The details of Go Set a Watchman are beginning to emerge, and they are not pretty. There is already much weeping and gnashing of teeth, and I imagine that the outrage will only escalate as we learn more about this story. However, I don’t expect to hear a lot of lasting anguish from my people. Southern folks are not known for many things, but we are good at stubborn, fierce loyalty, and we will band together to flatly ignore anyone who slanders our heroes, even if the voice of calumny is the same one who gave us that hero in the first place. This new book, as my people would say, ain’t no count. I have little concern that anyone from my proud state will care about Go Set a Watchman once they learn what it is.
But what, exactly, is it? A fine question, but because the answer is unclear, better to first ask what it is not.
Go Set a Watchman is not sequel. Having said that, the tendency to view it as a sequel is totally understandable. The characters from To Kill a Mockingbird have aged considerably in Go Set a Watchman. Because they are older, the details of their lives appear to us as developments rather than expository fact. Our natural inclination is to link these two stories together and forge a connection between them to make it a comprehensive narrative.
But this approach is incorrect for a multitude of reasons. Go Set a Watchman isn’t a sequel at all; it is the original manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird. According to the NY Times (and several other credible news sources), Ms. Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first. It was rejected by publishers, but an editor saw its promise and advised Ms. Lee to rewrite the story from the perspective of Scout as a child. Ms. Lee followed that advice and produced To Kill a Mockingbird, which became a literary sensation that has endured to this day. She only recently decided to publish Go Set a Watchman, and even that decision is surrounded by suspicion and controversy. (I’ll let you google that on your own if you’re interested.)
All of this would be well and good if the stories complemented each other. But alas, they do not, at least not according to early reviews. Much to our collective chagrin, reports detail major deviations from the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, including (SPOILER ALERT) a racist Atticus. This has distressed fans across the country. A racist Atticus? In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is a noble Southerner’s dream. He is faithful to his principles, sharpened by integrity, brave and true and wise. He holds all of that virtue while maintaining an ordinary existence among his people. He is quietly faithful to the truth, whatever that means, whatever that costs him. And now, in Go Set a Watchman, he admits to dabbling in the Klan? As horrified as we all are by this revelation, the printed word stands. Disappointing? Sure. Heartbreaking? Absolutely. But in some sense, this is still Ms. Lee’s world, and if she wants to ruin it, that’s her right.
Except it’s not.
Because Ms. Lee has done a very curious thing in releasing this story. According to this review, the characters themselves are not the only elements of the story that have changed. The facts of the story themselves are different. Specifically, the major hinge of To Kill a Mockingbird, that Tom Robinson is falsely accused and found guilty of rape, is reversed. In Go Set a Watchman, he is acquitted. If we apply a tiny dose of logic here, we find that these two stories cannot coexist.
And that revolutionizes the reading hierarchy as we know it.
In a typical novel, the author tells the reader a story, and the reader listens to the story and responds in a fairly predictable way that is directed largely by the events of the story. The author can choose to exert varying degrees of control over the reader’s response by choosing how to deliver the story. But Ms. Lee’s forthcoming novel does not offer us an addition to the original story. Instead, it offers an alternative. If the reports are true, we cannot legitimately believe both stories. She has abdicated her role as master of Maycomb. We must select a version of events, an Atticus, a Scout. We must decide not how to respond, but which story is right.
As far as I know, this is unprecedented in the literary world. Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel. Nor is it a version of the story told by a secondary authority, as we find in movie versions of novels. It is a different story, a story that demands reader interaction. We have to choose.
Ms. Lee has given us so many great gifts. She gave us Scout and Atticus and Boo. She gave us a way to triumph over seething, visceral hatred with steadfast, loyal love. She gave us all of these things in a story that endures through decades of radical change and across cultural and racial divides. And the story will endure through this renegade as well. We’ll come out on the other side with Maycomb intact, flanked by Scout and Dill and watched over by Boo. A good story is like a good phoenix, bursting into flames every so often then resurrecting itself from the ashes. Nothing can ruin Ms. Lee’s story for us. Not even, it seems, Ms. Lee.
If you have been my student, I have taught you to love Mr. Finch. If you grew up in Alabama, you probably learned to love him on your own. If you’ve read the book and your soul isn’t cold and dead, I’ll wager that you love Atticus. And I tell you now: You can, and should, continue to love him. He is totally unaffected by this new character. They share a name, and perhaps share a history, but they are not the same. Rest easy. Atticus Finch is alright.
Amanda Wortham is a staff writer at Christ and Pop Culture. When she’s not thinking and writing about cultural happenings, she teaches literature to a fantastic group of teenagers at a classical Christian high school. Amanda lives a little south of Birmingham with her husband, Ben, and their splendid little girls.