AUGUST 14, 2015
BOOKLOVERS throughout the country, and around the world, have been reading in horror as the venerable hero of their youth, Atticus Finch, is portrayed in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman as a stereotypical white Southern racist. Among other gems from this heretofore paragon of impartiality, we hear him explain to Scout: “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”
Much has already been made of the controversial circumstances surrounding the release of this book. As The Washington Post and others have reported, the 89-year-old Lee, who suffered a stroke in 2007 and now lives in an assisted-living home, never talked about wanting to publish it at all. Only after her 103-year-old sister died last fall did her current lawyer and international rights agent team up to announce the publication of Watchman, which has sold over 1.1 million copies to date.
Upon reading the book, the reasons for not wanting to publish it become apparent. Notwithstanding the claims of the publisher, Watchman cannot be read as a sequel to Mockingbird, but as a completely different book, a first effort by a novice novelist to get at the thorny issues of racism that she witnessed firsthand in her nevertheless beloved hometown. As Joe Nocera argues in The New York Times, the book cannot plausibly stand as a separate entity. It is simply Lee’s first stab at writing about her family and the puzzle of race. It is apparent when rereading Mockingbird that she cannibalized certain aspects of Watchman when she created the second novel built to stand on its own — to replace Watchman — that a writer of two sequential novels never would do. For example, she provides very similar descriptions of the town of Maycomb’s history, arising from a pig farmer named Sinkfield and a governor named William Wyatt Bibb.
Because Go Set a Watchman does not purport to be linked to Mockingbird as one Harry Potter novel to another, it does not make sense to link the fictional Atticus of one book to the other. The two novels are two efforts at getting at Lee’s dichotomous experience of racism in the South: that the very people she grew up around and loved could be full of such venom and hate. But one aspect of Watchman has not generated as much commentary and was only hinted at in Mockingbird: the writer’s proto-feminist rejection of the Southern ideal of womanhood.
Not only does Watchman’s Jean Louise reject her smothering aunt’s embodiment of demure, ladylike manners and her beau’s instructions on how to keep a man (by never contradicting him), she also confronts her own father. As a former politician and esteemed lawyer, he is liable to, and does, beat her at the debate, much to the novel’s misfortune. But for a novel written around 1957, long before The Feminist Mystique broke open the subject for a generation of writers, this aspect of Watchman reveals Lee’s agenda in portraying a grown woman, herself, who challenges the female role she is supposed to play.
In Mockingbird, of course, we see Scout as a tomboy, wandering around in overalls, raised without a mother. But she is just a child, and her failure to conform to sexual stereotypes is accordingly much less threatening. What is fascinating, however, was Lee’s decision to alter the case that her father had actually defended, in real life — a murder trial — with a rape case in her fiction. Perhaps unintentionally, Lee altered her past in order to expose the sexual construct of life in the South, in which the mere hint of accusation of raping a white woman was used for generations to justify the summary execution of black men, and in which the mass of Southern women led rigidly proscribed lives.
Like the Atticus in Mockingbird, the Atticus in the earlier Watchman was an attempt to represent her rejection of her town’s casual racism. In Watchman, the second half is an almost unreadable series of speeches between Scout and various adversaries (including her uncle, her beau, and, of course, her father) regarding the men’s participation in the Maycomb “Citizens’ Council,” a white organization dedicated to challenging the Supreme Court’s attempt to desegregate the South. In so doing, Lee gives enormous space on the page to a series of arguments that look as feeble now as they doubtless seemed irrefutable then. (How could the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education forget the 10th Amendment? Isn’t it obvious that if the Negroes have the right to vote then every county official will be Negro?) But the most unpalatable section of Watchman arises in listening to Scout herself agree with Atticus that “they’re backward, that they’re illiterate, that they’re dirty and comical and shiftless and no good, they’re infants and they’re stupid, some of them, but we haven’t agreed on one thing and we never will. You deny that they’re human.” If that was Lee’s call to arms in Watchman, we all owe a debt of gratitude to her editor for suggesting that she refashion the story and focus on her youth.
What can we learn from the contrast? If Lee’s overall motivation was to capture her hatred of racism in the South, what is the effectiveness of the devices in the one book over the other? In Watchman, she sets out to write a painfully direct confrontation with her father, which is all the more excruciating in her eventual capitulation to him in the final chapter. By contrast, what Mockingbird did, and did so well, was present counterfactual evidence to the biases of its time. If people thought Negroes were “shiftless and no good” (and, apparently, even Scout did at the time), what more sympathetic move than to show black characters who are faithful, honest, generous, and virtuous? And if even the most worthy Southern gentleman was running to the Citizens’ Council and voicing his opposition to integrating the schools, what better counter-stereotype than to showcase a white lawyer standing with the wrongly accused black man?
The best antidote to a stereotype is to produce evidence contrary to that stereotype. Studies on implicit bias have shown that one of the most effective ways to combat racial bias is by presenting counter-stereotypical examples. Perhaps this is why Mockingbird is intuitively understood to present such a powerful argument to fight bias — even though commentators have long pointed out that even the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird was hardly a rabid activist for racial equality, having stepped up to represent Robinson only because a judge ordered it. However imperfect, Atticus Finch did not embody the stereotypical white Southern racist, just as Tom Robinson did not embody the stereotypes of his time. Both challenged our assumptions in a way that the popular culture of the time could understand and accept.
After she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, there was no need for Lee to publish Watchman — it had, after all, merely been an early effort that was abandoned after her editor encouraged her to focus on the young Scout. But even had Lee been tempted to rework Watchman so that it could become fully realized, the effort would have been for naught. Once Mockingbird was recognized as a classic of antiracism, the later Atticus could only do more harm than good. As we can see from the reaction to Watchman, it merely contradicts the more positive statements against racism that she made in Mockingbird. The message in Watchman, flawed as the book is, seems to be that even a lawyer willing to represent an innocent black man accused of rape in the 1930s was not willing to allow the Supreme Court to tell the South to end Jim Crow and force integration in the 1950s. And while that is of course the truth, it was (and is) such an ugly truth that it is hard to imagine it capturing the public’s imagination in the way that Mockingbird did. To the contrary, as Lee probably guessed that it would, a racist Atticus Finch merely dampens the call to justice of all those who thought that, just maybe, another world was possible.
So while the Atticus Finch of Watchman is perhaps the believable older incarnation of the younger, it doesn’t matter. These are works of fiction, first and foremost, in the service of a tall order: starting a national conversation on race. Lee succeeded in telling a tale to inspire generations of lawyers, as well as the wider public, to imagine the possibility of a different world, in which a Southern white man was willing to put aside his racism and provide the protection of the law to a black man, even though all those around him did not. But it is only with the publication of Watchman that we can see the extent of Lee’s other agenda — to challenge the gender stereotypes that stifled her and led her to flee to New York. And while we can mourn that such a gifted writer did not produce another fully realized novel, we should honor that choice, and not try to evaluate Watchman as the sequel it is not.