Recently, I was talking to my best friend about the old neighborhood. Paramount in our conversation was how small it seemed now that we had moved away, and how much smaller it becomes every time we go back. The yards that were endless countries, the streets that were so populated with individuals, friends, characters, and community pillars, the changes and the constants. The ideas we had when we lived there, back then, were small and sheltered, benignly ignorant of the greater context of the world and the adult lives we would later lead. The conversation and the sting of nostalgia in truest sense of the word–the pain of a healed wound. It is in this sentiment exactly that we find Jean Louise “Scout” Finch at the onset of the recently released and already controversial “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee.
Depending on who you ask, Watchman is either a primitive version of the monumental “To Kill A Mockingbird” or a sequel, or something in between. It is likely the latter especially considering some of the inconsistencies of events revolving around the Tom Robinson case (in Mockingbird the black man is found guilty and shot in jail and in Watchman the young black man is acquitted). However, I won’t argue that the book was clearly written first–and less meticulously edited and revised.
Inconsistencies aside, Go Set A Watchman is a fantastic addition to the world of To Kill A Mockingbird and, for a book that has supposedly been hidden and lost for almost half a century is relevant, resonant, and the capstone to a coming of age story that is as much about a girl becoming a woman as it is about a nation meeting it’s founding principals.
While the days preceding the book’s release saw an uproar around the fallibility of To Kill A Mockingbird’s most revered character, Atticus Finch, as an “unrepentant racist” in Watchmen, I find that reading to be a disservice to the narrative of the novel. Jean Louis returns from New York to Maycomb, Alabama for ten days. In that time she is confronted with the same smallness I mentioned earlier, and begins to realize that one cannot go home again and that we must surpass our parents and idols to do right by what we cherish about their character in the face of their humanity and flaws.
Where as Mockingbird is set staunchly in the Depression and the low rumbles of a pre-Civil Rights Movement southern town, Watchmen comes on the heels of the verdict from Brown v. Board of Education and the status quo is quickly upturned. Fears are everywhere that the Supreme Court has shaken up the South as bad as Reconstruction–an event that had occurred in the lives of the community elders’ fathers. The spirit of the conversation–the controversy the characters are reeling from–is as timely now as it was decades before it was written and today. It is difficult, in fact, not to question the timing of this release—and if it was indeed written before To Kill A Mockingbird as opposed to 2015.
Fresh in the minds of the citizens of Maycomb are the issue of Southern Heritage, just as today there is much to be regarding the status of the Rebel Flag; though rather than a symbol it is indeed the way of life that the seemingly genteel and “trash” white folks of this fictional Alabama town are looking to preserve. For Scout, or rather the grown Jean Louise, she has only ever thought of whites and negroes (for the most part) as folks, humans…people.
That is to say she claims to be generally colorblind to race. In reality she is willing to admit that the black population of her town is by and large ignorant, illiterate, and shiftless she recognizes their humanity, and as a group the ability of their people to do more and take the full responsibility of citizenship. These are—without a doubt—the opinions of the American racist in a way that proves colorblindness to be a fault rather than a strength, it is still light years ahead of her surroundings. Jean Louise is able to see the need for justice and is able to recognize the raw deal that black folk had been receiving.
What is difficult for her, the crux of the book, is for her to accept the role of her father, family, and everyone she ever loved in perpetuating and benefiting from that raw deal; Scout must recognize her role in the ever present fact of institutional white privilege and the pervasive psychology of Southern white supremacy.
Most shocking and shaking for Jean Louise is her father’s not only complacency, but his endorsement and leadership in the towns Citizen’s Council—a group serving as a non-violent alternative to the Klan and opposite number to the supposedly interloping lawyers of the NAACP. Atticus Finch, whom Gregory Peck’s mesmerizing baritone is forever embodied in film, the noble, impossibly trustworthy, and staunchly moral lawyer who stands in defense of Tom Robinson against the accusation of rape by town fringe rednecks is himself on the Community Council’s board and is revealed as a former Klan member.
For Jean Louise, as well as many readers, this revelation came as a shocking blow and reduced the godlike dignity of her father to a pile of ashes scattered to the four winds. While his Klan membership is explained away as the actions of a young man looking to know the faces under the hoods rather than to join in any activity or philosophy, it colors the context of Atticus’ explanation that the Klan was a “political group” rather than domestic terrorists (which is likely a definition that only rarely existed at the time and if employed was reserved for Socialists and Communists by the prevailing definition offered by McCarthy Era Propaganda).
It is a waste of time to lament the loss of a strong, well written, impossible man. This is by no means an endorsement of the fictional actions of fictional Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman, but I don’t necessarily think it makes him less the character we thought he was…rather he is more a real man in an increasingly real analogue of our own world. While the strengths of men make them admirable, flaws are what make their strengths attainable. If our heroes were not flawed we could not meet their achievements–if our parents were not flawed we could not surpass them and, thereby, do them right.
Jean Louise goes through a lengthy period in the book of coming to terms with her godlike father’s all too disappointing humanity. His views on blacks, she suddenly realizes, are deplorable though framed within his otherwise admirable ethics and conduct, he fearlessly rationalizes them. It is incredibly relevant to all our lives as we must eventually see the rust on our tin gods, melt our golden idols, and learn to have faith in ourselves if we are ever to approach the self-actualization we tend to be attracted to in our heroes.
The fact of the matter is that the Atticus we see in To Kill A Mockingbird is the ideal of a man as seen through the eyes of a five-year-old girl who worships her father. He has a simple code and is generally good: he keeps his word, he sets high standards for education and for character, he has a well-defined moral compass, and he is willing to stick up for the little guy. In addition to that Atticus gets lots of “cool points”: he’s the best shot in the county, he’s a member of the State Legislature, and he’s dressed to the nines at all times. The Atticus Finch that has permeated the public consciousness for decades has been tainted through the rose tinted glasses of a five-year-old. We only never knew it until now.
More importantly than salving the wounds of our own sympathy growing pains to Scout’s, is the conversation that occurs between the two in the climax of the book. At her wit’s end she attacks her father and finally becomes the character that we thought Atticus was all the while. Atticus defends his role on the community board with the classic line towed by Booker T. Washington; the negro community is not ready for full citizenship because they are not yet ready to be good workers, self sufficient businessmen, or otherwise.
He argues that great strides have been made towards teaching them to adapt “white ways” and “civilization” but that the culture, the society of the south (negro and white alike) where not quite there yet. The problem is that coming from Saint Atticus, a socially upward white man, this truck sounds even more like white supremacy theology than it did coming from Washington.
In the argument, Jean Louis is the reluctant Du Bois stand in (albeit watered down to the nth degree). She at first acquiesces that the Supreme Court stepped on the Tenth Amendment in Brown v. Board of Education and reveals her self to be as true a State’s Rightist as any Southerner ever was (in fact this part of the conversation seems so exceedingly relevant that it could easily be transplanted in to the recent politics about the legalization of Marriage Equality). She then goes into an acceptance mode and lays out the case that reality is reality and the fears of blacks overtaking the legislatures or integrating schools or “mongrelizing the race” are immaterial; the time would have come, and did come, and must be met.
She also says that the treatment that the white community has received from “uppity” blacks was the fruit of their own labor by lashing out against black communities rather than embracing the change and focusing their ire on the government. She claims that any other view than allowing the negro community to take their Constitutional Rights immediately is dehumanizing and that limiting the group ability is to deprive them of hope. She’s not all the way to true equality or humanism but she’s well on her way.
If Ayn Rand were still alive she would have much to learn in the area of writing philosophical conversations from Harper Lee’s emotional climax between Atticus and Scout in their discussion—though anyone ultimately receptive to the message of the discussion in Go Set A Watchmen may not be in the same target audience as those who carry Atlas Shrugged around like the King James Bible. The philosophies are laid out, close to the way humans speak, without abandoning narrative or resorting to soliloquy or rant.
This novel is by no means as hefty or literary as To Kill A Mockingbird, and Lee’s editors were certainly right to advise her to take this manuscript and focus more on the coming of age flashbacks. In going back to those Depression era stories, Lee was able to craft a nuanced, multi-layered, story alive with real characters and a palpable world and juggle numerous on-going plots—elements which are enhanced and revived in Watchmen but are not approached in terms of craft. In that regard, it felt much like reading T.H. Whyte’s “The Book of Merlyn” which is an addition to “The Once and Future King”. It was additional, clarifying material that does not stand on its own but serves to accompany the original text.
Where Lee’s text really shines is that we can all stand in Scout’s shoes as she sheds the last bit of her childhood and meets her adulthood head on by tackling the smallness of her beginnings, accepting the forward march of change, and looking back on the characters of her life and seeing them with the eyes of an adult and not the awe of a child. She confronts her gods, finds them wanting, and is able to find a presence of self that proves her to be the real hero—flaws and all—of Lee’s Southern epic about the struggle for equality. She surpasses her father, and to a degree he knows it though he disagrees with her, and does him right by seeing him as a man with all the trappings of the human experience.
In that regard, especially for those of us who have felt much bigger in the halls we grew up in once we returned, we can go back home again to Maycomb but it can’t be the same. We can look at the ideals we saw as a country 50 years ago and confront our progress towards meeting them today. As we stare in the face of same-sex couples being denied their marriage licenses and being offered lectures by proselytizing Judges from the bench we can see the Community Council raging against integration and open voting. In the conversations about the society and culture of the South we can see Bree Newsome climbing up the flagpole to take down the Rebel Flag. In the further stories of characters described in such depth and the changes they’ve made and the developments they’ve had we can think of those characters from our own lives in our own hometowns and how we embrace or cringe at their company.
Go Set A Watchmen is relevant and insightful to the deep issues of meeting our ideals as a people as any other novel out today. If we are looking for canonical continuity between Lee’s two works, Watchman goes the next step to further the complex humanity and deep-seated culture of American institutional racism by exposing it even in those who we considered and considered themselves immune to it. It is no abomination and it does no disservice—the characters age, mature, change, and make decisions that we don’t agree with or we applaud. It is an endeavor in making fiction more realistic and accompanied with To Kill A Mockingbird provides a stepping stone for the important conversations about our national coming of age through the life of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch.
If you love your fiction more than its morals, perhaps you would be off put by the developments in this book…but if you loved To Kill A Mockingbird for its craft and its morals, philosophy, and humanity (warts and all) it will not disappoint you in any way—though you will likely never be able to return home again without it feeling smaller, with the endless yards of Maycomb summers become suddenly finite and painfully nostalgic. Which is a good thing, because not everybody was allowed to play in those yards.
That, I surmise, is the point.