Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, Harper, 2015, 278 pp., $27.99
The newly published Go Set a Watchman is the book Harper Lee originally delivered to J. B. Lippencott Company in the spring of 1957 and that later became To Kill a Mockingbird. It presents a very different picture of Atticus Finch, the hero of Mockingbird–one that will disappoint millions of readers who admire him as courageous fighter for equal treatment for blacks. It is also an unwitting portrait of the shrill, uncomprehending liberalism that has come to dominate American thinking about race.
At Lippencott, Go Set a Watchman was assigned to an experienced editor named Tay Hohoff (1899 – 1974). She later recalled that “the spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” but she did not consider the book ready for publication. For two years, Miss Lee and her editor rewrote the work until it bore little resemblance to the original manuscript. “I was a first time writer, so I did as I was told,” recalls Miss Lee. Go Set a Watchman, then, reveals for the first time a Harper Lee unmediated by the “hands on” editing of Hohoff, and there are surprises aplenty for any American who has taken high school English.
To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960, is narrated by nine-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, daughter of attorney Atticus Finch. It is set in the small south-Alabama town of Maycomb, circa 1935. There is much space allotted to the childhood adventures of Scout and her elder brother, narrated with understated humor. For many young readers, undoubtedly, this is the main source of the novel’s appeal.
But To Kill a Mockingbird owes its longstanding position as required reading in American high schools to its account of the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. The accuser is a contemptible piece of “white trash” who lives on government relief checks and occasional poaching, but who has one inestimable advantage over the accused: “if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.”
Atticus Finch is the object of much unfavorable gossip and even threats merely for representing a black defendant. At the trial, Finch proves Tom’s innocence to the unbiased reader, but within a few hours the jury returns the inevitable guilty verdict. Finch views it as a remarkable success that even one juror initially intended to vote for acquittal, and that the jury spent several hours deliberating.
The reader is clearly led to understand that the treatment of Tom Robinson is typical of its time and place, and that no black man in such a situation could possibly have hoped for justice. But there are very few real-life historical analogues, and Harper Lee has always been evasive about where she found her inspiration for the case. Perhaps the nearest historical equivalent was the 1945 trial and eventual 1951 execution of Willie McGee, made into a cause celèbre by the US Communist Party. But Willie McGee was probably guilty.
The biggest surprise in Go Set a Watchman may be that the trial around which To Kill a Mockingbird is built occupies only a single page. Tom Robinson is never named, no information is given on his accuser, and Finch wins an acquittal. Hohoff must have zeroed in early on the possibilities of giving this story a different ending.
Go Set a Watchman is set in the mid-1950s, some twenty years after the action of To Kill a Mockingbird. Twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch is returning from New York to her hometown for a two-week vacation with her family. The story is written in the third person. Only a few short passages, and these not among the most important, found their way into the novel that was published in 1960.
The most enjoyable episodes in Watchman are the occasional reminiscences of Jean Louise’s earlier life growing up in Maycomb, and this may be what inspired Hohoff to suggest rewriting the work as a childhood memoir. As in To Kill a Mockingbird, the childhood adventures are largely unrelated to the book’s political message.
Go Set a Watchman actually concentrates more closely on racial politics than the novel with which we are familiar. About one-third of the way into the story, Jean Louise happens onto a pamphlet her father has been reading:
On its cover was a drawing of an anthropophagous Negro; above the drawing was printed The Black Plague. Its author was somebody with several academic degrees after his name.
In Jean Louise’s retelling, the booklet explains how:
the Negroes couldn’t help being inferior to the white race because their skulls are thicker and their brain-pans shallower . . . so we must all be very kind to them and not let them do anything to hurt themselves.
Her aunt explains that “it’s something your father brought home from a Citizens’ Council meeting.” (The Citizens’ Councils were set up throughout the South in the 1950s to resist school desegregation on both constitutional and racial grounds.) Horrified, Jean Louise rushes down to the courthouse where both her father and her longtime suitor Hank are attending a council meeting at that very moment. As she arrives, Finch is introducing the featured speaker, a certain Grady O’Hanlon, whose speech is summarized as follows:
Mr. O’Hanlon was born and bred in the South, went to school there, married a Southern lady, lived all his life there, and his main interest today was to uphold the Southern Way of Life and no niggers and no Supreme Court was going to tell him or anybody else what to do . . . a race as hammer-headed as . . . essential inferiority . . . kinky woolly heads . . . still in the trees . . . greasy smelly . . . marry your daughters . . . mongrelize the race . . . mongrelize . . . mongrelize . . . save the South . . . Black Monday . . . lower than cockroaches . . . God made the races . . . nobody knows why but He intended for ’em to stay apart . . . if He hadn’t He’d’ve made us all one color . . . back to Africa . . .
Jean Louise leaves the courthouse. Shortly afterwards, she vomits.
O’Hanlon’s speech is presented as a miscellaneous collection of broken phrases separated by ellipse. This makes it impossible to evaluate the speaker’s argument, or even know whether he had one. All we are given is an emotional reaction to the coloring of certain phrases.
It is at this point that Miss Lee introduces the anecdote about Atticus Finch defending a black man wrongly accused of rape. Jean Louise cannot understand how the same man could now be attending Citizens’ Council meetings, and assumes that some dramatic change in his character must have taken place. The media reaction to Watchman has been identical; this Atticus Finch is utterly unlike the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird.
Of course, there is no contradiction between supporting segregation and wanting to see an innocent black man acquitted. Despite the impression conveyed by To Kill a Mockingbird, there is no evidence that most Southerners—who certainly supported segregation—wanted to see black people wrongfully convicted.
But Jean Louise thinks her father has “betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly” by attending a Citizens’ Council meeting. She got her ideas about the council from New York newspapers. As she recalls:
one glance down a column of print was enough to tell her a familiar story: same people who were the Invisible Empire, who hated Catholics; ignorant, fear-ridden, red-faced, boorish, law-abiding, one hundred percent red-blooded Anglo-Saxons, her fellow Americans—trash. [emphasis added]
An important part of any ideology is how it accounts for dissenters. For racial egalitarianism, this has remained unchanged since Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman: the “racist” is driven by ignorance and fear. This explains away anything a “racist” might say, makes egalitarian ideology unfalsifiable, and prevents communication between believers and unbelievers.
Much of the second half of Go Set a Watchman is devoted to Jean Louise’s fuming over what she has seen, and it does not make pleasant reading. She calls her father a “double-dealing ring-tailed old son of a bitch,” and angrily breaks off her engagement with Hank. She reduces her aunt to tears by telling her she is leaving and never wants to see anyone from Maycomb again. Hohoff served Harper Lee well in convincing her to transform Scout into an innocent nine-year-old girl.
Jean Louise soon discovers other racial realities. When she goes to visit Calpurnia, the black housekeeper who was a substitute mother to her as a child, she is met with “a haughty dignity” utterly unlike the intimate friendliness she had always known, and she is understandably upset. When she returns home, her aunt tries to explain the changes that have taken place in the South while she was away in New York:
Jean Louise, nobody in Maycomb goes to see Negroes any more, not after what they’ve been doing to us. Besides being shiftless now they look at you sometimes with open insolence, and as far as depending on them goes, why that’s out. That NAACP’s come down here and filled ’em with poison. You do not realize what is going on. We’ve been good to ’em, we’ve bailed ’em out of jail and out of debt since the beginning of time, we’ve made work for ’em when there was no work, we’ve encouraged ’em to better themselves, they’ve gotten civilized, but my dear—that veneer of civilization’s so thin that a bunch of uppity Yankee Negroes can shatter a hundred years’ progress in five . . . . No ma’am, after the thanks they’ve given us for looking after ’em, nobody in Maycomb feels much inclined to help ’em when they get in trouble now. All they do is bite the hand that feed ’em. No sir, not any more—they can shift for themselves, now.
The political entrepreneurs of the NAACP have been preaching racial militancy and collective political struggle through the courts in a land where race relations, indeed all social relations, have always been conceived in personal terms. Whites are indignant. As Finch explains to Jean Louise:
The NAACP-paid lawyers are standing around like buzzards. They watch and wait, just for some felony committed by a Negro against a white person—you’d be surprised how quick they find out—in they come and . . . they demand Negroes on the juries in such cases. They subpoena the jury commissioners, they ask the judge to step down, they raise every legal trick in their books—and they have ’em aplenty—they try to force the judge into error. Above all else, they try to get the case into a Federal court where they know the cards are stacked in their favor.
Still upset, Jean Louise visits her father’s brother, Uncle Jack. He tries to explain to her that the South is trying to defend a vision of a society of free and responsible citizens who manage their own affairs. He believes that race is being seized upon by unscrupulous people as a means to carry out a political revolution in the South, and that the entire race question is “incidental to the issue in the war we’re in now:”
The only thing I’m afraid of about this country is that its government will someday become so monstrous that the smallest person in it will get trampled underfoot, and then it won’t be worth living in. The only thing in America that is still unique in this tired world is that a man can go as far as his brains will take him or he can go to hell if he wants to, but it won’t be that way much longer. Now, at this very minute, a political philosophy foreign to it is being pressed on the South, and the South’s not ready for it . . . . [A]ll over the South your father and men like your father are fighting a sort of rearguard, delaying action . . . . Jean Louise, when a man’s looking down the double barrel of a shotgun, he picks up the first weapon he can find to defend himself, be it a stone or a stick of stovewood or a citizens’ council.
Despite the author’s liberalism, this is not a bad summary of how many Southerners of the time viewed Second Reconstruction (aka the “Civil Rights Movement”). Yet his remarks have little effect on Jean Louise; she goes away reflecting that her uncle is “mad as a hatter.”
In her showdown with her father shortly afterwards, however, Jean Louise makes some surprising admissions. She acknowledges that the Supreme Court’s Brown decision made her “furious:” “there they were, telling us what to do again.” She understands that the decision was a usurpation of power not delegated to the federal government (let alone to the Supreme Court) by the US Constitution, and therefore a violation of the Tenth Amendment. Her father also elicits an acknowledgment from her that “our Negro population is backward” and that “the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship.”
Finch explains his Jeffersonian ideal of citizenship:
Jefferson believed full citizenship was a privilege to be earned by each man, that it was not something given lightly nor to be taken lightly. A man couldn’t vote simply because he was a man, in Jefferson’s eyes. He had to be a responsible man. A vote was, to Jefferson, a precious privilege a man attained for himself in a—a live-and-let-live economy.
The NAACP, by contrast, “doesn’t care whether a Negro man owns or rents his land, how well he can farm, or whether or not he tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet—oh no, all the NAACP cares about is that man’s vote.” Here we glimpse the origins of our modern plebiscitary oligarchy exercising broad, unconstitutional power through the clever manipulation of uninformed, economically dependent voters.
Finch, in his turn, acknowledges to Jean Louise that Grady O’Hanlon, with his talk of “lower than cockroaches,” does not reflect well upon the Citizens’ Councils: “Mr. O’Hanlon’s not, I am happy to say, typical of the Maycomb County council membership . . . . I rather think he’s paid by some organization in Massachusetts.” When Jean Louise asks Finch why he allowed the man to speak, Finch gives her a lesson in the Southern conception of tolerance: “Because he wanted to.” In the same vein, another character observes, “people don’t agree with the Klan, but they certainly don’t try to prevent them from puttin’ on sheets and making fools of themselves in public.”
Jean Louise is a prototype of the modern progressive who cannot defend his views and is reduced to shrieking when exposed to unfamiliar ideas. She accuses her father of being “a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant,” calls her uncle a “cynical old man,” and complains that “Hank and Aunty have lost their minds.” Mainstream reviews of Go Set a Watchman are entirely focused on the revelation that Finch is a “racist;” I seem to be alone in disliking the shrill and self-righteous Jean Louise. Perhaps this is because the entire mainstream of American journalism has become this unpleasant character writ large.
Go Set a Watchman is not great fiction, but it is something like a time capsule from the age in which it was written. As a portrait of a particular era in American history it is surely more realistic than the ideologically distorted view of the 1930s that made To Kill a Mockingbird famous. But America has grown more narrow-minded in the nearly six decades since it was written, and most of our contemporaries will react with uncomprehending horror to the prescient concerns of white Southerners of that era.