If it weren’t for the circumstances surrounding Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the novel’s deep flaws might pass by unnoticed. It began life as a private manuscript that, after much editing, became 1960’s critically acclaimed and universally beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, and the two share the same settings and biographical details in turn—they’re essentially two separate books that follow the same characters. This new novel’s publication has become a public spectacle: Lee, now an 89-year-old infirm with no capacity to advocate for herself or her writings, was left to the mercy of her publishers, who likely lied about how they “discovered” this thing. It’s a good enough reason to avoid the book altogether, except that its 278 pages mark the beginning of something great. It is a glimpse into what would become an American classic, sure, but more meaningfully, it’s a story that could have been so much more.
Part of what makes this one of the most exciting book releases of the year is precisely how significantly relevant it is to the racial injustices, and the contrived white morality, that are playing out in the news today. While I doubt it was wholly or even partially intentional, the timing of the book’s release couldn’t be better. The past year, from Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore to Charleston, has made brutally clear the grip that white supremacy still holds on America—the grip that white supremacy has always held on America. In Watchman, for the briefest moment, Lee offers a true reflection of rural 1950s Alabama, and how racism is not the provenance of individual men but is baked deeply into society, and explains why it has lingered—raged—for centuries. If understanding history is the first step in avoiding repeating it—while acknowledging that we are talking about fiction—this is a primer to the nuances of racism and the white savior.
The novel takes place during a two-week vacation when Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returns home to Maycomb, Ala., from New York City, where she has spent her post-college years consorting with artists. It is 20 years after the mid-1930s trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by a white woman, who Jean Louise’s father Atticus defended in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Little by little, we learn more about how she and the people she grew up with have changed; the first half of the book is largely unremarkable as a result, even while Lee’s writing remains commanding. Stray passages have the capacity to take your breath away, but after you’ve finished, it’s clear that those pages didn’t do much service—they were just sort of there. It is, as Lee’s editor Tay Hohoff once described, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”
Not much seems to have changed in Maycomb since Jean Louise’s last visit, or even since her childhood. She is at a crossroads in her life, not wanting to spend more than those two weeks in her hometown, but growing older and wondering whether she should settle for love interest Henry Clinton—a schoolmate of her older brother Jem and current law partner of Atticus. Roots shared with Mockingbird emerge, reminding readers of Jean Louise’s childhood while navigating the heinous injustice that drove the plot. Now, however, the idea of “coming of age” is revisited from an adult perspective; Jean Louise is in her mid-twenties and trying to define herself once again, this time as a Northern-educated, self-aware adult.
The real action is set off when, while straightening Atticus’s study one day, Jean Louise finds a virulently racist pamphlet entitled The Black Plague. Driven by equal parts curiosity, disgust, and bafflement, she heads into town and finds the townsmen in the courthouse at a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council (i.e., a white supremacist organization). She discovers that both Atticus and Henry are prominent members, and watches Atticus introduce a man by the name of Mr. Grady O’Hanlon, who gives a speech descrying blacks as “kinky whoolyheads ... still in the trees ... greasy smelly” and warns those present about the “mongrelizing” of the races.
In search of answers as to why her father—a principled man who defended a black man the rest of the town would rather have lynched—promulgated such racist views, Jean Louise learns that Maycomb has changed in her absence. The novel was written three years after the NAACP-argued Brown v. Board of Education made segregated schooling illegal, and in the book, the organization is dispatching its lawyers across the South to continue the fight against segregation. Maycomb’s whites are exceedingly fearful of the town’s black population asserting their lawful rights, given their historically racist past.
This is where the moral crux of the novel lies, as Jean Louise struggles to reconcile the remembered Atticus from her childhood with the Atticus standing in front of her. She thought he was a moral crusader, but he’s revealed to be a racial “pragmatist.” He’s more willing than his neighbors to accept a greater role for blacks in Maycomb, but only to a point, and only if it evolves “naturally,” without the outside assistance of a black organization like the NAACP.
Atticus’s newly revealed beliefs are put into action when the grandson of his black longtime housemaid Calpurnia—somebody Jean Louise considers to be family—asks Atticus to defend him in a drunk-driving case. His partner declines the case, but Atticus considers whether it is better to distastefully represent a black man rather than let him fall into the “wrong hands” of the NAACP, who will challenge the composition of the jury and offer a real defense. Why? Because Atticus believes that black men need white men to save them.
It is important to note that Jean Louise is no beacon of enlightened understanding herself. Here is a passage from a fight with Atticus, for instance:
“Let’s look at it this way,” said her father. “You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward,’ don’t you?
“You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?”
“But you want them to have all of its privileges?”
And that is one of Atticus’s tamer arguments! Even according him some sort of bogus “judge historical figures by the standards of their time period” consideration, Atticus is wildly racist, and is actively seeking to prevent the blacks of Maycomb from asserting their rights. To varying degrees, this is true of every single white character we meet in the book, like her Uncle Jack, who believes that the Civil War was fought over the North imposing its values on the South, and says 100 years later that it is happening again.
Watchman is the story of fearful men grappling with a rapidly changing society, and lashing out at the slow erosion of their tightly gripped power. In this respect, it is a more compelling novel than Mockingbird, which, when stripped of its accoutrements, is basically a superhero novel, a comic book. It is telling that the lasting image of the handsome, resolute, kind-hearted, principled Atticus Finch comes not from the novel, but from Gregory Peck’s Academy Award-winning performance in the adaptation. Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch is a movie star, not a fully formed, realistic character.
Ultimately, insomuch as one exists, Jean Louise is meant to be the hero of this new novel. She is depicted as tolerant, rides the subway alongside blacks in New York, and drives herself alone to visit Calpurnia in the black part of town. Uncle Jack describes her as unable to see race, because after her mother died, she was raised by the black Calpurnia. But the reader learns that, like her father, Jean Louise is a flawed advocate to the “backwards” people she claims to see as equals. The book ends with her finally severing her conception of self from her father’s, taking the last step into full adulthood; after she is quite literally slapped into “sense” by her Uncle Jack, she gives up the fight. She believes that ultimately, Atticus and Henry are fighting for the overall good, and concludes that she will never truly understand men. Despite her unique upbringing, it was still rife with white privilege, and she agrees that educated white men should be making the decisions for the blacks of Maycomb. It’s unsatisfying and bleak, but representative of reality.
It is easy to identify the hero in Mockingbird and silently stand beside him, and the reader isn’t forced to grapple with any questions deeper than “Is it bad to railroad an obviously innocent man simply because of the color of his skin?” Watchman doesn’t give the reader such an easy out.
This book came out on the same day as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and together, the two tell a different story than the one we’re used to hearing. The latter is a grim history of white supremacy over the black body in America, with none of the usual “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” hand-waving that lets us ignore how shameful the inequality in our society can still be, 150 years after the abolition of slavery. The fact that even a beloved fictional character like Jean Louise convincingly believes in disenfranchisement is one of the reasons why we are where we are.
If Lee had revised a few drafts of this version of the book instead of refocusing it around Tom Robinson’s trial—if she had truly grappled with some of the moral questions she presents—Go Set a Watchman could’ve been a powerful book. Can a society change from within, or does it require outside influence? When confronted by abhorrent beliefs, is choosing to disengage the weak-willed way out? Is moderating but not outright denouncing racist beliefs effective in combating white supremacy? When do “reasonable folks can disagree”-type political beliefs become immoral? Those questions are certainly posed here, but they ultimately go unexplored. As-is, this is merely a voyeuristic glimpse at spare parts repurposed for a sleek but ultimately less interesting novel we probably never should have seen.
Photo by AP.