Dawn Durante is the Acquisitions Editor at the University of Illinois Press.
We’ve welcomed the New Year, which means all the best of 2015 lists have presented themselves, and especially my favorite lists: the best books of 2015. There is one book that was hard to find on those lists, despite it being one of the most anticipated and bestselling books of the year: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. To Kill a Mockingbird’s companion, Go Set a Watchman takes us through Scout’s visit home to Maycomb twenty years after she has moved to New York. Through adult eyes, Scout slowly sees the realities of her hometown very differently than she did as a child. Her visit home is filled with reflection on where her idyllic memories of her childhood depart from actual tensions surrounding race, class, and gender. Where the book really shines is when Scout shares new memories of her childhood high jinks with Jem and Dill. These vignettes feel like you are learning something new about an old friend that you grew up with but have not seen in a while—and in so many ways, that is precisely my relationship with Scout and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Upon release of the long-awaited sequel—the publication of which was filled with controversy from the outset—reviews and op-eds everywhere revealed [spoiler alert] Atticus Finch is a racist. People speculated what this meant for everyone who had been inspired by Finch after To Kill a Mockingbird. They questioned how this would impact future generations reading about the once-heroic father figure. The post-publication discourse surrounding Go Set a Watchman was almost entirely Finch-centered. As all of these discussions prioritized Finch, the question I began to ask was: How did a book written by a woman, about a woman, turn into a book about a man in the popular media?
I’m not interested in a close reading of the novel here or in attempting to deeply investigate its literary merit—that has been done already. And, under no circumstances should we sweep Atticus’s racist practices under the rug. But what lacks from the myriad book reviews that came out in the wake of Go Set a Watchman is that it is not necessarily Atticus that has changed. It is perspective. Scout’s perspective, to be precise, and a woman’s perspective, to be even more precise. By decentering the narrative of the book—Scout’s narrative—and placing the emphasis on Finch, we do a disservice to our main character and, I believe, misread some of the most penetrating messages of the novel. After all, we have likely all had loved ones we discover at one time or another have outdated, biased opinions. If you look at any hero long enough, you will see flaws, and what truly matters is how we react to these realizations, and what should matter to us in Go Set a Watchman is how Scout reacts when she returns home and is plainly confronted with injustice, bigotry, and hypocrisy. Scout’s most mature sense of selfhood manifests as she navigates the realization she does not want to be wooed and married as well as the discovery that her father’s behavior emphatically conflicts with her moral compass and how she viewed him her whole life.
By making this book about Finch’s loss of heroic status instead of Scout’s process of standing up for what she believes is right, we entirely miss the fact that, like its prequel, Go Set a Watchman also gives us a hero: a critical thinker who takes a stand for equality in the face of racism and sexism.