Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

gosetawatchman Warning: Long post ahead.

Yes, I read it. I couldn’t NOT read it — if nothing else, I was too curious, and the revelations about Watchman’s plot revealed in the last few days only made me more curious. I did not buy it; I read it in two sittings in the bookstore cafe, something I used to do years ago when I was younger and poorer but wouldn’t normally do now when I can afford to buy all the books I want. In this case, reading what I’ve read about the book’s turbulent history, I was pretty much convinced that a younger and perhaps more sound-of-mind Harper Lee would not have approved publication of this book in this form, and I didn’t want to give any money to anyone who may be exploiting an elderly woman who can no longer defend her literary legacy. Having read the book, I’m more convinced than ever that Lee would not have knowingly OK’d the publication of this book, but I’m also not sorry I read it.

First off, let’s talk about what Go Set a Watchman (apparently) is and is not. It reads like it should be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird; it features our familiar main character, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (here in third-person limited point of view rather than the first-person of Mockingbird). She is very recognizably the same girl, but now she is twenty-six, living in New York (as Nelle Harper Lee was when she wrote the novel), and returning home to visit her aging father Atticus in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama.

But this is not a sequel, as near as we can tell from the manuscript’s murky history; it’s the book Lee wrote first. Her first draft, if you will, and while her writing style is strong and skillful and recognizable, it also sometimes reads like a first draft, especially towards the end, when she tries to pull everything together and doesn’t quite succeed.

Apparently, Lee’s editor convinced her to take the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood that are embedded in Watchman and fashion those into a different novel, a novel that confronts the same issue — the deeply embedded racism of the segregated South — through the eyes of a child rather than a young adult, and (importantly) against the backdrop of the Great Depression rather than on the cusp of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Watchman and Mockingbird are, in a way, telling the same story — a young white Southern girl discovers that the community she loves and belongs to is capable of deep and vicious racism. The difference that makes a difference to most readers is that in Mockingbird, Scout’s father, Atticus, viewed through the hero-worshipping eyes of a child, stands against that racism. In Watchman, the older Attticus stands for a certain kind of racism, and he becomes Scout’s antagonist rather than her hero.

This is understandably painful for readers who have hero-worshipped Mockingbird’s Atticus, who is, whatever else he may be, one of the great characters of twentieth-century American literature. The book has been hailed, rightly, as a powerful anti-racist novel (though it has also been banned for its historically accurate use of “the n-word”). But I’ve never read Mockingbird as a novel that was ahead of its time. It was very much a novel of its time — both of the 1930s, when it’s set, and the 1950s when it was written. While people who ban the book for using a now-unacceptable racial slur are, I think, off the mark, African-American readers who have pointed out the limitations of the book are worth listening to.

The liberalism that Atticus Finch displays when he defends Tom Robinson and teaches his children the importance of walking in another man’s shoes is a particular kind of liberalism — striking in its day and time, but certainly not a liberalism that believed in the  full equality that civil rights activists of a later era would strive for. The “enlightened” white people in Mockingbird — the Finch family, Miss Maudie, a scant handful of others — believe that a black man who is unjustly accused of a crime should have a fair defense in court; that’s what Atticus, court-appointed to do so, gives Tom Robinson.

But these same “enlightened” whites also believe that it is part of the natural order that the black people of Maycomb should cook their meals, pick up their garbage and cut their grass; they never question the fact that they worship in segregated churches or that there are no black children in Maycomb’s school. During his trial, Tom Robinson is referred to approvingly as a “humble, quiet, respectable Negro,” and this is clearly the ideal of even the most liberally-minded white people of Maycomb, Atticus Finch included. In their view, African-Americans should know their place and keep to it; their reward is that they will not be treated unjustly as long as everyone stays in his or her appointed role.

This is not to say that Mockingbird is not a great novel about overcoming prejudice: it is, and it is deservedly celebrated. But as a novel about race, it’s important to recognize what kind of story about race it is: it is, quite specifically, the story of a young white Southern girl recognizing the racism in her society. It’s one story. It’s not a universal story, and I’m relatively sure Harper Lee didn’t mean for it to be.

For several years I used to teach it in Grade 10 alongside Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. They make an interesting pair, as Taylor’s novel is the story of an African-American girl the same age as Scout Finch, growing up in almost the same time and place, and it too centres around a young African-American man accused of a crime with no chance of a fair trial. It’s important to have stories about how people in positions of privilege learn to recognize and address racism in themselves and their own communities; it’s just as important, if not moreso, to read stories from the perspective of people who actually live on the receiving end of that racism.

So yes, To Kill a Mockingbird is a great novel, but it’s not all things to all people and it can’t be. It is a lot to a lot of people, though, largely because of the character of Atticus, and that’s why some readers are feeling betrayed now when they learn that in an earlier version of the story, Harper Lee imagined an aging Atticus consorting with segregationists, belittling the NAACP, and asserting states’ rights in the face of the burgeoning civil rights movement.

This isn’t the version of the story that Lee, for whatever reason, chose to finally give the world. This is her first-draft Atticus, and in the end she clearly opted for the gentler and more heroic Atticus of Scout’s childhood. But while some reviewers have seen Watchman-Atticus as a completely different character, discontinuous with Mockingbird-Atticus, that’s not how it reads to me. Yes, of course there are discontinuities, because again, it’s not a sequel. Lee didn’t write Watchman with the events of Mockingbird in mind because she hadn’t written those events yet. But it doesn’t seem impossible to me that the gentle, wise, kindly 1935 Atticus Finch of Mockingbird, who in his fifties fights hard to clear a black man of a crime that man did not commit, might twenty years later look around at the rising tide of the civil rights movement and be a frightened man in his seventies, clinging to some ideas that his idealistic New York daughter might find repugnant.

People are messy and complicated. The Finches of Mockingbird are, as I’ve said, actually a lot more complicated than many readers like to remember them; in Watchman they’re even more complicated, in ways readers may not be comfortable with. The fact is that people can be liberal in their middle age and become conservative in old age. Or liberal in their youth and conservative in middle age. Or comfortable giving minorities certain limited rights and privileges but not full equality.

Just the other day I was commenting to someone on Facebook (in response to the Twitter-tempest over Anne Lamott making insensitive comments about Caitlyn Jenner) that there are a lot of people in my generation who have prided themselves on being so open-minded and accepting of gay and lesbian people and are suddenly all like WAIT WHERE DID ALL THESE TRANSGENDER PEOPLE COME FROM I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS PLEASE MAKE IT STOP. Social change happens quickly; you can be out front of the pack leading the way for good causes and then look around to find twenty years later that the pack has surged ahead and you’re bringing up the rear.

I have no trouble believing that the Atticus Finch who defended Tom Robinson in 1935 might look around in 1955 and wonder, as Watchman’s Atticus asks Scout, whether “we” really want black people in “our” schools and neighbourhoods, on an equal footing. Surely there must have been many like him in his generation, who prided themselves on treating an inferior people decently and were shocked to discover that those people were not content with being seen as inferior.

When Harper Lee decided to tell the story of Scout’s childhood instead of Scout’s young adulthood, she made some important changes to the story she had already sketched out in Watchman. One significant one was to add the character of Boo Radley, who doesn’t appear anywhere in Watchman, but an even more important one concerned the trial of Tom Robinson. It’s there in a briefly-sketched outline with some different details in Watchman; Scout recalls how Atticus defended a one-armed black man accused of raping a white girl. But the key difference in Scout’s memory is that Atticus was successful: the man was acquitted.

That’s a hugely important difference. If, as Lee originally wrote, Scout had witnessed in her childhood a court case that ended like that, then she would never have been forced to confront, as a child, the ugly racism that permeated her small town. She would have grown up believing that even a black man could get a fair trial in a white courtroom, that the justice system worked, that things really weren’t all that bad in Maycomb. And Atticus, too, would have come away from his trial believing that his neighbours were fair and decent people; when put on a jury, they could see past their prejudices and treat a black man the same as a white man in the same circumstances.

That kind of outcome in the trial might well have produced the Scout and Atticus of Watchman: a young woman who has never really had to confront the racism of her community, and a man who believes that his version of justice will prevail and everything will be fine as long as everyone just keeps to their place.

The shattering events Lee imagined in Mockingbird make that outcome less likely: Scout has already lost a lot of her innocence at age 9, and Atticus’s idealism has taken a major hit as he not only loses the case but sees his client shot and killed in an escape attempt before he can appeal the case.  It’s important, in reading Watchman, to recognize that this version of Scout and Atticus have not lived through the experience of Tom Robinson’s conviction and death: it changes who they are.

So, no, you can’t read Go Set a Watchman as if it were a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, though there’s some beautiful stuff in here for people who want a Mockingbird sequel. Calpurnia explaining the facts of life to eleven-year-old Scout who mistakenly believes she’s gotten pregnant because a boy put his tongue in her mouth is a wonderful moment, as are several other flashbacks. And one thing Lee captured beautifully is the out-of-place feeling of a young adult returning to a home she loved but can never feel fully comfortable in. There’s some great feminist material here too, as the grown-up tomboy Scout surveys the possible futures open to young women in Maycomb and realizes that she can’t imagine her life fitting into any of them.

I think, though, that Go Set a Watchman could have been rewritten as a sequel to Mockingbird. After immersing myself in the novel today, I imagined an alternate timeline in which Harper Lee, after the massive success of her first novel, returned to that first draft. She would have had to change it a lot, of course, taking the events of Mockingbird into account, considering how Scout, Atticus and the community would have been different after the trial and death of Tom Robinson. But I contend, as I said, earlier, that it’s quite possible that an aging Atticus, even after losing that trial, would have clung to the belief that “Negroes,” though they ought to be equal under the law, weren’t quite ready for full equality. And Scout, having already confronted the racism of her hometown, might still have been shocked to see the residual elements of that racism in her beloved father. The important central theme of Watchman — that the heroes of our childhood have feet of clay, that we have to see them as people if we’re ever to grow up — could still have been explored against the turbulent background of the 1950s, if she had chosen to revisit Watchman as a sequel.

But she didn’t. And I’m convinced that she either didn’t really OK the publication of it now, or that she is no longer fully in her right mind, because the Harper Lee who guarded her own privacy so jealously for so many years would not have allowed an unpolished gem like Watchman out into the world without a lot more work. If she had chosen to give it that work during her long years of literary silence, I think it might have been an important and interesting sequel.

And I think she might have had one more book in her, if she’d chosen to write it. In Mockingbird, nine-year-old Scout learns that the kind and gentle people of her little Southern town are capable of vicious racism. In the version of Watchman Lee might have written if she had chosen to revise it, the adult Jean Louise would have been shocked to discover traces of that same racism in her father, though those traces would doubtless have been less harsh than they are in the early draft we have now. Yet throughout the two books as we now have them, Scout believes herself to be untouched by that racism — she describes herself in Watchman as having been born “color blind” — even though we never, in either book, see her have an actual conversation with any black person except the family’s old housekeeper Calpurnia. She never meets, encounters, or deals with any African-American of her own generation on an equal footing, and might well never have done so until years later. I’d like to have read the unwritten third volume of the trilogy, where middle-aged Scout, having realized that the people you love can be racists, finally confronts the racism in herself.

That’s the trilogy Harper Lee might have written; this draft of Watchman certainly shows that she had the ability, if she had wanted to. But she didn’t, and who knows why? 

Go Set a Watchman is an interesting footnote to literary history as it teaches us something about a writer’s process and shows us the early stages of a great American novel. It’s not the book Harper Lee could have written; it’s the book she chose not to write.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

  1. Very interesting blog, Trudy. People like yourself, and Jackie, who have spent years teaching Mockingbird, are in an excellent position to compare the two novels. I wonder if Harper Lee’s father was alive when “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out, and if the novel caused a rift between her her and her family. She is a fascinating minor character in the movie “Capote”. I would love to read a biography about her life.

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