Literary News: To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman

When I started this blog in January, my first post was a short comment on the frenzy around the discovery of a “new” manuscript by Harper Lee. That manuscript was released almost two weeks ago as Go Set a WatchmanIn my January post, I noted that the manuscript was hardly new, but—according to Lee herself—was instead an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. During the recent hullabaloo about Watchman‘s relative merits, the most important thing we can do is read this new novel as part of Lee’s process. I mean this not simply in terms of her writing process, but also in the character development of Atticus Finch and his own latent racism. Watchman offers us a necessary chance to revise Atticus. That is, the blatant racism of Watchman‘s Atticus (who sits on Maycomb’s racist “Citizens Council”) makes apparent the latent racism in Mockingbird‘s Atticus, who disguises his desire to maintain an old South order with an incrementalist approach to solving Maycomb’s (and the South’s) racism. This will likely run to be a long post, but there are two things I want to point out: Atticus Finch was always racist, and we shouldn’t read Watchman as a sequel but as an early draft.

I’m not the first to point this out. Over at The New Republic, Laura Marsh deftly points out the number of scholars who have attempted to explain Atticus Finch’s racism, even in his Mockingbird incarnation. In a piece posted on both and the HuffPost books blog, Jesse Kornbluth does a small mashup of Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review of Watchman; Kornbluth concurs with Kakutani that Atticus’s attitude towards African Americans is paternalistic and therefore patronizes Blacks as “children.” It’s from the same stockpile of exclusionary ideology as John Stuart Mill’s claims in “What Is Poetry?”—a piece which I’ve also blogged about here—and Mill uses this idea of other peoples as “childish” to exclude them from the canon of Western knowledge. Watchman makes more explicit what Mockingbird obscures beneath Scout’s idolization of her father and moviegoers’ subsequent attachment to the Gregory Peck. In Watchman, Atticus offers a loaded rhetorical question: “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?” It could be cut straight from Mill, and it continues to influence Mockingbird‘s Atticus. I’ll quote two sections here. In the first, Atticus explains that he was appointed to take the Tom Robinson case, and his state of mind undercuts the virtuous, heroic Atticus of the popular imagination. In the second, Atticus offers to Scout and Jem a glimpse into incrementalism that defers any genuine change.

“Before I’m through, I intend to jar the jury a bit—I think we’ll have a reasonable chance on appeal, though. I really can’t tell at this stage, Jack. You know, I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but John Taylor pointed at me and said, ‘You’re It.'” (100)

“Tom’s jury sho’ made up its mind in a hurry,” Jem muttered.
Atticus’s fingers went to his watch pocket. “No it didn’t,” he said, more to himself than us. “That was the one thing that made me think, well, this may be the shadow of a beginning. That jury took a few hours. An inevitable verdict, maybe, but usually it takes ’em just a few minutes. This time—” he broke off and looked at us. “You might like to know that there was one fellow who took considerable wearing down—in the beginning he was rarin’ for an outright acquittal.”

Although the Mockingbird Atticus does express the desire to inoculate his children against “Maycomb’s usual disease,” these are not the words of an activist. In the first case, Atticus hankers for a simple and pleasurable life, one that does not require an encounter with the racist thought that drives life in the 1930s South. In the second instance, Atticus puts the duty for inclusionary thought on a jury of racists, and he then couches this in an incrementalist approach—”the shadow of a beginning”—that continues to defer equality.

Because I re-read Mockingbird before reading Watchman, and because I read it in the light of the racially motivated killings that have plagued America this past year, the bigoted Atticus hardly surprised me. I was bowled over by how lackadaisical Atticus seemed; even in Mockingbird, he preferred to enthrone himself in his living room chair, read the newspaper, and detach himself from his world.

The other matter is Watchman‘s literary value and its potential legacy. The fortieth anniversary edition of Mockingbird includes a brief foreword by Lee, in which she petitions the publisher to “spare Mockingbird an Introduction. [. . .] Introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity.” Watchman, however, could have benefited from an introduction, if not the annotations and glosses that often accompany critical editions. There is nothing that indicates to the reader that Watchman is an earlier draft of Mockingbird, and a reader hoping for a sequel will inevitably be disappointed. Watchman is an excellent draft, but a weak novel. Watchman casts a candid portrayal of racism in the South, and Jean Louise’s muddled loyalties to liberalism and her upbringing have the tenor of plausibility. The prose also contains glimmers of brilliance, many of which find themselves transmuted into Mockingbird; a prime example is Scout/Jean Louise’s disquisition on the Coninghams and the Cunninghams. Elsewhere, though, the prose is uneven and uncontrolled; Lee slips into late-Modernist stream of consciousness only to show Scout’s tirades, and the diction in direct dialogue often seems identical, eliding the differences between characters’ voices.

Mockingbird and Watchman should be taught together and should be read together: from Watchman, we learn much about how a writer can hone her craft and create a more nuanced, powerful book like Mockingbird, and Watchman also offers a necessary opportunity to re-read—and to re-assess—Atticus Finch’s paternalism, incrementalism, and racially motivated resistance to change.

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