One More Look at…
GO SET A WATCHMAN, by Harper Lee
Last year’s biggest literary event was the appearance of Harper Lee’s first novel in over half a century, Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins). It’s been analyzed, theorized and criticized more than Donald Trump’s combover, but I think it bears one more look under the microscope now that it’s had a chance to age a few months.
Like so many other baby boomers, the name Harper Lee was burned into my psyche in high school. Back then her 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was required reading. The story of a sleepy southern town torn apart by racism during the Great Depression had been around a decade and a half by then. I don’t recall being struck so much by the subject matter – in the years since its publication America had progressed through desegregation, the Civil Rights Act, even the bussing controversy. What did leave an impression were the two main characters: Scout Finch and her father Atticus.
To Kill A Mockingbird is narrated by Scout (a/k/a Jean Louise) as an adult recalling two childhood years that left a mark on her. A headstrong and irascible tomboy, Scout took us gently by the hand and walked us through two sultry summers spent chasing after the phantom Boo Radley. Her brother Jem, and friend Dill, accompanied us, but it was Scout’s innocent words and deeds that kept us so entertained.
And then there was Atticus.
If ever there was a genuine literary and cinematic hero (Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for his portrayal in the 1962 movie), it’s Atticus Finch. Atticus is the embodiment of the quietly dignified man standing up for what he believes is right in the face of overwhelming opposition. He’s the father figure we all long for and aspire to be. In his quiet way he taught us about human dignity. Since then, the name Atticus has become practically a household word. It conjures up the best things in human nature, things we strive for in our quieter moments, when life’s pressures aren’t pushing our darker buttons.
But Atticus isn’t real.
Atticus never was real. To Kill A Mockingbird and the trial of Tom Robinson aren’t real. They may be based on real people to some extent, sure. But this is fiction, and Harper Lee never intended for us to believe Atticus really existed. And therein lies the source of the anguish experienced by so many upon reading her second novel, Go Set A Watchman.
The book takes place twenty years after To Kill A Mockingbird. Jean Louise (as she now prefers) is a young woman with a career in New York. She has come back to Maycomb, Alabama, for a visit with her father and a handful of older relatives, as well as her would-be suitor, Henry. Jem is gone, having died a couple of years before, and Dill is off somewhere in the world pursuing his own life away from Maycomb. That leaves Jean Louise and Atticus to catch up on what’s going on in their lives.
At this point the story is classic Harper Lee. Jean Louise, we discover, hasn’t changed much. Though far more worldly than Scout, all the dresses and makeup can’t hide the independent, outspoken, rule-bending personality she never lost. We delight in her exploits that get the town gossiping. We cheer her on as she decides for herself whether Henry is right for her, rather than caving in to everyone else’s opinion. Here’s our Scout at it again!
As Watchman chugs along, and we wrap ourselves in warm reminiscences from Jean Louise’s childhood that would easily have fit into Mockingbird, our destination seems predictable. This is just another going home story; or more accurately, a you-can never-go-home story. Like all such stories, it preys on our longing for the simple little places and events of our childhood. Then wham! We crash into a wall of realization that those places never were and those events didn’t happen that way.
Only, in the case of Watchman, the wall Jean Louise encounters is built of racial slurs and racist attitudes that would make any civilized person of the twenty-first century cringe. And who is right in the thick of it? Dear Lord, not him!
Our reaction is much like Jean Louise’s: sickening shock followed by anger. Apparently some readers – people who grew up loving Atticus Finch almost to the point of worship – have felt something more, something stronger: resentment. Not necessarily toward Atticus, but toward the author herself. How could she do this, how could she turn this perfect man into a racist? How could she take everything we had come to believe about him, and what his good character said about the rest of us, and turn it into a lie?
This is where the controversy erupted last summer over the very existence of the book. It was a sellout, some whined. The author’s last-minute effort to make a huge pile of money in her twilight years. The book never should have come to light. Granted, Watchman was written back in the fifties, possibly before Lee even wrote Mockingbird, but she should have made a choice between the two and stuck with it. And that choice, they opined indignantly, should have been To Kill A Mockingbird.
I admit to being one of those who put the book down after finishing it, scratching my head, and wondering what Miss Lee was up to. If she had just left well enough alone then Atticus’s legacy would have lived on forever, a beacon of goodness and light in a world of dark corruption. But now his legacy was stained. It was like she’d just told us Jesus himself was a racist. Setting aside the financial theory (which I still refuse to believe), I wondered why any writer would do it? What purpose could she have had in building a legend in one book, only to tear it down in another?
This irked me for a day or two before the simple truth finally hit me. She had to do it.
Like a Greek tragedy, Atticus had grown too big for his breeches and had to be brought down a notch. The old Atticus couldn’t stay relevant in a society that no longer believes in much of anything. A society that hides behind sloganeering and little flag pins on lapels, politically correct phrases and the invocation of God in the face of declining church attendance. A world in which we are so imperfect, yet expect so much of ourselves that we can’t help but fail.
If Harper Lee had kept quiet we could have all gone on viewing Atticus Finch as representative of the perfection we pretend to strive for. But then he would be about as useful as all the sloganeering and politically-correct phrasing. Just as we’re not going to, for example, “make America great again” (how do you even define “great,” and when did America stop being great?), Atticus was never really that beacon of light guiding us toward righteousness. We forget that Atticus is a fictional depiction of a human, not a god. And all humans are flawed.
It seems what Harper Lee meant to do in Watchman is bring Atticus back down to earth. To tell us (apologies to Paul Harvey) the “rest of the story.” Mockingbird, it turns out, was merely a snapshot taken during a small portion of a man’s life, as observed by a young girl. During that short time, Atticus Finch, a product of a racist southern-town upbringing, gathered up all of his courage and conviction and defended a black man despite the backlash he knew it would cause. It was his finest hour. But it couldn’t last. Because Atticus Finch, like the rest of us, is only human.
And, like the rest of us, part of Atticus’s human frailty festers in the deepest recesses of his mind. Yes Atticus, it turns out, is a racist. That doesn’t make him evil, and it doesn’t make him poison for the rest of us. It makes him flawed. And that’s why Watchman is a remarkable achievement, if not a remarkable novel. What Harper Lee does is remind us that we can all rise to the level Atticus achieved during the Tom Robinson trial, but we shouldn’t expect to rise that high all the time. Most of all, just because we can’t doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Atticus is still one of my all-time heroes. He deserves it. His explanation to Jean Louise of his point of view in Watchman is so like the thinking of that time period, it makes him more real. And what changed Jim Crow and segregation and every ugly, shameful thing this country once stood for was ordinary, flawed people rising at the right time and taking on the status quo. Atticus doesn’t do that in Watchman. But you get the feeling he could. More important, you’re hopeful that someday he will again.
By Michael Cormier