The ongoing literary controversy over Harper Lee's newly discovered manuscript, Go, Set a Watchman, seems to mimic our attitude of downplaying the true, racist nature of the American experience – both pre- and post-1776.

The Harper Lee novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960. Since then, it has been an icon of modern American literature. It created an offshoot, cinematic icon when Gregory Peck was chosen to represent Atticus Finch, the noble protagonist of the book. The locale of the story is a small town in the southern U.S. state of Alabama. The narrator is a young girl, Scout. She and her brother spend adolescent time spying on a weird neighbor. Their widowed father is Atticus, who is a lawyer. He is a paragon of fairness and justice. He challenges the starkly racist societal norms and the Ku Klux Klan when he defends a Black man unfairly charged with rape.

Currently, Harper Lee is 88 and under hospice care. Until recently, To Kill a Mockingbird was her only known novel. Mysteriously, a novel she previously wrote suddenly surfaced. It is now published, with the awkward title, Go, Set a Watchman. The publication of this previous effort of Harper Lee's has provoked an odd, emotional controversy. There are reports that some are so offended that they refuse to read the new novel. What could evoke such a discordant tone surrounding the discovery of a new novel by the sainted, one-book wonder Nell Harper Lee? Delusion – the same auto-deception that underlies most of American national thought.

The until-now unpublished, Go, Set a Watchman, seems to be naught but an earlier telling of the Atticus Finch story. In that telling, Finch is the bad guy. Seared into the American literary mind is an Atticus Finch into whom many of us seem to have posited what we deem to be the best of ourselves. Now, we are confronted with an Attacus Finch, a racist – the very essence of that against which the Attaicus in our attic fought!

William Lloyd Garrison, the 19th century super abolitionist who spent a lifetime challenging the bigoted minds and souls of his fellow Americans, might say: Let us stop deluding ourselves. We are what we do; not what we imagine. The society got off on the wrong foot, and now that, finally, we are in step, we tend to ignore our earlier stumbling.

We can only speculate as to why the earlier Atticus was rejected and the noble Atticus put forward. Could it be that he was whitewashed in order to counteract the very ugly sentiment then emanating from the South and Southie? If so, it would be consistent with our national tendency to paper over racially spotty walls.

It is hoped that Harper Lee, in her dotage, may be able to appreciate the exposition of her earlier – perhaps more genuine --- recollection of her childhood.


Mockingbird Watchman

Curtis W. Long

Curtis W. Long

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