Three years ago, in a father’s-day column about great screen dads, I wrote this about the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird:
“The signature role of Gregory Peck’s career was Atticus Finch, the small-town lawyer and single father who parented by example, eschewing violence while displaying quiet courage, and keeping vigil over those he cared about. Many people probably got their prototype for the ideal father from Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel.”
I’m one of them. The sound of Peck’s voice, or of Kim Stanley’s narration, or of Elmer Bernstein’s delicate musical score, brings tears to my eyes with Pavlovian ease. So, for that matter, can Lee’s exquisite prose, right off the page.
In Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, published to monster sales this month by HarperCollins, Atticus is less admirable. The novel follows his daughter Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, now an adult living in New York, as she returns to her small Alabama hometown for a visit. While she’s there, she learns that Atticus, as well as the local young man who wants to marry her, are both members of the town’s segregationist group, intent on keeping the NAACP and civil rights in general at bay. Atticus is, simply put, a racist, of the imperturbably condescending, paternalistic, evasive sort, as pernicious in its way as the overtly hateful kind. Remembering her father’s defense of a local black man accused, obviously falsely, of rape—the main plot of Mockingbird—she’s horrified, baffled and, very understandably, furious.
The novel was reportedly written in 1957, before Mockingbird, and is regarded as a first draft of the classic, although in my opinion it’s so radically different, both in content and intent, that it constitutes a novel unto itself. Few would suggest that it’s an achievement, either in prose style or in storytelling, on the level of Mockingbird. It’s clumsily structured and digressive—though its digressions are some of its strongest episodes—and its last few chapters are tinny debates in the manner of a Golden Age of Television problem play.
But the fingers-in-the-ears, “la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you” reaction that many critics and commentators have had to the very publication of the book suggests that they are as psychologically invested in an idealized view of Atticus as Scout is. Heartbreakingly, there’s nothing implausible about Watchman’s presentation of the character, nor anything very incompatible with his characterization in Mockingbird.
Even if it’s a lesser work than Mockingbird, it’s still an impressive novel on its own terms. The scene in which Scout must endure a “coffee” with other young women and listen to their prattle is a tour de force—horror and comedy and pathos weaving in and out of each other, and not a word of it that isn’t still relevant today.
I think it’s a good thing that Go Set a Watchman was published. Mockingbird, with its expert blend of lofty legal drama and southern gothic fairy tale, is a work of polished beauty and a vision of social decency toward which to aspire. Go Set a Watchman, roughly sketched but passionate, is a much franker, less romanticized work. It takes on one of the more painfully familiar themes of the last century or so—that of daughters who more or less worship their fathers, struggling to come to terms with the despicable ideologies to which those fathers cling.
More broadly, it’s about the agony of loving your family and your community of origin while knowing the ugliness that’s part of its core. This, by extension, makes Watchman a book for all of us who love America.