Go Set a Watchman and the Moral Economy of Tumblr


“It is not simply a matter of undoing something whose meaning is too easy to find; to be able to know it, you have to unlearn and not think you know it from a first reading.” – Arlette Farge, Le Gout de l’Archive

This is about Go Set a Watchman, but it is also about the internet. That the two should be somehow married the way they are is tragic, but Watchman was born six decades late: in a time when the demands of fast relevance, immediate content, and quick messages have supplanted the mechanical assurance of newscopy or the tortoise-paced calculation of magazine reviewers for which it was intended. So the internet is what we have. Let’s start there.

The internet isn’t a thing, of course, apart from time. It is in time, of it. And in case you haven’t noticed, the internet right now is obsessed with reactions. MFW and TFW gifs pass over Tumblr like inflationary currency. Instead of Washingtons and Franklins, Minions and ogres and Nickelodeon stars from the Nineties rule over the vast fiefdom with a nuanced vocabulary of eye rolls, blank stares, facepalms, and raised eyebrows. Half-a-million people subscribe to /r/reactiongifs on reddit, upvoting everything from politics and culture to “MRW when I fart and enjoy the fragrance.” Youtube is a hotbed of reactions as well. 9,000,000 people have watched children react to rotary phones. 7,000,000 have watched kids listen to the Beatles. And more than 4,000,000 people—including me—have watched 7 year-old Evan try to explain a typewriter in “KIDS REACT TO TYPEWRITERS.” “It is basically like a computer,” Even tells us confidently, “all except it doesn’t have a screen. All you do is type out messages.”

This summer, the part of the internet that deals with books sounded a lot like Evan trying to explain the typewriter. “It is basically like a sequel,” the bloggers and freelance reviewers told us about Go Set a Watchman. I’m paraphrasing here. “Except Harper Lee wrote it first, before Mockingbird. And it feels icky.” This kind of treatment works well for superhero movies and video games—which, by sheer dint of numbers, are the most meaningful cultural products for most Americans right now—but it just doesn’t work for a novel written in the 1950s. Yet, for months before Watchman’s release, the biblionet rocked back and forth between anticipation and shock. Was Harper Lee exploited? Is Atticus Finch really a klansman? Is there a third manuscript out there somewhere? A producer grabbing the film rights to a Hobbit-esque movie trilogy for the NPR crowd? Driven by this never-ending hype train, Go Set a Watchman set sales records at HarperCollins.

But To Kill a Mockingbird is not a franchise. Go Set a Watchman is not an installment in that franchise. Atticus Finch is not a superhero.  Nor is Watchman a rejected draft. To treat it as such is absurd. Watchman is a completely different book.

It is brilliant. Where Mockingbird offered readers the kind of complications they could understand—bad racists, wrongfully accused innocents, children coming-of-age—Go Set a Watchman offers the more intractable frustrations of adulthood: good people who happen to be bigots, the guilt we feel by association, and the inevitable crush of aging. To Kill a Mockingbird was the book that the United States needed in 1960. As Americans struggle with many of 1960’s problems in 2015, Go Set a Watchman may be the book we need now. Lee’s meditation on coming to terms with the things we cannot change vibrates with the kind of life, humor, and wit that the square-shouldered Atticus Finch of Mockingbird might not understand. More importantly, it points readers toward the kind of empathy he would understand. Good people say and do and believe disagreeable things. We should not condone them—Scout Finch does not—but we cannot always write them out of our lives, either. The urgency of this message in a time when Americans seem violently divided yet again suggests that Watchman’s message is every bit as important as that of Mockingbird.

It is just more frustrating. Like Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman challenges us. Some booksellers have offered “refunds and apologies” to customers, advising, “we suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel.” Parents in Colorado changed their son’s name from Atticus to Lucas after reading the book. “When the new book came out,” they told a reporter from People, “we just felt like, this does not at all encompass the values that we want for our son to have and know.” Even the editors of the Chicago Tribune were challenged. “We can’t reconcile the change either,” they wrote, “as much as this elder Atticus might illustrate the way people’s views ebb and flow through life…. With so many real-life characters tumbling off their pedestals (Bill Cosby comes to mind), why knock such a noble literary hero off his?” And so on. Indeed, the merest whisper of Atticus Finch being anything other than what he was in the eyes of his six-year-old child in the depression is enough to send adults in the twenty-first century stomping straight for the exits.

Go Set a Watchman is authentically challenging. For readers trained to read the frugal moral economies and straightforward story lines of franchises, the split-second impressions of reaction gifs, or the predictable binaries of the internet’s never-ending culture wars, Harper Lee’s mid-fifties manuscript is perplexing. “Unlearning” the simple—and total—demands of hashtag morality can clear the confusion. Harper Lee’s difficult questions call for nothing less. Thankfully, her prose makes it easy.