Go Set A Watchman: The media missed the mark

Author’s Note: Plot details are divulged: Spoiler Alert.

July 14, 2015 marked a historic day for the literary world as Harper Lee released her first new text in 55 years, Go Set A Watchman. Instead of celebrating this gift to the literary community, most media outlets have focused solely on one aspect of the text. As usual, a narrow-minded focus has worked to tear down this significant text and its author, thus overlooking or ignoring the broader elements and overall theme of the text. I believe most of the media has grossly failed to see the larger picture, by their branding of Atticus Finch as a racist and their overlooking Scout’s contribution to the text.

Go Set A Watchman addresses race relations. Personally this text deals with answering to one’s conscience when faced with adversity. In my opinion, the overlooked point of the novel can be found on pages 264 and 265. These pages read, “Every man’s island, Jean Louise [Scout], every man’s watchman is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.” Atticus is merely the backdrop bringing the theme of Scout staying true to her morals and her “watchman” (conscience) to the forefront. Media outlets focusing exclusively on Atticus’ racism have missed the mark of Lee’s text, thus doing the work a grave injustice.   

On the day of the book’s long awaited release, The New York Times ran an article entitled “The Name Atticus Acquires an Unwelcome Association.” The subject of the article is exactly what the title states. Parents, who named their children Atticus, are worried racism will be associated with their children since the text’s release. Some parents even went as far as changing their children’s name from that of the beloved character. After some research, I found people are so preoccupied with the name Atticus but have failed to show concern that children are named after the seven deadly sins (all but gluttony), or if those who are named after Disney villains will be guilty by association. The New York Times solitary focus on the name Atticus further devalues Lee’s idea of one’s watchman.   

In fact most articles associated with the release of Go Set A Watchman contain derivatives of “Atticus Finch is an overt racist.” This exact phrase can be found in the article, which appeared in The New Yorker, entitled “The Atticus We Always Knew.” While a great deal of articles critiquing Go Set A Watchman make no mention of the main protagonist Scout and her search to break free of the world’s “collective conscience.” It is not until the very end of “The Atticus We Always Knew” does interviewee Mary Murphy state, “The character of Scout […] is an innocent, and she’s trying to find her own way in this very imperfect time.” After scouring articles surrounding the book’s release, it seems that someone has finally taken it upon themselves to state, that the world is imperfect, those heroes we admire are not perfect either and it is up to our own watchman to develop a sense of morality.

Personally, the only article I could find portraying the full story of the text appeared in National Public Radio under the title, “Go Set A Watchman’ Is A Revelation On Race, Not A Disappointment” written by Errin Whack. Whack speaks of Atticus’ racism and his thoughts on the race movement advancing too quickly. However her main focus is on Scout as an emerging hero, and how the truths of life can be hard to accept as these truths often fall within a gray area of morality. Whack is so far the only author to make mention of the biblical verse from Isaiah 21:6 that contains Lee’s watchman idea.

Looking past the one-sided, unjust media portrayal of Go Set A Watchman, I will continue to adore Harper Lee as an insightful human being as well the author of TWO revolutionary literary works. The media should accept Go Set A Watchman for what it is, a long awaited gift from a beloved author.