Please note that the entry below may include some information that spoils the Go Set a Watchman for you if you haven’t read it.
After reading Go Set a Watchman, I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to talk to students about Harper Lee’s book. I’ve had a few students email me this summer to ask if I had seen the hoopla or read the book, so I know that many will already have heard something about it. I also know that others who hated Mockingbird won’t have gone near it. (Now I’m thinking that I could write an entirely separate post about how Mockingbird, while one of my all-time favorite novels, just isn’t the right book at the right time for so many of my students.)
There are a couple of things that I want students to know and understand about Watchman. For starters, it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and I want students to see how a part of a book can become inspiration for another, whether it’s by choice or an editor’s suggestion. This is part of the process that I try to get students to see every year: something can become inspiration for something else. A seed, to use the metaphor that I share in class, can be planted and nurtured in different ways.
The other thing that I want to share with students is my widened understanding of Atticus Finch, Scout, and Maycomb. I have a shirt that I always wear when the Tom Robinson trial scene looms near. Boldly asking, “What would Atticus do?” I know I’ll continue to wear this shirt. My jaw didn’t drop when Scout shared her frustration that Atticus did something she never would have done, as he listened to an incredibly racist rant during a meeting of Maycomb’s citizens' council.
But what I didn’t take away from reading Watchman is that Atticus became a racist.
What I really want students to understand is that characters and settings, like people, change. Sometimes it's fast, and sometimes it's slow. And sometimes "change" occurs when we realize something that was there the entire time. Sure, I was hoping Atticus would remain steadfast in his commitment to doing what is right all the time because that’s what I had inferred his character to stand for. But what Watchman does is make me think that our understanding of characters is limited. We attach to certain ones and, like I have done, come to idolize them—and even Jean Louise admits that she did this to her father.
But Watchman also made me reconsider what I knew to be true about Atticus: his doing what he believed is right isn’t necessarily because he was trying to change the attitudes and views of the citizens of Maycomb. It’s because he’s an attorney through and through, and it’s the law that stands above everything else. I found myself re-reading the argument between Scout and her father. I want to read that to my students.
I also want to highlight these golden lines and wise moments with my students.
Toward the end of the book, this conversation between Uncle Jack and Scout still resonates with me:
“Very well, if you won’t let me tell you what Melbourne said I’ll put it in my own words: the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right—”
Would we think about Watchman the same way if there weren’t characters that we’ve grown to consider “friends” who were wrong? Would we have had the same reactions if we saw Maycomb develop into a town that represented the opposite of what we knew to be true about the South during the civil rights movement? If Maycomb "changed" as much as we wanted it to, would this book become fantasy?
Not that I agree with Henry, Scout’s intimate friend in Watchman, but this is certainly something we have to consider, too:
“Have you ever considered that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?” (230)
This line takes me back to the Robinson trial. It takes me back to my own frustration that Atticus won yet lost or lost but won, a debate that I use to engage students in the classroom. Watchman raises these very debates that I think we’ve all wrestled with. Is the best way to make change that in which we work against everything or work within?
I end this post with yet another moment from Uncle Jack, who seems to have replaced Atticus as sage:
“Remember this also: it’s easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.”