25-Year-Old Scout Finch Might as Well Be a Brooklyn Millennial
“Go Set a Watchman” asks if we’re willing to disown our communities to stand up for our beliefs
One day a friend of mine went on an anti-Covid rant. We were out in public with a big group of people. He began shouting so everyone could hear. “The pandemic isn’t even real! The only people who have died from Covid were going to die anyway! So, they should just die.”
I was dumbfounded. He continued shouting about how the pandemic is a government ruse and that we shouldn’t have to wear masks. There was so much emotion in his rant, so much fear masked as anger. And while he had no credible sources for his claims, he believed everything he said was true. He was ready to fight anyone who disagreed.
This man is someone I usually enjoy being around. I consider him a friend. But on that day, I felt like I had to get him to change his mind or get away from him. His bald disregard for the suffering of others was like getting the wind knocked out of me. He’d just told me about how proud he was of his teenage daughter’s recent accolades in sports. I was telling him about my toddler-aged daughter’s recent developments before he started ranting. My little one has long-term healthcare needs which categorize her as “high risk” for respiratory illness. According to my friend, she should “just die” so he doesn’t have to deal with the inconvenience of wearing a mask. In the space of a few minutes I became disillusioned with him, and ready to allow the friendship to die.
This is one scene out of a million just like it. Stories about division among loved ones, colleagues, and neighbors are plenty: The Covid-19 pandemic, mask mandates, systemic racism, protests and policing, LGBTQ rights and representation, even conspiracy theories. It seems there is always a reason to get angry online, to post headlines passive-aggressively. It seems there is always a new topic for people to debate, often around the life and health of any number of particular groups.
We’ve all had someone close to us reveal fearful, unreasonable beliefs—the racist joke you don’t see coming in the group text, or the angry outburst about how there should be more incarcerations at the border during a family gathering. And the surprise often goes both ways. I’ve had friends be shocked that I would even consider getting the Covid vaccine, or that I would allow my children to attend school wearing a mask. On some level, everyone is wrestling with questions and disillusionment.
How can we move beyond this season? When we’re faced with friends or family spewing hate how can we help them see beyond themselves? Are we better off just distancing ourselves from them?
These are the questions that keep me awake. So in an effort to sleep better, I’ve been turning off screens earlier. My hope is that getting lost in a good novel will help me avoid marinating in stress over night. I was pleasantly surprised that in a book published before anyone knew what the Coronavirus was, at a time when Donald Trump was considered only a businessman and TV star, I found a friend in such disillusionment. I read Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee and became reacquainted with Jean Louise “Scout” Finch.
In Go Set a Watchman, the young tomboy of To Kill a Mockingbird is now twenty-five and has lived in New York City for several years. The novel opens with her en route for Maycomb County. From her first moment in town, Jean Louise takes part in a series of encounters demonstrating that things are different than they used to be back home. Much of those differences are found in the two men in her life. Her father, the famed lawyer Atticus Finch, is now too old and arthritic to pick her up from the station. Henry Clinton, her childhood friend turned boyfriend, waits there instead. But Henry, too, has changed. He’s more serious about getting married than he’s ever been. He seems resolute to bring Jean Louise back to Maycomb for good. Readers are given a sense that, while some things never change in a small town, like the “inevitable verbena” growing in people’s yards, the people in Maycomb are different than they used to be.
But not all of these changes are so easy to see at first glance. One Sunday afternoon Atticus and Henry casually leave for a Citizens’ Council meeting. (Citizens’ Council meetings were a movement in the South by white supremacists that were opposed to the 1954 government mandated desegregation of schools.) Jean Louise surreptitiously follows them. She learns that her father is on the board of directors and that Henry is “one of the staunchest members.” Watching from the segregated balcony of the old courthouse, she discovers that the two of them are part of a coalition that opposes desegregation in Maycomb. They have aligned themselves with White men who spew the n-word and other epithets, men attempting to marshal strength in numbers against not only Black people in the South, but against the ruling of the U.S. government. How prophetic this scene turned out to be, given the January 6th violent insurrection.
Feeling lost and betrayed, Jean Louise sneaks out of the meeting, attempting to process what she has learned about her loved ones. The cognitive dissonance of seeing Atticus embrace and enable virulent, state sanctioned racism is similar to what I experienced with my friend, and what many folks have experienced since the pandemic began, or perhaps since Donald Trump was elected. Maintaining strong relationships with loved ones and friends has perhaps never been more challenging. Like Jean Louise, many of us are standing in the courthouse balcony, watching loved ones down below trafficking in fear, hate, and lies. Many folks are wondering just what the hell is going on.
Where I live in west Michigan, a region steeped in conservative religion, deep disillusionment with my community has been easy to come by and impossible to ignore.
During the runup to the 2016 election one of my closest family members—a Bible study leader—said to me, “Well, what’s wrong with building a wall? And what’s wrong with getting people who don’t belong here back to their own country?” I was speechless. What happened to “love your neighbor as yourself”?
Similarly, during the late spring of 2020, when the country was adjusting to new rules about wearing masks after the early shutdowns, I was with an older, longtime friend. He had been a mentor of mine through my church when I was a teen. He told me with wild eyes and religious fury in his voice that he refused to wear a mask because covering his face was “to cover the very image of God.” There was no trace of irony in his voice, despite the fact that many years ago, this same man taught me how to operate a snowmobile during a particularly cold Michigan winter. He had implored me to wear a mask and snow goggles when doing so, for safety’s sake. God didn’t seem to mind then.
Both of these conversations were balcony moments for me. A loved one and a mentor, both prioritizing their individual happiness and comfort over the health and well-being of others, and refusing to partake in reasonable solutions to complex problems.
As Go Set a Watchman continues, other experiences about town cause Jean Louise to realize that while things change, lying beneath the southern charm in Maycomb is a deep-seated racism that has been there all along. She attends a coffee party with old friends where conspiracy theories about why Black people want equal rights abound. She also visits the home of their longtime Black housekeeper, Culpernia, and comes to see a longstanding distance between them that she’s never noticed, a distance Culpernia had always lived with.
Jean Louise grows increasingly more disillusioned by her community as the novel progresses. She finds their reactions to their contemporary social and political realities incomprehensible, and what’s worse is how they justify their bigotry. In a room full of gossipy neighbors, she wonders:
“Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have taken for right and wrong these people have taught me—these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me.”
Readers can substitute their personal ideological background into the larger crisis of faith Jean Louise refers to. This crisis of faith is why reading, or rereading Go Set a Watchman is instructive today. It asks what can be done when disillusionment with one’s core community runs this deep—so deep that one might literally lose their religion.
There was an uproar when Go Set a Watchman was published. It was touted as the “lost” novel by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who’d only published one book. It was suspected to be the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Authoring a single novel of such gravitas garnered Harper Lee a Salinger-like legend. For some fans, this “found” manuscript held the promise of the Dead Sea Scrolls—divine revelation.
But reviewers were upset by what the story reveals about Atticus Finch. Like Jean Louise, they were bewildered and angry to see their hero fall from grace. Readers are told that Jean Louise had “confused [her] father with God.”
Atticus’s actions are explained at the end of the novel by his eccentric brother, Uncle Jack:
“The law is what he lives by. He’ll do his best to prevent someone from beating up somebody else, then he’ll turn around and try to stop no less than the Federal Government…he’ll always do it by the letter and by the spirit of the law. That’s the way he lives.”
Atticus represents the prevalent collective Southern thought regarding racial integration during the civil rights era. He’s not a militant supremacist like a Klan member, but he’s happy to reinforce systemic injustice in order to maintain the status quo. As ugly as this is, readers don’t need Atticus to be perfect or even admirable to gain insight from the story. His flawed character is one of the more important elements in the book. His actions and motivations demonstrate how insidious and sometimes subtle racism can be. They also illuminate the systems in place that make racism so easy to preserve. Fear and hate can be intellectualized and quietly reinforced through the legal system.
So, what is the answer to the question Go Set a Watchman is asking? How can we handle deep, profound disillusionment in our loved ones, our communities, and our systems of faith?
As Jean Louise tries to escape Maycomb, Uncle Jack provides the answer:
“You’ve no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you’ve been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, ‘I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’ You’d better take time for’em honey, otherwise you’ll never grow.”
After forcing her to stay in Maycomb—a violent encounter that could be the subject of another essay—Uncle Jack explains that by running from those she disagrees with, she herself is a “turnip-sized bigot.” He continues:
“The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right.”
I need this good medicine as much as anyone, but it’s a hard pill to swallow when friends and loved ones are antagonistic and dismissive of not just opposing views, but factual evidence. When the people who taught you not to lie subscribe to conspiracy theories or pervert their religion in order to justify their actions, you are encountering hypocrisy of the highest order.
In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise must choose: either run from those she disagrees with, or stay with people who are blind to the injustices they enable. Many of us are confronted with this choice today.
Can there be a third option when coping with such disillusionment? Isn’t it wise to separate ourselves from toxic communities, even if we still love and care for the individuals within them?
In the heat of the moment, I couldn’t find a third way when my friend was ranting. Harper Lee doesn’t show us a third way either. While Go Set a Watchman takes place in a time period that readers will study for decades to come, I suspect it will never have the same impact as To Kill a Mockingbird—not because of its dubious origins, but because of its too-simple resolution. The book ends with violent drama and an uncomplicated dichotomy—go or stay. It’s a powerful ending, but violence is a terrible teacher, and real-life is more nuanced than simple dichotomies. (The ending may be the best evidence that this really was a first draft. It needs work.) No matter how much you love someone there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to help them see reason. You may always be on opposing sides of an issue. If history is an indicator for what’s in store tomorrow, then more cultural crises are in our future. The choice that Jean Louise faces with her family is one we will continue to face. Go Set a Watchman reminds us that while we cannot control someone else’s growth, we have some say over your own. If Uncle Jack is right, our friends and family need us. Perhaps the greatest lesson is in the book’s failure: in real life, we can write a new ending for our stories. We can find a better way.