'Go Set a Watchman'

Atticus Unmasked

This past summer, like countless other Americans who regard To Kill a Mockingbird with familial devotion, I began reading Go Set a Watchman—the newly recovered novel Harper Lee wrote before Mockingbird, and which her publisher rejected—with an intense mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Even those who haven’t read Mockingbird have likely seen the Oscar-winning 1962 movie and are familiar with the story narrated by Jean Louise Finch, a.k.a. Scout, a child growing up in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the mid-1930s. The civil-rights movement isn’t even on the horizon when her widowed father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, heroically defends a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a white woman.

Depending on how you look at it, Go Set a Watchman, also narrated by Scout, is either a sequel or prequel. Though written first, it takes place two decades later, in the 1950s, when Scout returns as a young New York career woman to visit Atticus and her hometown. Although I studiously avoided reading Watchman reviews, I couldn’t avoid news of how Lee set down the adult Scout’s view of her father. Hence my trepidation. As word leaked out that the novel depicts Atticus as a racist, for many of us it felt not just like the death of our greatest literary hero, but of literary heroism itself.

So let’s get right to it. Is Atticus a racist? Yes. Not a lynching, cross-burning villain with a white sheet over his head, the violent, vulgar kind of racist Atticus protects Tom Robinson from in Mockingbird. But there are many varieties of racism, and Watchman lets us know that however eloquently he may have defended a black man in court, outside the courtroom Atticus is still a man of his time. The novel takes up Scout’s horrified discovery that both her father and her ardent hometown suitor, Henry Clinton (a character not depicted in Mockingbird), have allied themselves with Maycomb’s white “citizens council” in resisting federal pressure to force integration and speed civil rights. How, Scout asks, can this be the same Atticus who treated blacks with unfailing decency and respect?

Toward the novel’s end, Atticus gives his own, dismaying answer. During a heated and heart-wrenching verbal showdown with his daughter, he defends states’ rights and the privileges of white society from what he views as a forced, premature accommodation of black citizens’ hopes. “Honey,” he says, “you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” 

Though Scout recoils at the perniciousness of this argument, it isn’t really all that different from what Atticus says in Mockingbird; in fact, the very same thing that appalls us in Watchman is right there on display in the earlier novel. In his famous courtroom summation, before urging an all-white jury to “in the name of God, do your duty” and acquit the obviously innocent Tom Robinson, Atticus characterizes “all men are created equal” as “a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington are fond of hurling at us.” He goes on to explain just how all men are not equal, even inserting a condemnation of social promotion in schools. The one place we are all created equal in America, Atticus adamantly insists, is in the courts. Though this bold and dramatic declaration has helped cement his heroic reputation for generations of admiring readers, it contains a crucial ambiguity—because, as it turns out in Watchman, the courtroom seems to be the only place he believes all men are equal.

In revising our understanding of Atticus, Watchman offers no evidence that he has changed; rather, what it reveals is that our grand assumptions about him, along with Scout’s, were naïve. In truth, we can see now, the Atticus of Mockingbird is neither a civil-rights leader nor even a civil-rights advocate. Nor did Atticus ever cast himself as such. Yes, he’s a wise and patient father, a gentleman to all, and he’s willing to risk harassment and physical danger to save an innocent life. But his fundamental sympathies are not at all progressive. In Watchman, they aren’t even sympathies. When Calpurnia, the black nurse who helped raise Scout and her brother Jem, experiences a family disaster—her grandson is arrested for driving drunk and accidentally killing a white man—Atticus agrees to take the case. But he does so not, as Scout expects, out of loyalty to Cal, but rather, as he himself unapologetically announces, because “the NAACP-paid lawyers are standing around like buzzards down here waiting for things like this to happen,” demanding “Negroes on the juries” and angling to “get the case into a federal court where they know the cards are stacked in their favor.” Atticus demonstrates no sympathy for Cal or the challenges she faced—in a town where black lives clearly matter little to whites except as hired help—having to raise her own children during whatever time she had left after working in the Finch household.

Despite being more forthright in facing racism, Watchman is a lesser literary work than its predecessor. The first hundred or so pages meander, taking up Scout’s desultory romantic play with Henry, who has been courting her since childhood. I would rather the time had been spent finding Boo Radley, one of two major Mockingbird characters that don’t appear in Watchman. The other missing link is Jem, who we learn died of a heart attack. I could accept the absence of Jem. But page after page, I kept longing for Boo. Watchman also suffers from the lack of a defining event like the trial and tragic death of Tom Robinson; Scout’s personal challenge to Atticus, while arguably more revealing on the subject of racism, lacks the same enduring power. The most engaging sections are those that flash back to Scout’s childhood antics with Jem and their playmate Dill, modeled after Truman Capote. It’s no surprise that Lee’s editor zeroed in on where the novel’s strength lay and urged her to rewrite it from the child’s viewpoint. Millions of Americans are glad she did.

Few expected Go Set a Watchman to be a masterpiece akin to Mockingbird, and on its own, it isn’t. But we can set aside the widespread worry that it might diminish one of the most beloved American novels of all time. It doesn’t. Watchman expands and deepens our understanding of Mockingbird, of the South, and of what divides and unites us as Americans. Like Mockingbird, published in 1960, Watchman has appeared right when we need it. It demonstrates, as Scout comes to learn, that you can hate racism in someone you love, without losing that love. Unmasking Atticus does not, as so many feared, negate the goodness in the man. Rather, it forces us to face racism in all its complexity—both in his time and in our own.

Published in the December 18, 2015 issue: 

Bethe Dufresne, a frequent contributor, is a freelance writer living in Old Mystic, Connecticut.

Also by this author
Defending Lincoln in Louisiana

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections
Collections