Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’
By RANDALL KENNEDY
JULY 14, 2015
In 1992, a law professor named Monroe Freedman published an article in Legal Times, a magazine for practitioners. He asserted that Atticus Finch, the iconic hero of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” ought not be lauded as a role model for attorneys. Lee had portrayed Finch as zealously representing a black man, Tom Robinson, despite intense disapproval from many whites. What’s more, Robinson was accused of having raped a white woman. Not only did Finch ably defend Robinson in court; one evening he also faced down a mob that sought to abduct the defendant from jail in order to lynch him.
Generations have admired Finch for his fidelity to due process even at the risk of unpopularity and personal harm. Freedman noted, however, that Finch did not volunteer to represent Robinson; he did so only upon assignment by the court, saying that he had “hoped to get through life without a case of this kind.” Freedman also pointed out that Finch abstained from challenging the obvious illicit racial exclusion of blacks from the jury that wrongly convicted Robinson and the racial segregation in the courtroom itself, where blacks were confined to the balcony. At the time of this fictional trial, there would have been good strategic reasons for forgoing objection to these customs. Confrontation would have had little chance at success and a large likelihood of provoking retaliation against the defendant. In Freedman’s view, however, those considerations were not decisive in influencing Atticus Finch. Rather, Freedman inferred that Finch failed to oppose Jim Crow custom because he was at home with it. He told his children that the Ku Klux Klan was merely “a political organization” and that the leader of the lynch mob was “basically a good man” albeit with “blind spots along with the rest of us.” To Freedman, Finch’s acts and omissions defined a lawyer who lived his life as a “passive participant” in “pervasive injustice.”
This column by a legal academic, published in a relatively obscure trade journal, so enraged admirers of Atticus Finch that this newspaper published an article about the column and the impassioned responses it provoked.
Continue reading the main story
Dismissed by some as the ravings of a curmudgeon, Freedman’s impression of Atticus Finch has now been largely ratified by none other than his creator, Harper Lee herself. The most dramatic feature of her “new” novel, “Go Set a Watchman” — written before “To Kill a Mockingbird” but published 55 years afterward — is the revelation that Atticus, the supposed paragon of probity, courage and wisdom, was a white supremacist. In the mid-1930s, when the events of “To Kill a Mockingbird” transpire, white dominance was so completely established that Finch could blithely disregard any political dissatisfactions blacks felt and still get credit from his adoring daughter — and from millions of readers — for defending an innocent man.
Two decades later, when the events of “Go Set a Watchman” take place, white dominance has been shaken. Blacks are demanding the vote and attacking racial segregation. Finch’s previous unflappable patrician calm now gives way to defensive anxiety. He defends segregationist propaganda with titles like “The Black Plague.” He derides the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.), especially its lawyers. He rails against the prospect of blacks leaving their “place.” “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?” he asks his daughter, Jean Louise (also known affectionately as Scout). “Do you want them in our world?” He veers between expressing condescension — “Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people” — and expressing contempt: “Can you blame the South for wanting to resist an invasion by people who are apparently so ashamed of their race they want to get rid of it?”
The audience for these questions, Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, is bereft of her beloved childhood companions. Jem, her brother, has suffered the fate of their mother: death at an early age from a sudden heart attack. Her mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley, is gone; and Dill, Scout and Jem’s irrepressible summertime chum (a character modeled on Lee’s longtime friend Truman Capote), is largely absent too.
The most striking new presence is Henry Clinton, a hard-working young lawyer in Atticus’s practice who hopes to marry Jean Louise. She appears to be on the verge of succumbing when she learns to her dismay that Henry, like Atticus, is a member of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council. Established in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, White Citizens’ Councils were tonier alternatives to the Klan. They were designed to be respectable organizations that would enable businessmen and professionals to thwart racial desegregation.
Henry figures in two of the most memorable scenes in the novel. In one, he climbs a water tower to save Jean Louise. Still ignorant about sex as a sixth grader, she believes she is pregnant because a boy at school put his tongue in her mouth. She considers jumping off the water tower to commit suicide to spare her family disgrace. In another scene, Henry escorts Jean Louise to the high school prom. She is wearing falsies that stray. “Her right false bosom was in the center of her chest, and the other was nearly under her left armpit.” He hugs her close to prevent others from seeing what has happened, comforts her outside of the school gymnasium, and throws the falsies away. When they land on a sign honoring students who have joined the armed forces after graduation, the school’s outraged principal demands that the guilty party turn herself in. Henry, with Atticus’s counsel, concocts a scheme in which each of the girls at the school writes a note saying the offending falsies look like her own, ensuring that no one bears the full weight of the principal’s anger.
Although “Go Set a Watchman” sporadically generates the literary force that has buoyed “To Kill a Mockingbird” for over half a century, the new novel is not nearly as gripping as the courtroom drama and coming-of-age story it eventually became. The first hundred pages are largely desultory, though they do create a sense of anticipation. Then Lee begins to introduce the reader to Jean Louise’s discovery that Atticus and Henry have joined the White Citizens’ Council. Her disappointment, which develops into anger, suggests an opportunity to explore a dense, rich, complicated subject: How should you deal with someone who has loved you unstintingly when you find out that this same person harbors ugly, dangerous social prejudices?
Unfortunately, Lee’s response is uninspired. In an ending that is all too compressed, she portrays Jean Louise as teetering between a moral revulsion that makes her love for Atticus and Henry impossible and an acceptance of the men despite their racism. Lee’s rendering of Jean Louise’s ambivalence is undeveloped. One yearns for a narrative that conveys the contending emotions with vividness and detail, as the heroine grapples with the intricacies of the problem: Is it wrong to revoke affection because of disgust with the ideology of someone who has nurtured you all your life? Is it intolerably dictatorial to impose a political litmus test on loved ones? Is it complacent to refuse to? If morality compels censuring the retrograde beliefs and conduct of lovers, friends and family, how should that be done? And then what?
Alas, in “Go Set a Watchman,” the reader is given only a sketch in which Jean Louise is hurriedly made to try on one reaction and then another without earned resolution or depth.
Would it have been better for this earlier novel to have remained unpublished? Though it does not represent Harper Lee’s best work, it does reveal more starkly the complexity of Atticus Finch, her most admired character. “Go Set a Watchman” demands that its readers abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school lessons about the nobility of the white savior and the mesmerizing performance of Gregory Peck in the film adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
But the conversation doesn’t end with Monroe Freedman’s complaint about Atticus Finch’s limitations or with Jean Louise’s disillusionment with her previously idolized father. After Lee sold the manuscript we’re now reading, she worked hard on revisions. At her editor’s urging, she shifted the novel’s time frame from the 1950s to the Depression, away from the messy adult problems of a young woman coming to understand the racism of her father, and back to childhood, where seen through Scout’s eyes, Atticus Finch could become the hero that millions of readers love. The editor’s shrewd suggestion belonged to a specific time and place, too. In America in 1960, the story of a decent white Southerner who defends an innocent black man charged with raping a white woman had the appeal of a fairy tale and the makings of a popular movie. Perhaps even more promising, though, was the novel Lee first envisioned, the story of Jean Louise’s adult conflicts between love and fairness, decency and loyalty. Fully realized, that novel might have become a modern masterpiece.