The most extraordinary thing about the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is the lack of generosity that has greeted it in so many reviews. It began with the very undignified questioning as to whether Lee was compos mentis enough to authorise its publication.
This is surely the most interesting literary phenomenon of this century, so far. The novel presented to us is not To Kill a Mockingbird and should not be compared directly to that novel, which is a polished diamond, a work of literary genius. Indeed, as we now know, Mockingbird is a novel in which painstaking collaborative work between Lee and her editor, Tay Hohoff, played a huge part. Go see Wikipedia’s account for more detail. The first injustice to Lee is to make a like-with-like comparison between the two.
But apart from its purely literary interest the book is fascinating, despite its unedited rawness. The writer who gave us the later work (1960) can clearly be seen emerging in this. Some of its humour is a delight, as is much of its characterisation. Make allowances for the unedited condition of what you have before you and you will enjoy this book as much as any you have read in this or any other year.
It is however, not just a delight. It is a worrying book grappling with a complex issue. Some reviewers tell us that we will be shocked by the revelation that the heroic Atticus Finch, whom we so admired in To Kill a Mockingbird, is “a card-carrying racist”. This is wide of the mark. This kind of reading misses the nuance of the historical document which this book is. It also misses the tragedy which is the old South– a tragedy which only a few weeks ago visited us again in the person of the murderous Dylan Roof who went on the rampage in Charleston.
The conflict which is at the heart of this book is complex – both in its manifestation in and between its characters, above all in the heart of Scout – or Jean Louise as we now know her – and in that of her father Atticus.
In 1954 the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. The decision overturned a decision of 1896, which allowed state-sponsored segregation insofar as it applied to public education. The Court unanimously declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This was the first major victory of the civil rights movement. But for many – not just Southerners and segregationists – it was a step too far in court activism.
The ideas ascribed to Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman are those of “gradualism” and a commitment to states’ rights. These were commonplace in the South in the middle of the 20th century. In a novel built around a very similar scenario, William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1948) explored a similar theme. Essentially there is nothing in To Kill a Mockingbird which tells us that Atticus Finch has actually changed his views by the time in which Watchman is set. In the 1960 novel he defended an innocent man because he was innocent – not because he was a Negro. Atticus’ passion is the rule of law, and justice in the law. His politics was something else and politics did not really enter To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman is all about politics and the question of how best to achieve justice through politics.
The Brown case is the backdrop to the conflict which rages between Scout and her father. She is, as she says, “colour blind”. She cannot understand racism. But she is a Southerner and still has the spirit of the old South. She is now a resident of New York where the free and somewhat cruel spirit of the place has enveloped her. “I can tell you,” she says at one point, “In New York you are your own person. You may reach out and embrace all of Manhattan in sweet aloneness, or you can go to hell if you want to.”
In To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus says to Scout at one point, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” — a reference to the “outsiders” of that story, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. This is the theme which also permeates Watchman – first of all relating to the central characters themselves, Jean Louise and her father, but also more broadly to the protagonists right across the spectrum of the races at war with each other in the Southern States. To call Atticus a bigot in the context of this novel is a gross oversimplification.
In one of the better reviews, Natasha Trethewey in The Washington Post, writes:
“Watchman is compelling in its timeliness. During the historical moment in which the novel takes place, in states such as Georgia and South Carolina, legislators had begun to authorize the raising of the Confederate flag over the statehouse or the incorporation of it into the design of state flags as a reaction and opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision — thus inscribing the kind of white Southern anxiety dramatized in Lee’s novel.
“Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it gives us a way to look at history from a great distance. It has been 61 years since the Brown decision, and now we have the hindsight to see the larger impact that Lee’s characters could not quite see: an outcome, as Warren suggested — that ‘desegregation is just one small episode in the long effort for justice.’”
There is another dimension to its timeliness as well – almost eerie in the juxtaposition of this book’s publication and the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. It comes in the key confrontation between Jean Louise and her father about the Brown judgement, about which both of them were unhappy. She put it this way:
“[I]n trying to satisfy one amendment, it looks like they rubbed out another one. The Tenth. It’s only a small amendment, only one sentence long, but it seemed to be the one that meant the most, somehow…It seemed that to meet the real needs of a small portion of the population, the Court set up something horrible that could – that could affect the vast majority of folks. Adversely that is. Atticus, I don’t know anything about it – all we have is the Constitution between us and anything some smart fellow wants to start, and there went the Court just breezily cancelling one amendment, it seemed to me.”
Then, a few lines further on we have this: “She looked at the faded picture of the Nine Old Men on the wall to the left of her. Is Roberts dead? She wondered. She could not remember.”
Reading all that you are inclined to scratch your head and ask if a bit of doctoring had not been done. No, of course not. It is just a coincidence that the current Chief Justice, who gave a scathing dissenting view on the Kennedy majority judgement in Obergefell, should be called John Roberts.
Today’s Roberts sounded not a little like Atticus Finch when he said: “Stripped of its shiny rhetorical gloss, the majority’s argument is that the Due Process Clause gives same-sex couples a fundamental right to marry because it will be good for them and for society. If I were a legislator, I would certainly consider that view as a matter of social policy. But as a judge, I find the majority’s position indefensible as a matter of constitutional law.”
Go Set a Watchman is not, as some arrogant critics have said, a book which should never have been published. It is and will remain, even in the draft form in which we have been given it – thankfully no one tried to doctor it – one of the treasures of American literature. It is so partly in its own right but especially as a gloss to its beautiful progeny, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Michael Kirke blogs at Garvan Hill, where this article was first published.