OPINION: Go Set a Watchman ’round the modern teen

Jessica Sommerville | Online Editor

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It was a rumor that circulated as May ripened: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman may be taught in Mason High School instead of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a sequel–a sequel–that would unseat one of my favorite American classics.

But whether this rumor germinated from truth is now irrelevant, for Go Set a Watchman will have no place in MHS.

The district tweeted “Still not sure we’re brave enough to read Watchman since we’ve idolized #Scout & #Atticus forever…” on July 17 in response to claims the novel would facilitate discussion.

The tweet reflects the opinion of many: why read the novel at all if our white male hero unravels?

Perhaps because the novel is not, in fact, the sequel I feared. It is the initial draft of Mockingbird, rediscovered after its creation in the mid-1950’s. The circumstances surrounding its publication–an initial draft published after the second–offer us a perspective we cannot disregard.

If Mockingbird had not been published before Watchman, we would never have seen Atticus as Scout did–as a loving father and a noble attorney, as the man who taught us it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

And now that his guise has dissipated, we can respond as the new adult Jean Louise has–with cries of outrage and disbelief.

Jean Louise becomes ashen and vomits at an ice cream shop after her discovery of Atticus’ resistance to segregation, but because we can close the book’s cover rather than face discomfort, we isolate Atticus’ brand of racism and pretend it is relevant only in Watchman’s sepia pages, in the 1950’s.

But we are to inherit a world in which, a month before Watchman’s publication, a white man walked into a black church. Not to volunteer his legal services. Not to desegregate.

To open fire.

The shock I hope we all felt, the disgust, is a result of the racism that Lee’s novel depicts. That the injustice enrages us is healthy, necessary. But to progress from a legally desegregated society to an integrated one, we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.

Yes, Watchman may offend. It may inspire calls for “trigger warnings” on its cover, should it ever reach a classroom. It may even disappoint the open-minded with its language, as critics have been quick to belabor its lack of poeticism compared to Mockingbird. 

But as Lee writes, “‘Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience’” (264-265).

If we are to be our own watchmen, to go forth into the post-high-school world to cultivate our own conscience, we don’t need to agree on Atticus’ disposition or on Lee’s writing style.

But we can’t be blind.