Harper Lee and the Unintended Prescience of Go Set a Watchman

640px-To_Kill_a_Mockingbird_(1962)_trailer_2When Harper Lee’s massively anticipated Go Set a Watchman came out this summer, ESN author Paul Yandle sprang into action and sent us a thoughtful review within a week, including both his experience of the book and how it impacted his experience of current events this summer. Unfortunately, we weren’t as fast at the blog due to a packed conference schedule. We share Paul’s reflections now as he wrote them this summer, recognizing that the issues raised by Go Set a Watchman remain unfortunately timely. 

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14, NIV)

It’s finally here. On July 14, readers across the United States flocked to bookstores to pick up copies of Go Set a Watchman, the newly released novel by, of all people, Harper Lee. Last February, HarperCollins announced that it was going to publish the long-forgotten work by Lee, the Alabamian who put away her typewriter and spent decades fending off pesky questions about her abortive writing career after she was overwhelmed by the phenomenal success of To Kill a Mockingbird more than fifty years ago.

For months, people eagerly awaited the release of Go Set a Watchman after its publisher revealed that the manuscript was “discovered” by Lee’s attorney after sitting unread for half a century in a safety deposit box. Soon after the announcement, journalists began to discuss the novel’s sketchy provenance as they asked whether Lee, now 89 and in failing health in an assisted living community, really wanted the book published. At the same time, discussions of characters in Go Set a Watchman began breaking out before most people had the opportunity to read the book. Most of the talk since Watchman‘s release has centered on its revelation that the much-beloved Atticus Finch, the heroic lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, turns out later in life to be a racist active in his hometown’s chapter of the White Citizens Council, the organization committed to maintaining Jim Crow in the face of federal challenges to segregation. Some lament the loss of the Atticus they thought they knew, others welcome the challenge that Watchman presents to Atticus’s squeaky-clean image.

Harper_Lee_Nov07Whether Harper Lee herself realizes it or not, her novel came out at a very opportune time. Like many other historians who concentrate on race relations and the southern United States, I am fascinated by how southern whites individually and collectively choose to view their past. In recent weeks, the history of memory in the South has revealed itself, very painfully, as more than just a topic for academic debate. I teach in South Carolina, where life this summer has been a bit surreal. In the aftermath of the tragic killings of nine people in an AME church in Charleston, whites in the state prided themselves for coming together in support of the victims and their families as those families revealed a degree of forgiveness toward the killer that bordered on astounding. “We’re godly folk,” many of us convinced ourselves much like the Pharisee praying in the Temple. “We’re not like those rioters in those other troubled cities we see in the news.”

Then the governor called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the statehouse, where it has flown since 1961, which, incidentally, is the year that To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize. As South Carolina’s legislators debated and eventually supported removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of its statehouse earlier this month, the attitudes of many whites turned sour. Even as many whites and blacks throughout the state joined to celebrate the removal of the flag and the governor declared a “new day” for the state, Confederate flags began appearing on pickup trucks in South Carolina as well as other states. Demand for the flag has soared, as evidenced in part by the vehicles filling the parking lot at the outlet for Confederate memorabilia near where I live. Facebook posts on the walls of many southern whites, enraged by what they see as a purging of their heritage, include terse history lessons of dubious accuracy mixed with scarily militant threats and cultural declension narratives accompanied, at times, by appeals to traditional morality. In the undercurrent of the raging, tail swiping and gnashing of teeth, I decided to go buy a copy of Go Set a Watchman on the day of its release.

Ostensibly an early book draft that Harper Lee set aside in order to concentrate on the plot line that grew into To Kill a Mockingbird, the lightly edited Watchman allows us the closest look we may ever have at the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird as Lee originally wrote them. Despite its limitations as a work-in-progress, I had a hard time putting the book down. But my attraction to it lay not only in seeing how it measures up to Mockingbird but also in realizing how it exposes, perhaps unwittingly, the lack of awareness that many whites in America hold about the African American experience now as well as in the 1950s and 60s.

The plot revolves around the return of 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch, (“Scout” in To Kill a Mockingbird) from New York to her hometown Maycomb, Alabama for vacation sometime in the mid- to late 1950s. Not long after her arrival home, Jean Louise ends up reeling in reaction to a series of disorienting events reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart’s eerie encounters in Pottersville toward the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. The 1950s have brought unwelcome changes to Maycomb’s whites. The specter of federally-mandated integration has shaken up the social arrangements between themselves and the African Americans living under Jim Crow. Whites are desperately clinging to a culture that they feel is threatened by change and alienating African Americans who they are trying to keep “in their place.” In this atmosphere, Jean Louise sees those she trusted most from her past—including Atticus, Calpurnia and lifelong confidantes left unmentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird—morph into people she does not recognize.

As she catches glimpses of the evil that lies within those most dear to her, Jean Louise is left in disbelief. How, she wonders, could they be the same people she grew up with and counted on? The biggest shock comes when she sees racism manifested in her own father, who she always worshiped as the personification of goodness. Especially galling to her is the idea that Atticus betrayed her by living a lie and hiding his darker side from her for her entire life.

Eventually, Jean Louise and Atticus have their inevitable confrontation. As they find themselves alone in her father’s law office with no family members or townspeople to interrupt them, Jean Louise aims her verbal grenades at Atticus, hoping to slay him but instead ending up immobilized by Atticus’s calm but unapologetic responses. The dialogue between the two is a bit like what one might expect to encounter in print if somehow an odd, apocryphal version of Genesis turned up that left Jacob disabled after wrestling with a false god he had mistakenly worshiped his entire life instead of facing the True God he had consistently found ways to avoid. Atticus leaves Jean Louise spent and helpless, but he does so by calmly showing her that he was never what she once thought him to be, hitting her with every truism to which well-heeled racists held in the late 1950s. Atticus willingly accepts his dethroning in the mind of Jean Louise as he reveals his true nature to her and loves her despite her inability to accept him as such. Within the moral framework of the novel, Atticus’s integrity remains intact in tandem with his racism, and Jean Louise is the one made to look like a bigot until her own views eventually shift enough to reevaluate Atticus.

More troubling to me than any supposed change in Atticus Finch is the fact that Go Set a Watchman left me with the gnawing sense that Lee deliberately chose unreconstructed racism as the normative lens through which the reader should view all of the novel’s characters. Jean Louise, despite her confidence in her ability to see life through a nonracial lens, is no hero or racial egalitarian. By the end of the novel, she is revealed to be made of the same paternalistic racism as Atticus—and that seems to be fine with Lee. Jean Louise ends up personifying much of what passed for liberal thinking among southern men and woman of her generation, gradualists torn between what they saw as a disappearance of the virtues of southern life and disgust at the racial hatred they had somehow managed to ignore as seemingly dormant in the 1930s and 40s.

It is difficult to know whether Lee was aware of this flaw in Jean Louise and just what she intended in Jean Louise’s restored affection for Atticus. Is Jean Louise a reflection of Lee as Lee herself was in 1960? Does Jean Louise’s lack of ability to see that she is not, as she describes herself, “color blind” reflect a similar lack of ability in Lee fifty-five years ago? Or did Lee know that her character was unaware of her own prejudices? The closest Lee comes to answering these questions lies in her depiction of the African American character Calpurnia, the Finch family’s former maid who Jean Louise saw as a surrogate mother. Calpurnia obviously sees Atticus for what he is, and when Jean Louise goes to visit Calpurnia, the two have an exchange that is probably the most heartbreaking in the novel. Nonetheless, most reviewers have all but ignored Lee’s tragic rendering of the toll that living in Maycomb County’s took on Calpurnia.

I have little trouble seeing Atticus as the same character in To Kill a Mockingbird and Watchman, nor am I terribly surprised by Jean Louise’s self-deception that she is qualitatively different from what she thinks she despises. My guess is African Americans who venture to read Go Set a Watchman will recognize Jean Louise as yet another manifestation of the fact that whites have been blind to the latent racism that African Americans have had to endure their entire lives. Go Set a Watchman left me uncomfortable, because the racist dialogue in the book, with a few changes, continues today throughout the nation. But it also left me wondering how much like Jean Louise I may be. Like her, it is easy for me to look at those clinging doggedly to overtly ugly vestiges of a perceived southern past and condemn their ignorance. It is a bit harder for me to see in myself evidence that I am much like them, dismissing as false the anguished cries against an array of prejudices that I do not experience myself, or worse, failing to care about those injustices and rationalizing to myself why doing so is all right. Lee manages to point out through her characters our universal tendency to make deals with ourselves, to compromise what we know to be right and convince ourselves that we are, within the circumstances in which we operate, basically decent people. We could do worse than to examine a novel with a title taken from Isaiah 21:6. We may find Babylon’s idols enshrined in the form of what we cling to as our regional or national narratives.

Public Domain images of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird trailer still courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:



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Paul Yandle

Paul Yandle is Assistant Professor of History at North Greenville University. He received his Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2006, and his current research focuses on infrastructure, race relations and regional identity in the nineteenth century United States. He teaches Middle Eastern, Islamic, British and United States history. Though he lives near the Blue Ridge Parkway and often imagines pursuing fascinating hobbies, he mainly takes naps in his spare time.

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One Comment

  • S Joshua Swamidass commented on October 16, 2015 Reply

    Prescient is the right word to describe the novel. Its release decades after to Kill a Mockingbird really adds to the effect.

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