There’s been some controversy over Harper Lee’s new book. From what I understand, most of the controversy has been over Atticus Finch: in To Kill a Mockingbird, people found a character to idolize. In Go Set a Watchman, they found a hypocrite – and nobody wants to watch their childhood hero fall crashing down before them.
Ironically, though, that’s what the book is about. As Jean Louise (“Scout” to childhood friends) discovers her father’s involvement with segregationists and the Ku Klux Klan, she watches her childhood idol shatter before her eyes. She has built Atticus up to be a god, and as Atticus himself argues, this isn’t fair to her, and it’s certainly not fair to him. No human being can live up to that kind of adoration.
This book is something of a first draft. When Lee brought the manuscript to her publisher, she was asked to go write more about Scout’s childhood, and the result was To Kill a Mockingbird. The manuscript, recently rediscovered, was published as-is, as far as I can tell. And there are a few points where that’s clear; all in all, though, Lee’s rough drafts are better than my final drafts. This is still one of the best books I’ve ever read.
I also think it’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read, for the same reason some people don’t like it. Our society believes that all sins should be forgiven, except for two: hypocrisy and the refusal to forgive sins. And we’ve had forty or fifty years to build up Atticus Finch as some kind of merciful god who stands against the hypocrisy of his day, without ever being tainted or affected by it. In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus himself asserts that hypocrites have just as much right to live on this planet as any other human being. Harper Lee beautifully shows how even a man as level-headed as Atticus Finch can be affected by the constant stream of hatred around him, and even suggests that some of his reasons might have nothing to do with hatred at all. And while Jean Louise still disagrees with him, she has to learn to let him stand there and think what he will. I think that we, along with Jean Louise, need to remember that people have the right to be wrong. We need to watch our idols fall once in a while so we can be reminded to let them be human. We don’t expect perfection of ourselves; we need to forgive imperfections in others. ♦