In ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ Harper Lee at Last Gives Us a Believable Atticus Finch
Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman before salvaging its characters and setting for To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet in many ways, the earlier book is more honest.
The trouble starts on page 101. Until then, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is mostly a novel of manners, a slightly acid, often funny portrayal of small-town Southern life in the ’50s featuring familiar characters from the only other novel Lee has published, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Familiar may be too mild a word. It is not too much to say that the characters in Mockingbird are iconic. Judging by recent Internet chatter, Scout and Jem Finch and their noble father, Atticus, are very real people to a lot of readers. Mess with indelible characters like that, and you’re asking for trouble.
If you’ve stayed abreast of the controversies that have dogged the publication of Watchman, you know it was written first, before Mockingbird, and that Lee’s editor at Lippincott persuaded the first-time author to drastically revise her story. So a novel set in the middle ’50s was rewritten and moved back to the Depression, and the author shaved 20 years off the lives of her characters. Plainly it was a winning strategy. Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize, sold 40 million copies, and has become required reading in schools around the world.
The Watchman manuscript, meanwhile, was shelved, all but forgotten for more than half a century, until recently, when Lee, according to her lawyer and her publisher, agreed to publish it.
I had misgivings about that decision, wondering, as many have, why Lee, at 89, would reverse herself. For decades, she has insisted that she would never publish another book, so the suspicion arose that a nearly deaf, nearly blind woman in a nursing home was being manipulated or lied to, and perhaps that is true. But now, having read the novel, I think I understand why she waited so long, and I am glad she changed her mind.
The plot of Watchman is nothing like Mockingbird, though most of the characters are the same. Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, now 26 and living in New York, comes home to Maycomb, Alabama, for a two-week vacation, where she ponders marriage to an old beau, endures the pestering of her Aunt Alexandra, and discovers a horrible secret about her father.
Line for line, Watchman isn’t nearly as well crafted as Mockingbird. It lacks Mockingbird’s sculpted scenes and the almost fanatical attention to detail that makes things so vivid, right down to the way women perspired through their talcum powder in the summer heat until they resembled tea cakes.
Watchman is clearly the work of the same author—Lee was a natural when it came to sketching a character in a few lines of dialogue, and her comic eye never fails her regarding the rituals of small towns, be they religious revivals or ladies’ morning coffee gatherings.
But clearly in rewriting and rewriting and rewriting the original manuscript (I’d say maybe 10 or 15 pages of the first book found their way, along with nearly all the characters, into Mockingbird), Lee learned a lot about what does and does not work in fiction.
Thus, in Watchman, which the publisher says is pretty much what Lee submitted in the first place years ago, whole chapters devolve into set speeches and debates that at times read like PowerPoint presentations. A love affair central to the plot never really makes sense. And Uncle Jack, who is one of the small joys of Mockingbird, is here portrayed as so intellectually fey that you want to find a gun and shoot him.
That said, Watchman is a much more honest book than Mockingbird, or perhaps more realistic. Its characters aren’t as easy to love, and sometimes they’re not loveable at all. But for that reason they are more real, more like people we all know.
Do you know anyone as fine as the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird? I certainly don’t. But the Atticus in Watchman, yeah, him I know.
Which bring us back to page 101. That’s when Jean Louise discovers that her father might be a racist.
Within a few pages, her suspicions are confirmed: Atticus is a member of the town’s white citizens council, one of those noxious groups dedicated to upholding segregation and the so-called Southern way of life, i.e., white people in power in a Jim Crow world.
Given that she wrote this book in the mid-’50s and given that Atticus is at least partly modeled on her own father, I’d guess Lee was working out a lot of things in this book. And she certainly doesn’t hold back. She could have made Atticus much more moderate. Instead, she just guns it and gives him what for, handing him lines like this: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
As a Southerner who, as the saying goes, has gone off up North, I am all too familiar with the reception Jean Louise receives upon returning home to Maycomb: the suspicion, encountered at every turn, that she has been brainwashed by Yankees and the concomitant defensiveness about Southern mores. Lee’s passages on this theme in Watchman are as shrewd as anything I’ve ever read on the subject.
And her true theme in Watchman is not to merely demolish Atticus but to reconcile what we love in people with the things about them that we hate. That she succeeds is borne out by the fact that we do not like this Atticus but we believe in him as a character, as a man who must be wrestled with.
So why did she jettison the most interesting part of the earlier draft when she wrote Mockingbird? (And for the record, her publisher is being honest in saying that Watchman is not merely a first draft of the more famous version: She lifted characters and a few passages for Mockingbird, but they truly are distinct books.)
The weakest parts of Mockingbird are those concerning the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man and the ensuing trial, all of which is quite pat and easily digested. Who wouldn’t root for Tom Robinson and curse the trashy Ewells? And Atticus Finch, as the lawyer who nobly defends Robinson, is never anything less than a white knight, a hero without stain, and in that regard more than a little boring.
What’s good about Mockingbird are the sections about childhood. Yes, the childhood enjoyed by Scout and Jem and their friend Dill is the childhood that we all wished for but that very few of us had. But there are real things mixed in with the fantasy—the childish persistence in luring Boo Radley out—that ring absolutely true. The children treat Boo like he’s just another element in one of their games, and who has not been guilty of such behavior?
But somewhere in her revising, Lee turned Atticus from a real man with troubles and flaws into a plaster saint, and along the way all the life bled out. I can’t say the Atticus in Watchman is likeable, but he’s certainly a lot more believable.
Though written first, Watchman ironically makes a satisfying sequel to Mockingbird. It may never make any high school’s required reading lists (and is there any worse fate for a book? I loved Mockingbird as a teenager but only because I devoured it on my own; I completely sympathize with acquaintances who were forced to read it in school and usually forced to admire it and instead wound up hating it). But maybe the kids who read Mockingbird will read Watchman when they grow up and understand that the real purpose of fiction isn’t to give us a lesson you could stitch in a sampler but to clarify dilemmas that can’t be resolved. As Faulkner said, the only good stories are the ones about the human heart in conflict with itself. And that’s a pretty good summation of Go Set a Watchman.