late to the party


I have commented on other people’s blog posts, but haven’t written my own on To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

My story is not unfamiliar. I was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird in my sophomore English class, the first time I was in a school that offered an “advanced” English option. I read part one the first night. I read part two the second night and stayed after class to talk about the end with my teacher, partly because I was trying to understand it and partly to show off that I had finished the book. That was my best English class in high school, and I am certain I became an English teacher because of that class, and that book was a huge part of that. It has always been my favorite “book I had to read for school.” I also taught it a few times over a decade ago.

This is a book that mattered to me. It was seminal when I read it, and I taught it a few times later. I hadn’t read it since, though, so when I finally pre-ordered Go Set a Watchman a couple weeks ago amid the stirrings of controversy, I re-read TKaM. I still love the book, but what I realized as I re-read it with concerns about GSaW in my mind, was that I never read the book for Atticus. The truth is, he’s deeply flawed, even in TKaM. For those who think he isn’t, I think they’ve conflated a powerful movie with the more nuanced but no less powerful book. Gregory Peck’s Atticus in the film is much more flawless than the character in the book. Even in TKaM there is much benevolent, paternalistic racism, even from Atticus.

I never read the book for Atticus. I read it because I loved Scout. I have a special place in my heart for part one of the book, where Scout struggles with growing up mostly parentless (though with surrogates aplenty). I have always been struck by the Mrs. Dubose part, and have defined courage by it. The second part I love for the resolution of the Boo Radley storyline. The trial, the central act of the film, is way in the background for me in terms of the book, even though I will concede, it is the defining plot point.

So. With all that behind me, I wasn’t too concerned about losing my idol in Atticus. I may have been more concerned about losing my ideal in Scout. I didn’t. I liked the new/old book a lot. It was a fascinating lesson in writing (what do you change and what do you keep the same when you change the focus of a book) and in history (what was it really like in the South in the 50s). It was also a book, a narrative, a new storyline. Here’s the spoiler******: Scout has Atticus on a pedestal, too. If the entire nation has put Atticus on a pedestal, so had Scout (Jean Louise), and the book is about her coming to terms with his humanity. Maybe it’s time we all came to terms with his–and our–humanity.

My heart was broken, though, as was Jean Louise’s. I thought she loved them, too. And maybe she did. But now she can’t. How does that not break your heart?

Here is my favorite version of grown-up Scout with Atticus. I read this poem in Kristin’s chapbook at some point, and I’m pretty sure it became “canon” for me. In the run-up to Go Set a Watchman, I was absolutely certain Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra had been “felled by the same kind of stroke.” I was a little disappointed that that wasn’t Harper Lee’s version.

(I keep trying to call it Go TELL a Watchman. Maybe from Go Tell on the Mountain. I dunno.)


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One Response to late to the party

  1. Kristin Berkey-Abbott says:

    I loved reading your expanded thoughts here. And thank you so much for linking to my poem–and for that compliment!

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