By Julia Lankisch, Staff Writer
Despite saying she would never publish again, Harper Lee announced a new novel rather suddenly in 2015 and shocked the world.
She didn’t need to, either. Her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) is widely considered to be one of the greatest American stories of the 20th century, and was even called “our national novel” by Oprah Winfrey.
It is taught as required reading by schools throughout the country, and the film that was made based on the book won three Academy Awards. It is well-loved by critics and your grandma alike; it has been a classic since its publication in 1960.
Go Set a Watchman, the “sequel” to TKAM, was not met with such positive reviews. It follows Scout, the lovable main character of the original, after she’s grown up and moved out of her father’s house and her hometown. She quickly realizes that things are not what she thought they were when she was a child.
To Kill a Mockingbird paints Scout’s father Atticus as a man of integrity. He defends Tom Robinson, a Black man, in court after he is falsely accused of raping a white woman in a racist Southern town that was ready to throw him in jail. Atticus accepts all of the harassment he and his children receive as a result of his role in the trial with grace.
These traits, along with his parenting skills, made Atticus a well-loved literary character, and a prime example of standing up for what you know is right in the midst of people who are morally bankrupt. To Kill a Mockingbird, for a while, was a white person’s non-racist novel – that is to say, a white savior story that allows white readers to see rejection of overt white supremacy as heroism.
What TKAM is not, however, is an anti-racist novel. It is an agreeable, easily digestible fantasy that allows white people to feel like they are not part of white supremacy because they don’t walk around spitting on Black people, using racial slurs, or joining the Ku Klux Klan. It does not require a confrontation of one’s own contributions to the white supremacy that has become ingrained in our institutions and attitudes.
This proved to be a difficult pill for some readers of Go Set a Watchman to swallow. In it, Atticus is a verifiable racist. He is involved in a city council that works to preserve segregation, and does not believe Black people are “ready” to vote.
Many of the reviews which so strongly criticized GSAW cited Atticus’ bigotry as a continuity error that ruined the sanctity of the original. However, Harper Lee released her second novel as an independent project – it is not meant to be read as a follow-up to the first. In fact, it was actually written before she wrote TKAM and was rejected by her editor, at which point she reworked the entire novel to become To Kill a Mockingbird.
In Go Set a Watchman, Tom Robinson was acquitted, while in To Kill a Mockingbird, the guilty verdict he receives is a major plot point. This suggests that many reviewers likely didn’t care much about the alleged continuity issue, they were just upset that their former hero had to be removed from his pedestal.
Second, and more importantly, is that Atticus’ bigotry doesn’t actually contradict his actions in the first book at all. His defense of Tom Robinson and subsequent participation in a council whose purpose is to prevent integration and Black voting rights are both symptoms of a type of racism reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden”. Atticus, like Kipling, believes that Black people are not equal to white people, but that they are child-like and backward, and require protection from themselves and others by the superior white man.
While Go Set a Watchman is far from a perfect book, it probably didn’t deserve so much of its subpar critical assessment. More than likely, a bunch of white people were just really peeved they can no longer idolize their literary good guy dad.