Like almost every other Language Arts teacher in America, I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Harper Lee’s new novel, a freshly-discovered sequel to her Pulitzer-prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird. The release of the new book, Go Set a Watchman, comes amid controversy about the portrayal of the character Atticus Finch, long revered as a noble and humane man who, in his quiet and unassuming way, fights for justice for the African American community in Jim Crow South, despite the perils of such a stance. Critics of the new book assert that Atticus is not so noble in Lee’s second book.
Here’s what I think. To Kill a Mockingbird fits the definition of a bildungsroman; that is, a novel that describes and interprets the process of growing up as experienced by the main character, who is almost always a child. In Mockingbird, the child is six-year-old Jean Louise Finch, known affectionately as Scout, the daughter of Atticus Finch. Now, most people would concede that one of the most universal experiences when growing up is recognizing that parents are not perfect. Scout, who clearly and unabashedly idolizes her father, is not confronted with this fact of life until, in Watchman, she returns to her home town on vacation as a twenty-six-year-old New York City dweller. The novel is not really about how Atticus changes; it’s about how Jean Louise changes. How she continues the process of growing up. In this way, the novel is an unusual kind of bildingsroman in that it describes and interprets the process of growing up as experienced by an adult character.
This new book is not likely to win the author another Pulitzer prize, but it does masterfully turn characters that might, upon close examination, appear to be somewhat flat into more round characters. By that I mean less one-dimensional and more multi-dimensional. More human. And Lee does make an attempt to explain the Southern perspective regarding the Civil War, and although I can’t say I understood that explanation very well, I can say that the discussion is very timely when considering the recent debates over what it really means to fly a Confederate flag over government buildings in the Deep South. And, considering the revelations about Atticus presented in this new book, the novel adds to the ongoing conversation about the blight of racism, in both overt and subtle forms.
Read Go Set a Watchman. You’ll find much to think about. After all, isn’t that one of the primary functions of literature?