Why Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, is more profound and important than her first
Even before its publication, Go Set a Watchman had become controversial, acquiring a whiff of conspiracy, inauthenticity, and foul play. It seemed unbelievable that Harper Lee would publish again after more than half a century of quiescence—and that too a novel written long ago and thematically near to her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1960, Mockingbird has become an American classic and standard reading in every American high school. It is revered for its poignant telling of a thoughtful and courageous white man who does his best to hold up the candle of racial justice in the Jim Crow South. How could anything new live up to that? Why would Lee imperil her own legacy?
Since the release of Watchman, many readers have indeed announced their heartbreak over the revelations and struggles contained within. This new story takes place in the same small Alabama town we came to know in Mockingbird, where the endearingly wild little Scout grew up learning from her father, Atticus Finch, to recognize the humanity of those who seemed different from herself. But it’s now twenty years later and we meet the young woman Scout has grown into. On a visit from New York to her hometown in the mid-50s, the twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch—who no longer goes by her childhood nickname—finds it transformed by time, the postwar economy, and the emergent Civil Rights movement. Much of the story centers around Jean Louise’s sense of unbelonging in the place where her roots remain yet deeply felt, and the cognitive dissonance she suffers as she discovers the people she most loved and trusted to be unapologetic racists:
Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? … Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me—these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me.
They are all trying to tell me in some weird, echoing way that it’s all on account of the Negroes… but it’s no more the Negroes than I can fly and God knows, I might fly out of the window any time, now.
For how is it that Lee’s Atticus is now heard to declaim racist, eugenicist platitudes? How could she abide this unforgivable flaw in her beloved story, undermining the whole of it, ripping away the sweet sadness we remember of Mockingbird—and with it, our complacency with its story? For did we not all identify with Atticus, the flawless patriarch who would, in time, with untiring patience and unfaltering compassion, set the world right? Were we not to learn from him and hope to follow in his footsteps? Like his own daughter, Jean Louise, we are personally injured to see what he has become in his old age.
But to dismiss the story as an error or a betrayal misses the point. What makes Watchman worth reading is not that it should further reassure us of our heroic intentions against racism, nor feed our sepia fantasies for those days when quiet heroes fought righteous lonely battles. Rather, it’s worth reading because of its raw honesty, because it shows us how pervasive and insidious racism is and lays bare how racism actually works among us. Watchman reflects back upon its predecessor the shattering light of a more adult awareness, banishing the darkness of innocence in which we had wished to hide. Whatever its flaws in novelistic structure, Watchman is a more profound and important novel than its prelude. In the way of so many first novels of youth, this one reads like an attempt at catharsis, a fire coming up raw from the gut; one can see that Lee had trouble taming it, trimming it, shaping it into something her editors would accept as a publishable work. It is not a work of great maturity, which should be no surprise from a writer so young as Lee was when she wrote this, but it’s a tellingly sharp portrait of America as it was, with implications for what it has become.
Watchman is the sprawling, angsty stream-of-consciousness of an independent-minded young woman who is finally forced to confront the knotted and deeply rooted racism and sexism of her hometown, once obscured from her view in part by her naive and privileged childhood and in part by the conventions of Jim Crow. But now the blinders have fallen from her eyes and she must wrestle with her instinctive revulsion of the odious segregationist ideas espoused by the people whom she holds most dear in the world. Jean Louise does not by any means have her ideas on race, class, civil rights, or feminism neatly sorted into politically correct semantics or ideologies: little Scout has hardly grown up to be a civil rights activist or a fan of the NAACP—nor does she seem to have had much exposure to au courant conversations on these matters. She is merely feeling her way through the issues, as most people do. We read her howling struggle, as she tries—not always successfully—to break through the surfaces of her social world in search of what her conscience tells her is true, the same conscience that those who now offend her had once nurtured in her. In the most heartbreaking scene of the book, Jean Louise confronts Calpurnia, the black woman who raised her, to discover that buried iniquities may have lain beneath even the relationship that had most intimately sustained and guided her as a child.
Jean Louise also struggles against the conventional limitations on the lives of women in her orbit, uncertain how to reconcile the independence and liberty she craves with the life she’s supposed to want. Indeed, it seems a significant omission in most of the commentary on the book that Jean Louise’s agony and alienation from her world are grounded as much in its sexism as in its racism. However, her real confrontation on this front takes place only within the sphere of her relationship with her childhood friend and adulthood beau, Hank, and her fight with him never achieves the invective she reserves for the matter of racial segregation. This is in part because Jean Louise is less confident in her convictions about how an independent woman might properly or happily live; she verges on readiness to capitulate to marriage and the diminutions it will entail for her. And for his part, Hank never seriously believes that Jean Louise might ultimately refuse him, so that their banter about the future of their relationship always remains a kind of tease. When Jean Louise finally does repudiate Hank, she tells us it’s because he’s a segregationist, not because he would ask her to subsume her life to his.
Watchman is filled with childhood reminiscences that are of a piece with its predecessor. But while the events of Mockingbird occur before Scout is ten, the memories in Watchman focus more upon her adolescence, her first menstruation, her first date, her sense of foreboding and loneliness as she approaches womanhood. It’s possible that the episodes of her earlier childhood memories were culled from this volume to be fashioned into what would become Mockingbird, expanded, shaped, and given an ending of sorts. Watchman makes only passing reference to the courtroom trial around which the central drama of Mockingbird is based, beginning with this revelation:
Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl.
Atticus had two weighty advantages: although the white girl was fourteen years of age the defendant was not indicted for statutory rape, therefore Atticus could and did prove consent. Consent was easier to prove than under normal conditions—the defendant had only one arm. The other was chopped off in a sawmill accident.
Of course, this isn’t what happened in Mockingbird. In fact the defendant, Tom Robbins, was found guilty and sent to jail, where he was killed. And while in Mockingbird Scout understands Atticus’s unpopular defense of a black man to be in service to a fight for racial equality, in Watchman, Lee underscores that though Atticus was indeed a man of integrity trying to do the right thing—that is, to defend an innocent man—racial inequity was not his fight. Atticus, we come to understand, is a peaceable man who wishes to treat all people with fairness and kindness, but at base his best intentions towards blacks have always been merely paternalistic. And as the fight for civil rights has heated up in Maycomb County, enabling racial confrontations that Jim Crow had once kept submerged and threatening the de facto privilege of his people, Atticus—with the same integrity, the same softness—openly aligns himself with those who wish to defend their town from actual racial equality, to defend it as a space where whites will remain socially and economically dominant.
Considering Lee’s two books as a set will be edifying for those who admit that, even when we read Mockingbird as a teenager, we had found Atticus’s occasional and subtle moral evasions unsettling, Scout’s neatly sorted world of good folks and “white trash” not fully baked, and the cloying sexism that dogs Scout to the last word distressing. For we no longer have a simple tale of unqualified heroism, but we have something more true: a story with ambiguity and dissonance, a story about a young woman trying to make sense of a difficult and disappointing world. As an adult, Jean Louise finds herself fighting both for and against the urge to break away from her people and the presumptions of her childhood in order to learn to trust her individual conscience—the titular watchman. She begins to understand the danger of casting even her father, even a man like Atticus Finch, as an unblemished hero in the way that she did as a child. And as she verges on the realization that there must come a time to put away the things of childhood and find one’s own way in the world, this book, like the one before it, ends not with a flourish of triumph, but with the sense that the struggle will continue.
Usha Alexander is a writer living in Gurgaon, India. Only the Eyes Are Mine is the title of her first novel.