Review: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Gives Atticus Finch a Dark Side
Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, July 10, 2015
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.
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.
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.