“For thus hath the Lord said unto me,
Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”
“There’s nothing like a blood-curdling hymn to make you feel at home,” Scout Finch says during her first church service back in Maycomb, Alabama. Now a 26-year-old woman who goes by Jean Louise, she leaves New York for two weeks each year to return to her roots in the South. While she’s no longer the inquisitive child we met in To Kill a Mockingbird, she’s still the same firecracker of a person enamored with her father.
That is, until she discovers her father, the beloved Atticus Finch, is a racist.
To understand how the heroic lawyer who defended a wrongfully accused African American man in court became a bigoted old man, you have to understand one simple fact: Atticus Finch came into this world a bigoted old man.
Touted as To Kill a Mockingbird’s “sequel,” Go Set a Watchman is reportedly the original story. Written before Mockingbird, Watchman began as an early draft that highlighted Harper Lee’s promise as a writer and snagged her an editor. A couple years of rewrites later, gone was 26-year-old Jean Louise in favor of 6-year-old tomboy Scout. The rest is history.
Rather, it was history, until Lee’s lawyer discovered the Watchman manuscript. Without Lee’s own watchman—her recently deceased older sister, Alice—there was no one left to advocate on behalf of Lee’s interests. But a state-ordered investigation found no evidence of elder manipulation or abuse, and Lee’s lawyer assured us how happy the author was to finally publish this novel. Now we’re left with a book we were potentially never meant to read, from an author who’s suggested in the past that it would remain unpublished.
In short, Atticus Finch was born a racist in Lee’s imagination, but we were never supposed to recognize him as such.
Jean Louise, like the reader, is completely disillusioned by this discovery. Upon finding Atticus in a Citizens’ Council meeting (think the supremacist dogma of the Klan without the violence), she comes to this realization:
The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man he had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly and shamelessly.
Atticus Finch, the man whose wisdom inspired generations and garnered him the #1 slot on AFI’s Greatest Heroes List, doesn’t exist.
In his place, we have a man who favors political and social stability over racial equality. A man who once said, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience,” but now finds his own conscience silent. It’s heartbreaking.
Mockingbird gave us a savior in Atticus Finch. Watchman proves the savior wasn’t real in the way we believed.
Uncle Jack, Atticus’ younger brother who debuts in Watchman, explains it best when he tells Jean Louise, “As you grew up … you confused your father with God.”
If you want to safeguard the Atticus you’ve grown to love, don’t read Go Set a Watchman. But if you want to explore the origins of Mockingbird, pick up the novel. You’ll find the veil of childhood innocence stripped away, and perhaps it’s about time. Where Mockingbird boasts idealism and redemption, Watchman highlights reality. Maybe we’re due to grow up alongside little Scout Finch.