July 24, 2015
Lawyers are often not held in high esteem, unless of course, you need one. “Go Set a Watchman,” the new novel by Harper Lee, has done nothing to improve the image of lawyers.
More than a half century ago, Lee published her first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “Watchman” is her second. “Mockingbird” introduced adoring fans to Atticus Finch. A small-town Alabama lawyer, Finch has inspired young men and women to pursue careers in the law for decades.
Atticus, as his children Jem and Scout referred to him, was a beacon of integrity in a state “dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification.’”
Lee won a Pulitzer Prize for “To Kill a Mockingbird” and never released another book until last week when HarperCollins released “Go Set a Watchman.”
Both stories are told through the eyes of Scout — Jean Louise Finch. In “Mockingbird,” Scout is a child of six through nine; in “Watchman” she is an adult of 26.
Although “Watchman” is a sequel to “Mockingbird,” it was written prior to “Mockingbird.” This curious alignment gives rise to some inconsistency. For those familiar with “Mockingbird,” Jean Louise thinks back to her father’s memorable trial at the Maycomb Courthouse. However, Jean Louise’s memory is not the same as ours. The defendant, Tom Robinson, did not have his arm “chopped off,” he was not acquitted and the case did not have overtures of consensual sex between a black man and a white woman.
What Lee does effectively is to bring her readers, through Jean Louise, back to the courtroom where Jean Louise was most proud of Atticus and reveal him not as a stalwart litigator seeking justice, but as an unabashed racist.
Lee also reveals that Atticus — this much revered man of principle and integrity — was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, albeit according to his apprentice, as a means to find out who was under those hoods, “[Y]our daddy did and still does get mighty uncomfortable around folks who cover up their faces.”
Jean Louise, crushed by what she discovers, confronts her father, “I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again.”
“Watchman” is the story of a young woman coming to terms with her father, her hometown and her life.
Atticus, who was an effective and competent jurist in “Mockingbird,” is revealed as a lawyer intimidated by the legal prowess of the NAACP and frightened by the changes thrust upon the South by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Atticus tells Jean Louise, “You do not seem to understand that the Negroes are still in their childhood as a people.”
We knew little about Atticus after “Mockingbird,” except that in a single trial he was a stand-up guy in the face of strong community opposition. “Watchman” portrays Atticus as a complicated and layered character — no different than any other man or woman.
Just like others we exalt because of a single battle, a heroic feat, an extraordinary athletic accomplishment or for taking a wrong and making it right, there is more to that person than a single point in time.
Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad and most often it’s both. The question that “Go Set a Watchman” raises is quite simple: Do we accept the flaws and move forward, or do we let the pangs of disappointment force us to walk away?
Even in the world of make believe nobody is perfect.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.To read more CLICK HERE