In ‘Go Set a Watchman’, Racism Is Resilient and Seductive

In Harper Lee’s dry run for To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s somehow less shocking that Atticus Finch is a racist but that his once-forceful daughter Scout is so powerless against him.

Go away, the old buildings said. There is no place for you here. You are not wanted. We have secrets.

I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long a joke to play on anybody, no matter how funny it is.

Go Set a Watchman

In Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch, no longer going by her tomboy nickname “Scout”, takes the train from New York to her hometown of Maycomb. She’s 26 and, except for an affinity for coffee, not much different from the effervescent tomboy we first met in To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that stands in even grander relief against this unfinished-feeling first draft now pressed into unnecessary service as a semi-sequel.

Jean Louise’s narrating voice has changed with her age. There is less wonderment and awe to her than we might have imagined from the onetime chronicler of Boo Radley, the kind of character nowhere to be seen in this more brightly lit and workaday book. She’s a young adult now, albeit one who still “moved like a thirteen-year-old boy and abjured most feminine adornment.” Snarky and perspicacious, she reels off amusing asides about the tribal customs and comic history of her Southern home in a voice that’s amused without being mocking. She seems caught in the kind of extended adolescence common to those dash off to New York at a young age without ever quite cutting ties to home.

Once back in Maycomb, it’s clear just how much Jean Louise has changed, though not necessarily grown. The passing of time and a change of perspective have done their work. The events of To Kill a Mockingbird hang in the background of this novel like family portraits, darkening with age but still beckoning. Like a soldier come back from the wars, she wonders “who else in Maycomb still remembered Scout Finch, juvenile desperado, hellraiser extraordinary.”

The Finch family home, freighted with so much symbolic import in To Kill a Mockingbird, is gone now. “They built an ice cream parlor where the old one was,” Jean Louise muses in one of the more distinctly autobiographical details (an ice cream stand was constructed on the grounds of Lee’s childhood home in Monroeville, Alabama). Jem, her beloved brother and the protective anchor of To Kill a Mockingbird, has been dead for two years. Dill, Lee’s Truman Capote stand-in and Jean Louise’s “friend of her heart” with the “face of an angel and the cunning of a stoat”, is departed for Europe.

Distressingly, Jean Louise’s aunt Alexandra has moved in with the aged and arthritic Atticus, putting her in prime position to render judgment on Jean Louise’s unfeminine ways. Alexandra also has opinions on Hank Clinton, Jean Louise’s right nice fiancé who everybody else (except the noncommittal narrator herself) thinks she should marry: “We Finches do not marry the children of rednecked white trash.”

Atticus, the grand sentinel of moral suasion and timeless truths, is a distant and cold presence. He and Jean Louise knock the banter back and forth like shuttlecocks over a slumped badminton net, but there’s an unease there. When she moves to hug him, Atticus “suffered her embrace and returned it as best he could.” The difference between that cool flinch of an old man and the remote but deeply loving Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird is stark.

About a hundred enjoyably rambling pages in, Lee snaps that contrast savagely into focus. Atticus is remembered by Jean Louise as the lawyer who accomplished something never done before or since in Maycomb: “he won the acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge.” The epic trial which convulsed the town and gave To Kill a Mockingbird its high dramatic charge and moral core is here relegated to a few paragraphs that end with Jean Louise noting how Atticus “never knew two pairs of eyes like his own were watching him from the balcony.” Jean Lousie’s childhood memories of that trial are interwoven with a more troubling incident she witnesses not long after coming back to town.

After finding a white-supremacist pamphlet at the house, and hearing Alexandra reel off a stream of racist sewage like some backwoods Klan member, Jean Louise discovers that Atticus and Hank are involved in one of the infamous citizens councils that enforced segregation across the postwar South. Sneaking into the balcony of the courthouse in an ironic reversal of one of To Kill a Mockingbird’s most potent images, Jean Louise is horrified at what she hears, as we all imagine the good-hearted and true Scout would be.

Like in one of those horror stories where the heroine realizes that everyone around her is secretly a witch or part of a cult, she discovers that almost everybody she knows have turned into hate-spewing bigots fulminating about Yankee agitators. The seemingly upright Hank mutters disapprovingly after passing a “carload of Negroes” driving too fast on a night road, “that’s the way they assert themselves these days.” Alexandra informs her that “nobody in Maycomb goes to see Negroes anymore, not after what they’ve been doing to us.” “What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved?” Jean Louise wonders.

But this earlier creation of Lee’s is no moral champion. In the middle of Jean Louise’s revulsion, Lee inserts this thought balloon for her about the citizen councils:

She knew about them, all right. New York papers full of it. She wished she had paid more attention to them, but only one glance down a column of print was enough to tell a familiar story: same people who were the Invisible Empire, who hated Catholics; ignorant, fear-ridden, red-faced, boorish, law-abiding, one hundred per cent red-blooded Anglo-Saxons, her fellow Americans—trash.

Although the “Atticus is a racist” revelation was what made all the headlines after the novel’s long-hyped release, this passage above reveals something more complex about how To Kill a Mockingbird reworked some of this novel’s themes. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus terms the poor, racist Ewell family “trash” not for their class but their racist attitudes. But here, “trash” is used by Lee to denote a nouveau, suspiciously non-Southern snobbishness in Jean Louise’s thinking. She knew about them, all right. New York papers full of it. That commentary signals everything that is to come in the book’s dramatically dead and morally disgraceful conclusion.

After realizing that the white people of her home town have distorted themselves into racist caricatures in defense against the civil rights movement, Jean Louise works herself into a high rage, telling Atticus (in her mind, at least) “You who called me Scout are dead and in your grave.”

Then Lee gives the narrative an unexpected twist. Instead of building to a grand confrontation, the novel steps politely back to allow several white men to lecture a confused Jean Louise about how she’s got them all wrong. One after the other, they trot out all the canards still used by segregation apologists decades later: If those nosy NAACP lawyers would stop getting the local Negroes all riled up, things could go back to the way they were; it’s unconstitutional for the Supreme Court to tell us (whites) how to do things; and the old classic, the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about (all together now) state’s rights.

By the end of this shock and awe campaign, Jean Louise is left practically convinced that her New York-ified self has gotten it wrong. What’s troubling here is not that Lee allows Jean Louise to be cowed into submission; in fact, when it looks like Got Set a Watchman is heading that way, it briefly becomes a more interesting novel. Showing how otherwise decent people can be poisoned by prejudice could have made for a muddier, intriguing work.

The irksome thing is that the authorial voice (which is continually mixed up with Jean Louise’s, in a sign that this was likely a not entirely edited draft) is so clearly approving of that surrender. Lee even has Jean Louise admit to Atticus that she was made “furious” by the “Supreme Court decision” (assumedly the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision which ruled school segregation unconstitutional). She spits angrily about how “there they were, tellin’ us what to do again,” like some right-wing pundit fulminating about “judicial activists” or one of Ayn Rand’s speechifying capitalist puppets.

Jean Louise’s reactionary anger could make sense, were it not for the novel’s confused insistence that she is “color blind”. It’s a difficult argument to make, when a character supposedly incapable of racism capitulates so easily when faced with it. Additionally, by bringing race so front and center in Go Set a Watchman, Lee makes the book’s lack of black characters even more pointed. There are only a couple of scenes with Jean Louise’s old housekeeper Calpurnia; including one unfortunately described moment when Jean Louise goes to Calpurnia’s home and Lee uses that unfortunate descriptive that popped up again in To Kill a Mockingbird: the “smell of clean Negro.” Otherwise the books’ pages are filled with white people arguing over whether black people are civilized enough to be allowed equal access to society. In the end, it’s not backward racial attitudes that doom the book, it’s the lack of different voices.

A thinner piece of work in every way than To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman, which is not without its charms, takes its own hazy time getting around to cranking up the engine of plot. But when it does, you wish it had stuck with the passages of Jean Louise’s meanderings and wool-gathering and reminiscences that provide a rough echo of the wondrous dark spell cast by the grand tale this rough outline became.

Go Set a Watchman was Lee’s first take on the story and To Kill a Mockingbird the result of a long relationship with her editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, who nurtured the book’s complete revision so that it focused on what worked and what didn’t. If this ultimately vague and unsatisfying version of Go Set a Watchman was what Hohoff reviewed, her instincts were absolutely correct.

RATING 4 / 10