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Delve Seminar Summary: The Novels of Harper Lee

[by Chelsea Stone]

When Jean Louise goes home to Maycomb at the outset of Go Set a Watchman, she is twenty-­five years old. She returns to find that the mythic figure she has built her father into may have clay feet.

When Watchman came out this summer, I was twenty-­five years old. In preparing to read it, I was returning to a beloved author and story, terrified I would find much the same.

I had seen the headlines. I had peeked at the first chapter, published online in advance of the book release. I knew what they were all saying.

Atticus Finch, civil rights lawyer—and the kind of parent every plucky (and literary) tomboy wanted—was a racist.

I didn’t know if I wanted to read Watchman in the face of that. Why would I ruin Atticus, I thought, when, by simply not reading the book, I could keep To Kill a Mockingbird as the pure and shining fable it was in my mind?

Literary Arts, a Portland-based nonprofit with the mission of engaging readers, supporting writers, and inspiring the next generation with great literature, hosts “Delve Seminars,” a cross between a class and book club where participants discuss a specific text or texts centered around an identified subject. Having attended a number of their events, I occasionally get mailers from them. One day, I opened my mailbox to find a pamphlet with Delve Seminar course listings. At the top: “Maycomb Revisited: The Novels of Harper Lee.”

I was transfixed by the possibility. Silly as it may seem, I didn’t know if I could read Watchman alone. I remember thinking that maybe I could do it as an academic exercise in which I could sufficiently divorce my emotions from the experience. Perhaps that way, it wouldn’t ruin Atticus.

I signed up for the seminar, and in doing so, I, together with my classmates, uncovered a book, which, when coupled with To Kill a Mockingbird, I believe to be one of the most important texts of the decade.

In the seminar, we began by discussing Harper Lee, a natural enough jumping off point given the controversy and mystery surrounding Watchman’s publication. Watchman is, after all, the first draft of Mockingbird and that small snippet of information alone is enough to engender a myriad of questions, and indeed, it provoked what ultimately became our central inquiry: how—and why—did Watchman become Mockingbird?

Mockingbird is a Bildungsroman, a term I learned in the seminar. It’s a German word that refers to a coming-­of-­age story, a story in which a protagonist moves from youth to adulthood. Scout grows up a lot when she witnesses the trial, conviction, and death of Tom Robinson, moving from a state of innocence to something a little more jaded, and a little more aware.

But Mockingbird isn’t just Scout’s coming-­of-­age story; it’s a part of our coming-­of-­age story, too. It’s a literary staple, and through its discussion of the black experience in the South, it brought the civil rights movement into the living rooms of Americans across the country. It roused their horror and indignation as they, right along with Scout, saw the hypocrisy and immorality that surrounded Tom Robinson. It, in a very real way, through its massive popularity and conviction that one’s principles are worth fighting for, moved us forward as a more united nation.

It helped bring us here. Watchman, I believe, can help take us farther—because Watchman is a Bildungsroman, too, and just like Mockingbird, it has the potential to advance a civil rights dialogue and become a part of our journey to a more accepting and equal society.

Most of us are familiar with the realization that our parents are human, and Jean Louise’s discovery that her father is racist, even at the ripe old age of twenty-­five, is a significant part of her growing up. Her acknowledgment that Calpurnia’s feelings toward her family may not be as rosy as she always imagined, too, is a major realization on her journey to self-­awareness. They are unpleasant and inconvenient truths, and she rails against them. When discussing Atticus’ (prejudiced) attitudes toward black people with him, she cries, “You double-dealing, ring-­tailed old son of a bitch! You just sit there and say ‘As you please’ when you’ve knocked me down and stomped on me and spat on me, you just sit there and say ‘As you please’ when everything I ever loved in this world’s—you just sit there and say ‘As you please’— you love me! You son of a bitch!”

In the process of her disillusionment, her entire world upends.

That kind of world-upending is just what I think we could use right now.

When Mockingbird came out in 1960, society wasn’t ready for that kind of upending. I don’t think Watchman would have sold then. We weren’t ready for that level of discomfort. It would have been too much.

We’re ready for it now, and if we’re not, we need it now. Mockingbird, in so many ways, is easy. It doesn’t challenge your preconceptions so much as it allows you to sympathize with the most sympathetic narrator there is—a child. Scout, even with her odd maturity, is a child, and when we read her story, we ease and flow over the lessons and morals in the way of a child: without judgment and without strife. Scout isn’t set in her ways. She’s six at the beginning of the story—she barely has ways! There is nothing for her to overcome. She is a blank slate, and when she sees the injustice perpetrated against Tom Robinson, and we see it along with her, it’s easy to pat her and ourselves on the back and feel superior for our enlightenment.

Watchman isn’t easy. It’s uncomfortable. It’s honest. Jean Louise has ideas, and she has convictions and beliefs, and they’re challenged. In Watchman, Harper Lee has removed the kid gloves, and we see the ugliness of Atticus’ prejudice. We see the ugliness of Jean Louise’s prejudice.

And we see the ugliness of our own prejudice—and it’s in this way, in confronting those challenges and looking for them in our own lives, that we become honest watchmen of ourselves. Atticus is not ruined in Watchman; he is made human, human like Jean Louise. Human like us. That humanity, and the hope that in honestly declaring what we see, that we, too, can grow, is Watchman’s greatest strength.

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