrest and racial tension continue to plague our society to this day, reminding us of the importance of books like To Kill A Mockingbird, which inspire us all to take a stand for what is right.
For many of her fans, Ms. Lee’s controversial Go Set A Watchman failed to live up to the moral caliber of To Kill A Mockingbird, but, as former journalist and Killer Nashville Noir: Cold-Blooded author Blake Fontenay examines in this week’s guest blog, there’s important and relevant inspiration to be found in Go Set A Watchman, as well.
Give Go Set A Watchman Its Due
By Blake Fontenay
(Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t yet read Go Set A Watchman but intend to, don’t look at this post until you have.)
When the news broke that a “new” Harper Lee novel had been discovered and was slated for publication, I remember what an uproar it caused.
There were some who worried that the book, Go Set A Watchman, would somehow tarnish the legacy Ms. Lee created for herself when she wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Since Ms. Lee’s passing on Feb. 19, I’ve been reflecting on that concern.
First of all, I believe Ms. Lee’s legacy is safe, on the strength of To Kill A Mockingbird alone. Unless we find out later that she was using the literary equivalent of steroids when she wrote that classic, I think her status as a hall of famer is assured.
Having said that, I would also add that I don’t think Go Set A Watchman is as bad a book as many critics have made it out to be.
My initial reaction to Go Set A Watchman was resentful. As a little-known author, I was irritated by the idea that some famous writer could submit to a publisher what was essentially a rough draft and it would immediately become a bestseller.
I thought about how many talented authors work in obscurity while a select few churn out books that the masses snap up in drugstores and airport kiosks.
But there’s no sense crying about that. It is what it is. Big-name authors like John Grisham, Michael Connelly, and Sandra Brown could publish 400 pages of random keystrokes that would sell like ice scrapers in Buffalo.
When I actually got around to reading Go Set A Watchman, I had other issues with the book.
For one, I thought there were way too many flashbacks. The story shifts so abruptly back and forth between the present and the past that I thought I would need to be fitted for a neck brace.
Also, I didn’t find the grown-up Scout to be a very likeable protagonist. Maybe I have some gender bias on this point. I attended a book club discussion about Go Set A Watchman in which the participants, who were primarily women, admiringly described her as spunky or feisty. In the book, Scout looks down her nose at just about everybody from her hometown and toys with the affections of the guy who has worshipped her since childhood. To me, that goes beyond spunkiness into the realm of something far less appealing.
But I’m sure the most controversial aspect of Go Set A Watchman is its depiction of Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, not as the pillar of moral rectitude he was in To Kill A Mockingbird, but as an unapologetic racist.
One of my friends, who loved To Kill A Mockingbird and worshipped Atticus Finch, said Go Set A Watchman was so bad that it ruined her memory of the first book. (I had a similar reaction to Aliens 3, so I can relate.)
Here’s the thing, though: The ending of Go Set A Watchman is what makes the book interesting and thought-provoking. After discovering her father and most of the people she has known all her life are racists, Scout decides against leaving her small Alabama hometown for a more enlightened life in New York City.
That’s not a classic Hollywood ending. However, I think it’s a lot more realistic.
Very few of us get the opportunity in our daily lives to face down an angry mob and show it the error of its ways, as Atticus Finch heroically did in To Kill A Mockingbird. Racism and other forms of bigotry are pervasive in our society, but they manifest themselves in subtle ways.
Most often they come in the form of comments from co-workers, neighbors or even family members. In Go Set A Watchman, Scout faces a similar scenario.
In real life, pulling up stakes and moving to some racial utopia isn’t an option. (Based on my reading of history, Scout’s New York of the 1950s wouldn’t have qualified as such a utopia, anyway.)
When Scout decides to remain in her hometown, she pledges to remain true to her own principles and try to affect change in attitudes wherever she can. And that’s probably the best any of us could hope to do in our own lives.
Go Set A Watchman may have been written more than half a century ago, but it’s very relevant to the times in which we live and the conflicts we must still confront.
In my mind, that doesn’t qualify the book a classic, but it’s not a legacy-spoiler, either.
Blake Fontenay spent more than 25 years as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for metropolitan daily newspapers—including the Sacramento Bee, (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, Orlando Sentinel and (Memphis) Commercial Appeal. He won several awards for editorial writing while at the Commercial Appeal.
Since leaving the newspaper business, he has worked as the communications director for Tennessee’s Comptroller, Treasurer and Secretary of State. He is currently the coordinator for the Tri-Star Chronicles project at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
His debut novel, The Politics of Barbecue, was published by John F. Blair Publisher in September, 2012. The Politics of Barbecue won the Independent Publishers Book Awards gold medal for fiction in the South region in 2013. Scouts’ Honor, which was released in July 2014, is his second novel.
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