In Defense of “Go Set a Watchman”

Atticus as most of us remembered him...until now.
Atticus Finch as most of us remembered him…at least until now.

I’m not a Harper Lee fanatic. At some point in my life, I’d read To Kill a Mockingbird but it didn’t stick, at least not consciously. I’d seen the movie, and like most people, my vision of Atticus Finch merged seamlessly with Gregory Peck’s performance as the upright, warm father who gathered his daughter Scout on his lap at the end of the day and read to her over his half-glasses.

Then, when Lee’s Go Tell a Watchman received horrified early reviews that focused on the revelation that Atticus was a racist, I was intrigued.   I ended up rereading Mockingbird in a giant and appreciative gulp through this new lens, and discovered a far more complicated novel that set the foundation for Go Set a Watchman in unexpected ways.

I picked this up at midnight on July 14th at Big Blue Marble Books.
I picked this up at midnight on July 14th at Big Blue Marble Books.

The original manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was revised by Lee and her editor Tay Hohoff, and—I think—with good reason.   I joined a crowd at my local bookstore Big Blue Marble, watched the film, ate Lane Cake, and got my copy at midnight.  I started it immediately, and to some extent, my first impression remains: the novel falls flat.   Frankly, Scout as the grown-up Jean Louise with her cipher of a fiancé and her sophisticated resistance to grown-up domesticity is something of a bore, and it’s understandable that Hohoff focused on the vivid flashbacks and helped Lee reshape the book into To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yet as I kept reading, I began to see what—I think—Lee was up to.   If To Kill a Mockingbird was a kind of valentine to the invented town of Maycomb, Alabama, Go Set a Watchman is all about Maycomb’s disruption.   It’s now the late ’50s.  There are new highways through the swamps, neon signs on Main Street, and the country people like the Cunninghams have factory jobs. Most crucially, Brown vs. Board of Education has “set a watchman”—the federal government—over Maycomb. The Supreme Court that ended legal segregation of public schools is actually never mentioned by name; Atticus simply refers to it as the “Supreme Court’s bid for immortality” and lets it drop.   It isn’t until the middle of the book that we see just about every white man, including Atticus, in Maycomb’s courthouse at a Citizen’s Council meeting, listening to a hideously racist demagogue. Scout hides in the Negro balcony, observes, and afterwards, has an ice cream and vomits in the yard.

Then there’s Calpurnia.   The Finch family’s housekeeper, with the same name as Caesar’s wife, in Mockingbird, she served as a quasi-mother to Scout and her brother Jem; she taught them how to read and kept them in line.   In Watchman, early reviews warned me that  Atticus takes on the manslaughter case of Calpurnia’s grandson to ensure it wasn’t handled by the NAACP, but they didn’t mention what happens next.  When Scout decides to visit Calpurnia in the Negro Quarter, she’s met by an obsequious family and, fatally, a Calpurnia who is unrecognizably subservient, who doesn’t look her in the eye, and who insists  that of course her grandson is guilty and of course nothing can be done.

Something has shifted; a bond has been broken.   Calpurnia, who raised Scout, who– we learn in a flashback–  told her how babies were made, who mourned the death of Scout’s brother Jem to the point of agony, now relates to Scout like any other white woman, and Scout knows it. Scout says to her, “’For God’s sake talk to me right.   Don’t sit there like that.’” She gets no response, and finally simply asks, “’Tell me one thing, Cal […] please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?’” Scout has to wait a long time before Calpurnia shakes her head.

Desegregation opponents decorate a car for a protest parade, Nashville, TN, March 1956.
Desegregation opponents decorate a car for a protest parade, Nashville, TN, March 1956.

Horrible, horrible, the way that Scout can’t simply cross borders without consequences now.   Here’s another passage from Scout’s perspective: “It was not always like this, I swear it wasn’t. People used to trust each other for some reason, I’ve forgotten why.   They didn’t watch each other like hawks then. I wouldn’t get looks like that going up the steps ten years ago.” But as she’s told by her aunt later, nobody “goes to see Negroes anymore.”   Her aunt complains that for years, the white people of Maycomb have been good to them, bailed them out of jail, found them work, and now “the veneer of civilization’s so thin that a bunch of uppity Yankee Negroes can shatter a hundred years’ progress in five…”

What was “civilization” in To Kill a Mockingbird?   It was a consequence of good manners, and built on a credo that is really at the center of that book, as voiced by Atticus: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Civilized people take everyone’s point of view into consideration, and ethics and integrity are a personal matter. They are absolutely not the business of the Supreme Court.   Go Set a Watchman takes this credo seriously:   at the novel’s end, Scout herself is called a bigot. She’s intolerant of the racism of others. The Federal Government is not a valid watchman.   That watchman’s place is in the individual conscience; each person keeps her own.

This message of moral relativism is disturbing. It’s also keenly relevant. Can the problem of racism really be solved through legislation? Or more to the point, do people really behave better when they’re being watched?   Speaking from my own experience, the relationships I have with African Americans, as friends, students or colleagues seem just fine when they’re unexamined, but when I put them into the context of white privilege, I’m paralyzed with awkwardness.   It reminds me of the way young Scout is told to carry a full cup of hot coffee without looking at it; if she looks, she’ll drop it.

Yes, consciousness means the end of easy authenticity.   The warmth and freedom Scout felt as a child in the Quarter can’t come back. Is it enough for this conflict to resolve itself only in a single human heart? That’s what happens in novels, but what about the nonfictional world of segregationist Alabama, or contemporary Charleston, or my hometown of Philadelphia, or any other place where local customs conflict with an assertion of what might be called universal human rights? I’m about to leave for a two-week trip to the West Bank where settlers insist that outside agitators ruin the natural and authentic connection they have with their Palestinian neighbors.

Harper Lee, probably the age of her grown-up Jean Louise Finch.
Harper Lee, probably the age of her grown-up Jean Louise Finch.

Were Lee and her editor right to turn away from the contentious issues raised by Alabama in the ’50s, and turn back to the past?  For all its courtroom drama, To Kill a Mockingbird is an idyll, set in a time when when Roosevelt told people they had “nothing to fear but fear itself”. In the end, justice is served, not in a courtroom, but through eccentric individuals who do the right thing because it is their “way.”   It’s beautiful and moving, and ultimately feels reassuring. Now thanks to Go Set a Watchman, we have the opportunity to look at Mockingbird again, and know that Atticus was a racist all along.

Go Set a Watchman isn’t a very good novel, but it raises questions that To Kill a Mockingbird only implies.   They’re troubling questions about insiders and outsiders, about whether justice is the business of an individual or of a nation, and of whether blacks and whites, or any two groups on unequal terms, must pass through a period of anger and alienation before we can meet as equals.   Those questions aren’t fully answered.   I wonder: was there a missed opportunity to fully synthesize Atticus the Great White Hero and Atticus the Bigot?   That feels like a missed opportunity.   Essentially, Harper Lee’s work is done. It’s our job now.

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