Defense attorney Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my literary heroes, now finds himself in need of a defense. He is accused of being a racist based on the portrayal of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s newly published Go Set a Watchman. Although I would be a woeful defense attorney, this case is easy. The To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus Finch is not the same person as the Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman; therefore, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird cannot be called a racist based on Go Set a Watchman. These are very different books, and the two characters named Atticus Finch are very different people. The Watchman Atticus is a racist, but he is not the Mockingbird Atticus. Harper Lee changed many things as her story evolved, and one of the things she changed was the racial attitudes of Atticus Finch.
Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird have other obvious differences. Significant characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are not mentioned in Go Set a Watchman. Major characters in Go Set a Watchman who would have been part of the action in To Kill a Mockingbird are not mentioned in Mockingbird. Characters appearing in both books have different traits and outlooks. There are other instances of discontinuity between the two books. (Please excuse my lack of specifics as I try to avoid spoilers.) The two books cannot be regarded as prequel and sequel, or different episodes with the same characters. They are distinctly separate literary entities with some overlapping elements.
Most novels fare poorly when compared to Harper Lee’s classic, and Go Set a Watchman is no exception. Watchman is thinly plotted and heavily political. As characters talk back and forth about race for page after page, the dialogue becomes kind of boring. When the race discussion winds down, characters delve into the psychological imperatives of parent-child relationships. Also boring.
Still, Go Set a Watchman has its charms. It’s good to hear from some of these characters again after so many years, especially Jean Louise and Calpurnia. As Jean Louise remembers events from her adolescence, we are treated to some entertaining scenes that would not have fit in To Kill a Mockingbird’s time frame.
Go Set a Watchman is interesting as a literary artifact, but it’s not a satisfying novel. I would caution teachers against choosing it for study as a whole-class novel. Some of the racial language is disturbingly intense, much more so than in To Kill a Mockingbird. Let’s continue to encourage young readers to experience To Kill a Mockingbird. If they find their way to Go Set a Watchman, that’s fine. Discerning readers will see Watchman for what it is: a rough draft.