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Harper Lee’s ‘Watchman’ Undoes the Hypocritical Fantasies of Benevolent White Power in ‘Mockingbird’

‘Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced.’

Adam Kirsch
July 15, 2015

Toward the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, there is a scene set in Scout Finch’s classroom, where the children are studying current events. The novel is set in the mid-1930s, and so it make sense that one student should bring in a newspaper clipping about Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. The teacher, Miss Gates, earnestly deplores the way Hitler is treating Jews—“There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me,” she declares—and she seizes the occasion to instill a lesson in civics. “That’s the difference between America and Germany,” Miss Gates says. “We are a democracy and Germany is a dictatorship. … Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced.”

The irony, like all the ironies in Lee’s 1960 classic, hits the reader head-on. For we have just been through the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, and seen how the town of Maycomb, Alabama, demands his conviction even though he is obviously innocent. (Here, too, the irony is blunt: Robinson has only one good arm, making it clear he could not have held down Mayella Ewell, as she claimed.) Prejudice, Lee has shown, is at the heart of the American social order. What makes it so confounding—what torments the young Scout and Jem, her brother—is that the white people she knows can be so immoral in their treatment of blacks and at the same time seem so kind and good in their treatment of each other. By the same token, they can sympathize with the Jews of Germany, but not with the black cooks, maids, nurses, and farmers whom they live with every day.

The adult world, Scout Finch learns, is built on hypocrisy. It is because this is always true, in the American South or anywhere else, that To Kill a Mockingbird appeals to generation after generation of young readers. Like The Catcher in the Rye, it is a classic young adult novel because it preserves the child’s sense of outraged innocence at discovering what people are really like. When Scout’s friend Dill is reduced to impotent tears by the cruelty of the prosecutor in the Tom Robinson case, a sympathetic adult comments, “Things haven’t caught up with that one’s instinct yet. Let him get a little older and he won’t get sick and cry. Maybe things’ll strike him as being—not quite right, say, but he won’t cry, not when he gets a few years on him.” Lee is one of the rare adult writers who really remembers what it feels like to cry at injustice.

To Kill a Mockingbird was written the 1950s, when the world knew how the story of Hitler’s persecutions would end. Miss Gates’ attitude toward anti-Semitism is distinctly postwar, chastened and horrified by the murder of 6 million Jews; before the war, it is not so likely that Lee could have counted on her readers to share her revulsion at Jew-hatred. But it is not just this brief scene that accounts for the love so many Jewish readers have given to Lee’s novel, and to Atticus and Scout. Rather, To Kill a Mockingbird exemplifies the moderate-liberal racial politics that Jews embraced en masse in the early days of the civil rights movement. Mockingbird continues to feature on school reading lists to this day as an anti-racist book, and for many readers it may well be their first occasion to wrestle with American racism.

Whether it deserves this central place in American culture is another story. For when you get right down to it, the comfortable message of the novel is that if only all white people were as good as Atticus Finch, African Americans would shower them with love and racism would disappear. One of the heart-tugging scenes in the book, and in the 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck, comes at the conclusion of the trial, when all the black spectators in the courtroom rise as Atticus Finch passes by: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’,” says the black minister Rev. Sykes reverently. It is a fantasy of white benevolence, but also of white power: The agency in the novel always rests with white people, and the role of most of the black characters is either to fear them or to be grateful to them. In this sense, To Kill a Mockingbird was, even when first published, a retrograde book, and it has only grown more so with the years.

There is something disingenuous, therefore, about the way so many people have reacted to the publication of Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s long-buried “second novel,” and in particular to the way that Atticus Finch appears in the book. Even before the novel appeared in stores, the Internet was full of breathless articles suggesting that Lee had “revealed” that Atticus was “really” a racist and that this was a scandalous tarnishing of an American icon. Of course, it is silly to say that Atticus is “really” anything—he is a literary character, or rather two characters sharing the same name, one in Watchman and one in Mockingbird, and so he can be anything Lee wants him to be. But the truth is that, in creating the Atticus of Watchman, Lee was a bolder and more truthful novelist than she was when she revised that early manuscript into Mockingbird. The proof lies in the hurt feelings of millions of readers who don’t want to be deprived of their lovable icon of white goodness.

The issue of time is a complicated one in considering these two books. Lee wrote Watchman first, in the mid-1950s, as the story of a young woman in her twenties, Jean Louise Finch, and her 72-year-old father, Atticus. Watchman is set in the then-present, when the Brown v. Board decision was fresh and the White Citizens’ Councils were springing up to enforce segregation in the South. Had it been published at the time, it would have been seen as a novel about current events, an intervention into the civil rights debate. But the editor who read the manuscript of Watchman advised Lee to rewrite it and set the story 20 years earlier, when Scout was a girl and Atticus in his middle-aged prime. This decision, along with the decision to switch from third-person to first-person narration, gave us Mockingbird, the book we have known for the last 55 years. As a result, Watchman is both earlier than Mockingbird, in terms of date of composition and maturity of style, and later, in terms of its setting and the age of its characters.

Now that Watchman exists, we will never again be able to think of Mockingbird without it.

Whether Go Set a Watchman should have been published at all is a good question—there remains a great deal of murkiness about the way this long-buried manuscript was rediscovered and sold only when Lee, who had never written a second book, was infirm and couldn’t say much about it. In literary terms, there is no doubt that Watchman is inferior to Mockingbird: It has much less drama and many more harangues, and of course it completely lacks the evocation of childhood that makes Mockingbird so beloved. (The few scenes that flash back to Scout’s childhood are, oddly, some of the weakest in the book.) But now that Watchman exists, we will never again be able to think of Mockingbird without it—and that is a good thing, because it complicates the simplicity of the latter’s racial worldview.

If To Kill a Mockingbird is a child’s-eye view of a perfectly good man—Atticus Finch, brave crusader for justice—then Go Set a Watchman is the adult’s realization that no man is ever really perfect. It is easy to connect the adult Jean Louise with the child Scout: When we learn that she has moved to New York to become a writer yet continues to cherish an agonizing loyalty to her hometown of Maycomb, we realize that this is exactly the future one might have predicted for the character. (It was, of course, Harper Lee’s own story, which accounts for its unity.) But Lee’s vision of the character of Atticus changed profoundly between the two drafts—and, oddly, it grew more simplistic rather than more complex. For the Atticus we see in Watchman is exactly what the Atticus we grew up admiring is not—a compromiser, a trimmer, someone who cares about public opinion. Far from defying the racial consensus of his community, he helps to enforce it as a member of the Maycomb Citizens’ Council and a staunch opponent of the NAACP.

There are some other subplots in Watchman, including a rather dull and coy will-she-or-won’t-she concerning the romance of Jean Louise and her suitor Henry. But the real subject of the book is Jean Louise’s horrified disillusionment when she returns home and realizes that her own father is in bed with racists. In the novel’s central scene, she eavesdrops on a Citizens’ Council meeting where Atticus presides and that features a viciously and profanely racist speaker. (Ironically, this scene is set in the Maycomb Courthouse, the very place where Atticus will argue for racial justice in Mockingbird.) Realizing that her father, whom she had always worshiped as unprejudiced and fair, is mixed up in such activity, Jean Louise has a kind of nervous breakdown and decides to leave Maycomb forever.

It is only in the novel’s last scenes that she is convinced, by her uncle Jack Finch, to be more understanding of Atticus’ racism and the good motives behind it. In a rhetorical twist that Lee evidently means us to approve, Jack tells Jean Louise that she is the real bigot, because she won’t listen to opinions that disagree with her own. The whole episode turns into a learning experience for Jean Louise, who is liberated from her unhealthy admiration of her father and given a valuable lesson about the intrusiveness of the federal government, the importance of states’ rights, and the backwardness of African Americans: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Atticus asks her. “In my experience, white is white and black’s black. So far, I’ve not yet heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise.”

What Watchman shows is that Lee herself, though she could see through such racist arguments, was not sufficiently removed from the racial climate of the white South to effectively refute them. It is clear that, when she wrote this first draft, she was still struggling to reconcile loyalty to her family and neighbors with criticism of their racist views. But instead of pressing forward with this struggle, which might have meant breaking with her family in a profound way, Lee retreated from it in Mockingbird. By changing Atticus Finch from a racist to an anti-racist, she dissolved the tension between principle and loyalty; now Scout could both idolize her father and be on the “right” side of the civil rights issue. A beloved American classic emerged from this failure of nerve—which speaks volumes about the way Americans like to read and think about race.


To read more of Adam Kirsch’s literary criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.