“Go Set a Watchman,” by Harper Lee

Harper Lee

Harper Lee

“Killing Atticus”

Review by Angela Shaw-Thornburg

On July 10th, I watched the Confederacy lose one of its final battles on the grounds of the State House in South Carolina. The Confederate battle flag whisked down the pole into the waiting hands of two honor guardsmen. They methodically rolled it up into a silky little package the size of a small nightstick. They gave it to the gentleman tasked with putting the flag to rest. He rode to the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in an armored car. My children, four and fourteen, looked at me in bewilderment as I did the ugly cry when people around the pole started chanting “USA!”

The local news people standing around this spectacle, deeply conscious that everyone was watching us, explained to one and all that this peaceful assembly of people praising Jesus, crying with joy or shouting with passion, is the South that most people never see. We are, they proclaimed, essentially decent people who want to do right, even if we take a long time getting around to it. Yes, we are capable of producing killers like Dylann Roof. But we are also capable of producing a Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Juliette Hampton Morgan.

Our governor said the flag came down out of a sense of compassion for the families of the Mother Emanuel Nine. It might have been just that. The Confederate flag was the only one at the State House not to fly at half-mast in the wake of the slaughter in Charleston; Southerners detest blatant rudeness, and it was this brazen lack of courtesy, coupled with shooter Dylann Roof’s prominent display of the flag online, which signaled the beginning of the end for the flag.

Under the cold light of day, though, I know the War’s not over.

Before Charleston, there was Baltimore, North Charleston, Ferguson, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Oakland, and Sanford, Florida. Voting rights are under assault. Political candidates make racist and xenophobic comments, and their popularity with a certain portion of the Republican Party soars. I’ve gotten a South Carolina Democratic Party mailer blazoned with the face of Nikki Haley, the first woman and first person of color to be governor of South Carolina, saying that we should take back our state (From whom? When was the last time South Carolina went Democratic?). I’ve seen the same kinds of appeals from the Republicans, the contrast turned up so high that President Obama’s face looks really black and the paper looks really white.

All of this is what was on my mind when I finally sat down to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The novel is set sometime shortly after the Brown decision in 1954 and is narrated by Jean Louise, a grown-up Scout home from New York to visit her father and Henry Clinton, her fiancé. Over the course of the novel, Jean Louise fights the good proto-second-wave feminist fight as she debates whether or not she should marry Henry, receives a colossal snub from Calpurnia (no handle attached to that name, still), has a falling out with her father over his politics, and is reconciled with him and the South.

Media outlets from Fox News to The New York Times are rife with displays of dismay over the transformation of Atticus Finch from the man facing down a lynch mob outside of Tom Robinson’s cell to the man who explains to Jean Louise that going to pro-segregation citizens council meetings is part of his duty as a Southerner. People are taking the death of that innocent, uncompromising Atticus Finch hard.

Atticus Finch, for decades lionized as the fictional voice of Southern decency and reason in contrast to the kind of racism that unleashes police dogs on black children, is in this early incarnation an unrepentant defender of the status quo. Here’s one truly choice passage in which he tries to reason with his daughter:

What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run’em?…Honey, you don’t seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people….They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they are far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of ‘em voting than ever before. Then the NAACP stepped in with its fantastic demands and shoddy ideas of government—can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?

Sound familiar? A whole page out of the playbook of the neo-Confederates is here.

Jean Louise’s earnest attacks on Atticus resonate with more modern critiques of Southern racism. She calls Atticus to account because his politics dehumanize African Americans and because they are deeply hypocritical.   Nevertheless, by novel’s end, Jean Louise has gone through all the stages of grief over Atticus’s beliefs and “welcome[s] him silently into the human race” in the penultimate paragraph of the novel. Her acceptance of her father is staged as the resolution of an intensely personal conflict between father and adult daughter and of the larger conflict between one generation of Southerners (mostly members of the so-called Greatest Generation) and another (the Boomers who began to exert their influence on the political process during the 1960s).

As is the case with To Kill a Mockingbird, black people barely contribute to this conversation. There’s just this one scene in Chapter 12 when Calpurnia with “haughty dignity” rejects Jean Louise’s easy nostalgia by asking her to think about what white people have done to black people. For the first time, Jean Louise gets an inkling of the way that her relationship with African Americans is constrained by class and white privilege. As brief as this moment is, it represents an insight that does not manage to make its way into To Kill a Mockingbird.

While it could be a fun literary game to compare and contrast Go Set a Watchman with its last iteration in To Kill a Mockingbird, I don’t think the two compare at all in terms of craft. Remember when James Baldwin called Harriet Beecher Stowe an “impassioned pamphleteer” in “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949)? Although Baldwin was really lobbing bombs at Richard Wright and his Native Son (1940) he was also after the whole genre of the American protest novel, which he criticizes on the grounds that it fails to capture the psychological complexity of humans, black and white, and that the writing in such works is usually very bad. The same problems are in play in Watchman.

At 288 pages in hard copy, the novel is about 100 pages shorter than To Kill a Mockingbird. Reading Watchman feels like reading a novel that is three times as long as Mockingbird, however. Where Mockingbird has sustained dramatic tension, a crackling plot, a vivid setting, and a distinctive narrative voice that add up to a well-crafted novel capable of hooking the reader until the end, Watchman is ponderous with extended arguments about the Southern psyche, states’ rights, and racial apologetics.

As long as To Kill a Mockingbird is read, Go Set a Watchman will be read, and not just because it is the poor relation of To Kill a Mockingbird. The two Atticus Finches—that hero of white liberals embodied so well by Gregory Peck in Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of Mockingbird and this more genteel Archie Bunker limping across the pages of Watchman—together represent the fractured identity of the modern South.

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