That said, I found the book fascinating.
What makes it so fascinating is the portrayal of Atticus Finch--the upstanding lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird--as a director of his local Citizens Council. As W. Ralph Eubanks writes over at What It Means To Be American,:
"It is difficult to see how the Atticus of 1935 in Mockingbird would have evolved into the intolerant old man depicted more than 20 years later in Watchman."
Joe Crespino, in his NYT editorial, offers Eubanks an historian's answer to his problem. The Atticus of Mockingbird could easily have become the Atticus we meet in Watchman. Crespino argues that in Go Set a Watchman, Lee offers us:
"a guide to the complexities of Southern politics, and to the political transition of white Southerners from the Democratic to the Republican Party — a shift that has remade American political life over the last half-century — “Watchman” is actually a more revealing source than Ms. Lee’s celebrated novel."
But not only does Eubanks favor the Atticus of Mockingbird because he finds the transformation hard to understand, he favors the Atticus of Mockingbird because that Atticus fills the Southern need for "folk heroes and mythic figures." This iconic Atticus gave "permission" to white Southerners "to stand up against the gross inequities of Jim Crow laws."
Eubanks approvingly quotes Jon Meacham saying, “We all like to think Atticus Finch was our father or grandfather.” The historical reality--the one Crespino deals in--is that for most of us white people, our fathers or grandfathers are likely to be the Atticus Finch of Watchman and (if we are lucky) of Mockingbird.
Perhaps like Scout in Watchman, fifty years after Selma we have finally come of age and can move beyond the once helpful "folk heroes and mythic figures" and can face some hard truths. As Atticus explains to his daughter,
"Men tend to carry their honesty in pigeonholes, Jean Louise. They can be perfectly honest in some ways and fool themselves in other ways."The timing of the publication of this novel is remarkable. As the question of the flag, the heritage of hate and the systemic racial injustice in our country once again confronts white America, perhaps Harper Lee's second novel has a timely role to play in shaping the country just as her first novel did fifty-five years ago. Perhaps it will help us understand ways we have been fooling ourselves.