I love books, but I am not a book reviewer. In the same way that I take people as they are and believe that very few of them are evil, I don’t, in general pick books apart to dissect them or criticize their faults. But I cannot keep silent on Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Not only is it not a good book from a literary point of view, it should never have been published.
As a ninth grade English teacher for eleven years, I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, which meant I reread it every year. And loved it every year. I can quote certain beautifully- worded passages. I can picture the characters in my head. I understand the novel’s nuances, the places of foreshadowing, the rising and falling plot lines. But I love it most because of the impact it had on my students. It was THE right book for highschool freshmen. I know the words that will confuse 21st century students, the cultural references that must be explained; I know what jokes 15 year- olds will get and which ones they won’t. I know at what point the book will make a young adolescent cry, get angry, or laugh. And when, year after year, my classes and I would journey through those pages, we would be better people when we were finished. When Harper Lee showed us the hypocrisy in Maycomb, we saw it in ourselves. When we laughed at Scout’s naivete, my 15-year-olds wouldn’t feel so bad about their own embarrassing moments. When an unlikely rescuer comes from the shadows to save Scout, we believe, afterall, that good can triumph over evil.
But most of all, we had Atticus to look up to, admire, learn from. Here was a man who could be our hero. In a small town, in ordinary life, here was a man who did the right thing when everyone around him was doing wrong. For freshmen in high school, was there ever a better model for fighting peer pressure? In Maycomb, he was the one man that looked at the “content of a man’s character” instead of the color of his skin. In a culture that tells my students that looks matter above all else, here was a man that reminded my classes of the truth. For some of my students, he was the kind of father that they never had, but wanted. “Atticus is my hero,” I would say to my students in that partly-performance-way that any teacher understands is necessary to engage our students in learning. And of course I knew full well that the Atticus on the pages of a book would always be much better than any human could possibly ever be, but ninth graders could use a hero, and I could give them one in Atticus.
However, Go Set a Watchman destroys Atticus. Among other things, TKAM was a coming of age/loss of innocence novel- the young girl Scout must come to grips, as all children must, with the cruelty of the world. Lee’s second book takes Scout through a new transition: becoming her own person as distinct from her father, so her father must become the bad guy in order for Scout to make the break. This of course is a natural and necessary part of life, and one worth writing about in fiction. All this is fine if it were important for us to see a realistic father. But was it? Is it? Couldn’t Atticus remain for us bigger-than-life? I like to think that after writing this book, Lee knew it shouldn’t be published. I like to think that Harper Lee knew what she was doing when she sealed it away in a locked box. I like to think she was protecting not only Atticus but all of the students everywhere who needed him to be better than real. When I heard last year that a new book had been found only months after her lawyer/sister died, and that Lee had given permission from her room in an assisted living facility for this book to be published, I was suspicious. Now, I am not just suspicious of the new people “protecting” her interests, I am incensed at them. Did they even read the book?
I stopped teaching last year. And although I have moments when I miss my work, today I am glad that I don’t have to figure out how to present the new Atticus, the poisoned Atticus, the fallen Atticus as admirable and good. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird for many reasons, but especially because ninth graders need a hero as they are figuring out their place in the world. Go Set a Watchman fells a hero, and this makes me sad.