Review: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Gives Atticus Finch a Dark Side
We remember Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as that novel’s moral conscience: kind, wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hatred in the 1930s. As indelibly played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie, he was the perfect man — the ideal father and a principled idealist, an enlightened, almost saintly believer in justice and fairness. In real life, people named their children after Atticus. People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus.
Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, “Go Set a Watchman” (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Or asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
In “Mockingbird,” a book once described by Oprah Winfrey as “our national novel,” Atticus praised American courts as “the great levelers,” dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” In “Watchman,” set in the 1950s in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he denounces the Supreme Court, says he wants his home state “to be left alone to keep house without advice from the N.A.A.C.P.” and describes N.A.A.C.P.-paid lawyers as “standing around like buzzards.”
In “Mockingbird,” Atticus was a role model for his children, Scout and Jem — their North Star, their hero, the most potent moral force in their lives. In “Watchman,” he becomes the source of grievous pain and disillusionment for the 26-year-old Scout (or Jean Louise, as she’s now known).
While written in the third person, “Watchman” reflects a grown-up Scout’s point of view: The novel is the story of how she returns home to Maycomb, Ala., for a visit — from New York City, where she has been living — and tries to grapple with her dismaying realization that Atticus and her longtime boyfriend, Henry Clinton, both have abhorrent views on race and segregation.
Though “Watchman” is being published for the first time now, it was essentially an early version of “Mockingbird.” According to news accounts, “Watchman” was submitted to publishers in the summer of 1957; after her editor asked for a rewrite focusing on Scout’s girlhood two decades earlier, Ms. Lee spent some two years reworking the story, which became “Mockingbird.”
Some plot points that have become touchstones in “Mockingbird” are evident in the earlier “Watchman.” Scout’s older brother, Jem, vividly alive as a boy in “Mockingbird,” is dead in “Watchman”; the trial of a black man accused of raping a young white woman, while a main story line in “Mockingbird,” is only a passing aside in “Watchman.” (Interestingly, the trial results in a guilty verdict for the accused man, Tom Robinson, in “Mockingbird,” but leads to an acquittal in “Watchman.”)
Students of writing will find “Watchman” fascinating for these reasons: How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father? How did a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech (from the casually patronizing to the disgustingly grotesque — and presumably meant to capture the extreme prejudice that could exist in small towns in the Deep South in the 1950s) mutate into a redemptive novel associated with the civil rights movement, hailed, in the words of the former civil rights activist and congressman Andrew Young, for giving us “a sense of emerging humanism and decency”?
How did a story about the discovery of evil views in a revered parent turn into a universal parable about the loss of innocence — both the inevitable loss of innocence that children experience in becoming aware of the complexities of grown-up life and a cruel world’s destruction of innocence (symbolized by the mockingbird and represented by Tom Robinson and the reclusive outsider Boo Radley)?
The depiction of Atticus in “Watchman” makes for disturbing reading, and for “Mockingbird” fans, it’s especially disorienting. Scout is shocked to find, during her trip home, that her beloved father, who taught her everything she knows about fairness and compassion, has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion. How could the saintly Atticus — described early in the book in much the same terms as he is in “Mockingbird” — suddenly emerge as a bigot? Suggestions about changing times and the polarizing effects of the civil rights movement seem insufficient when it comes to explaining such a radical change, and the reader, like Scout, cannot help feeling baffled and distressed.
Though it lacks the lyricism of “Mockingbird,” the portions of “Watchman” dealing with Scout’s childhood and her adult romance with Henry capture the daily rhythms of life in a small town and are peppered with portraits of minor characters whose circumscribed lives can feel like Barbara Pym salted with some down-home American humor. And it reminds us that “Mockingbird,” the novel, was more concerned with the day-to-day texture of Scout and Jem’s lives and the world of Maycomb than “Mockingbird,” the movie, which focused more closely on Atticus and Tom Robinson’s trial.
The advice Ms. Lee received from her first editor was shrewd: to move the story back 20 years to Scout’s childhood, expanding what are flashbacks in “Watchman,” used to underscore the disillusionment Jean Louise feels with the present-day Atticus, now 72. (“I’ll never believe a word you say to me again. I despise you and everything you stand for.”) Scout’s disillusionment in “Watchman” oddly parallels that of Jem in “Mockingbird,” after Atticus fails to get Tom Robinson acquitted, and Jem realizes that justice does not always prevail.
Another pivotal difference between the two books concerns the decision to make Scout (“juvenile desperado, hell-raiser extraordinary”) the narrator of “Mockingbird” — a decision Ms. Lee executed with remarkable skill, managing the stereoscopic feat of capturing both the point of view of a forthright, wicked-smart girl (who is almost 6 when “Mockingbird” begins) and the retrospective wisdom of an adult.
Somewhere along the way, the overarching impulse behind the writing also seems to have changed. “Watchman” reads as if it were fueled by the alienation a native daughter — who, like Ms. Lee, moved away from small-town Alabama to New York City — might feel upon returning home. It seems to want to document the worst in Maycomb in terms of racial and class prejudice, the people’s enmity and hypocrisy and small-mindedness. At times, it also alarmingly suggests that the civil rights movement roiled things up, making people who “used to trust each other” now “watch each other like hawks.”
“Mockingbird,” in contrast, represents a determined effort to see both the bad and the good in small-town life, the hatred and the humanity; it presents an idealized father-daughter relationship (which a relative in “Watchman” suggests has kept Jean Louise from fully becoming her own person) and views the past not as something lost but as a treasured memory. In a 1963 interview, Ms. Lee, who now lives in her old hometown, Monroeville, Ala., said of “Mockingbird”: “The book is not an indictment so much as a plea for something, a reminder to people at home.”
One of the emotional through-lines in both “Mockingbird” and “Watchman” is a plea for empathy — as Atticus puts it in “Mockingbird” to Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” The difference is that “Mockingbird” suggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo and Tom Robinson, while “Watchman” asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus.