My reaction to Go Set a Watchman

[Content note: Spoilers for Go Set a Watchman.  And of course, discussion of racism.]


I recently read Harper Lee’s new/old sequel/sort-of-prequel to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. I feel bad having read it at all, given the shady circumstances of its publication. However, not all of the blood is on my hands, since I didn’t buy it myself, and I have a feeling that sooner or later I would have run into a library copy and broken down and read it anyway.

I. General view

I first want to say that I seriously enjoyed the novel. It’s easy to see why it was probably un-publishable at the time Lee first submitted it, due to its power largely relying on a backstory which is only revealed through a few flashbacks and explicit descriptions of Jean Louise’s impressions of the major players in her earlier life. Since we have the benefit of having read Mockingbird, we are able to get much more out of it.  Go Set A Watchman has a lot of the same engaging narrative style that is part of what what makes Mockingbird great. Of course, the story told in Watchman is nowhere near as resonant or beautiful, and the smoothness of the narration is patchy in places.  But the writing quality should in no way be embarrassing to the author; I think this book should only strengthen the public’s view of Lee as a writer. Compared to Mockingbird, there’s a lot less action and more talk — there are some who would describe it as mostly a lot of people “shooting the shit” — but I find the political and philosophical back-and-forth discussions to be just as engaging as anything else (despite some clunkiness in multi-paragraph monologues). It’s mostly the political discourse that I want to analyze now.

Before I go on, I hope everyone’s agreed by now that Go Set A Watchman has never in any way been a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, but instead an early draft which (amazingly) has almost no overlap with the later version, even with all of the flashbacks. There are a few inconsistencies, particularly most details of the court case which is such a major focus in Mockingbird. And I want to be clear that I do not consider any of Watchman to be canon; I interpreted what I saw in Watchman as nothing more than a hypothetical version of Maycomb and its inhabitants, and hope that others approach it this way as well.

II. The two Atticuses

The main question that drove my curiosity going in was to what extent Lee’s conception of the town and characters, particularly Atticus, had evolved from the time she wrote the former to the time she wrote the latter. Would the two depictions be entirely compatible, or would they indicate a major change in the writer’s intentions? There seemed to be a wide variety of opinion on this, judging from the articles I’d read, so I was excited to find out for myself.

As to whether or not the descriptions are compatible (at least with regard to Atticus), my answer is… not quite.

It’s true that there’s a lot more similarity between the two Atticuses (what’s the correct plural inflection to use here? Attici?) than most feel entirely comfortable acknowledging. First of all, and most obviously, his general demeanor, mannerisms, and background seem about the same (that goes for all of the characters, more or less). But more controversially, it appears that he doesn’t outright contradict himself between the two novels as much as one might think at first glance. I reread Mockingbird just before reading Watchman, and noticed that only seldom do any of the characters directly address the larger picture of racism in the American South. Instead, they are focused on those concrete effects which they see playing out in the lives of those near them, mainly involving a black man falsely accused of rape. It’s easy to imagine Atticus defending him on the grounds of believing in basic justice for everyone and even acknowledging that accusations against the defendant are racially motivated, yet still being a segregationist when push comes to shove twenty years later.  (Threats coming from a certain ideological direction, such as the threat of Northern interference during the 1950’s, can have a polarizing effect which turns docile citizens into activists who push as hard as they can in the opposite direction, and Watchman, if viewed as an actual sequel to Mockingbird, portrays this quite well.  To be clear, I think in this case the North was at least overall in the right to act as they did, but in general, contributing to polarization is very dangerous.  But I digress.)

There are Atticus quotes in Mockingbird like this one:

There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves — it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in you children’s time.

…which somehow don’t sound like they would go down well with anti-racism activists today. With the reference to Negro “ignorance” and concern over the repercussions that may eventually come back to haunt white people, this quote is worded in a way that seems to foreshadow Hypothetical Atticus’ attitude twenty years later. Sure, it doesn’t quite imply that later attitude, but this particular wording does seem a bit suspicious in light of what we’ve seen in Watchman. (To be fair, he does put the blame on racist white people in this quote by saying they have it coming to them; in Watchman, Scout is the one who suggests this.)

On the other hand, there are Atticus quotes in Mockingbird like this much more celebrated one:

The witnesses for the state… have presented themselves to you gentlemen… confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption — the evil assumption — that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber.
Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson’s skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women, black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race, and to no particular race of men.

Now this does seem to go far enough in contradicting Hypothetical Atticus’ later attitude of regarding black people as infantile. (Note, though, that Atticus immediately follows it with a lecture alleging a natural lack of equality between different people, which is another view that seems to take on a troubling meaning in light of Watchman.)

Also, Atticus seems show a much deeper personal concern for Tom Robinson than would be suggested by Hypothetical Atticus. During Scout’s confrontation with Hypothetical Atticus in Watchman, she accuses him of not really caring when it came to the unnamed black man he advocated for long ago:

I remember that rape case you defended, but I missed the point. You love justice, all right. Abstract justice written down item by item on a brief — nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief. His case interfered with your orderly mind, and you had to work order out of disorder.

Atticus’ willingness to put his life at stake standing sentry at Tom Robinson’s jail cell, as well as his later visit to Tom’s family, don’t come across as behavior motivated merely by a compulsion to abstractly create order from disorder.

So I would disagree with those who say that our newly-found Hypothetical Atticus is wholly different from the Atticus we know and love, that his personality and values underwent a complete overhaul in the author’s mind between the production of the two books. On the other hand, I would also disagree with those who go as far as to say that Atticus’ true self was already apparent in Mockingbird but not explicitly revealed until Watchman; that it was obvious in Mockingbird that he never truly cared about the well-being of black people at all; that his defense of Tom Robinson clearly only arose from a desire to bring about order; and that anyone who thinks otherwise is evidently a white person hiding comfortably behind a belief in a hero who never really existed.

III. My moral reaction

Some articles heralding the publication of Watchman referred to Hypothetical Atticus using terms like “unapologetic racist”. He might be, but I’m skeptical. Nowhere in Watchman does Hypothetical Atticus espouse outright hatred of blacks or claim that they are innately destined to be forever inferior to whites.  To be sure, he describes their condition in Southern society in very degrading, insulting terms (which Scout more or less agrees with!), but nowhere does he deny that this condition may have been a result of circumstances rather than some God-ordained inequality. He is shown to be in possession of a pamphlet entitled The Black Plague, but this only proves his affiliation with people who peddle such views rather than his own acceptance of them.  Mr. O’Hanlon, the speaker whom Hypothetical Atticus introduces at the town hall meeting, is an unapologetic racist, but Hypothetical Atticus extends no more than perfunctory politeness to him and later dismisses him as a “sadist”.

Hypothetical Atticus along with most of the other residents of Hypothetical Maycomb still come across as generally likable people, albeit each with their own flaws. Hypothetical Atticus in particular remains calm and open-minded even while immersed in his own paranoia about the North and the NAACP. It is made explicitly clear that he will still stand staunchly against extremist groups, such as the KKK, who push their views in an unlawful and threatening way. We don’t ever really see him explicitly preaching tolerance towards others’ viewpoints in Watchman, not even those of his white neighbors.  However, our mild-tempered Hypothetical Atticus does seem to behave in accordance with the Atticus of Mockingbird, who advocates love and charity towards all residents of Maycomb, no matter how deeply they may disagree with his views (with only somewhat of an exception for Bob Ewell, who really does act out of spite). This quality of Canon Atticus, which I see as a very positive trait, goes so far as to probably ruffle the feathers of a certain type of social justice advocate today, and not entirely without reason, as it doesn’t do much to contradict the troubling picture of Hypothetical Atticus which we see now.

But I really don’t want to defend Hypothetical Atticus, apart from his “charity towards (almost) all” quality which is more clearly shown in Mockingbird anyway. During his final confrontation with Scout, I have to prefer Scout’s position on every single point (even if in some places even her views are still not progressive enough). It would be fine to say that the North and the NAACP should stay out of the affairs of the South, if only those in power in the South were actually lifting a finger to help their African-American population.  It’s pretty clear from my understanding of history, which Harper Lee seems to uphold, that the governments there were instead doing everything in their power to keep these minorities down. There may be some validity to Atticus’ paranoia about how the federal government or the NAACP might run things, but he is choosing to let that paranoia about what may happen to the white population of the South take precedence over any concern about justice for the black population. Progress needed to happen one way or another, even if the push for progress might have to be executed in a clumsy way (which the leaders in the South could have avoided, had they actually cared about progress enough to step up and try to bring it about themselves).

Or let me put it another way.  Atticus advocates a sort of meta-value throughout Mockingbird: that you should stand up for your principles, even knowing that you’re doomed from the start, otherwise you can’t really hold your head up in town. At first blush, I thought that this position is blatantly contradicted in Watchman. Then I realized that really it’s Hypothetical Atticus’ protege Henry who opposes it (he says, in fact, that he’ll vote against his conscience in order to continue holding his head up in town), while Hypothetical Atticus still more or less lives by it. But Hypothetical Atticus chooses a very different object-level issue to stand by: that of a perceived threat of Northern infringement on Southern values, which he (as well as his brother) seems to see as overwhelming and inevitable. It’s not always possible to staunchly defend multiple principles one holds simultaneously, not when a major political conflict is being played out between them.  Hypothetical Atticus chooses a set of principles and stands by them all right, but it is an entirely different set of principles from the ones his counterpart defended in Mockingbird.  He fights for principles out of just as much of a sense of justice in Watchman, but on the object level he chooses to prioritize entirely the wrong ones, and this makes all the difference.

IV. And on a purely personal note…

One more small thing that’s neither here nor there really, and I doubt I should be adding it at all.  There is still something endearing to me in Hypothetical Atticus — certainly not in his take on object-level issues such as segregation, but somehow in his overall manner — which reminds me of myself.  I’m not proud of this particular aspect of my reaction to Go Set A Watchman.  But when I see a portrayal of a character who seems to gravitate towards moderate positions by the standards of the environment around him, and who consistently maintains a calm and dry demeanor while defending them, I can’t help making this kind of connection.  Thank goodness I’ve never been idolized as Atticus has by Scout, but I do think that many of those closest to me do see somewhat of an idealized version of me which sticks staunchly by the values that they care about, whether they be straightedge values, or no-judgment social liberalism, or tenets of today’s feminist or Democratic party orthodoxy.

If others do wrongly assume these kinds of things about me, I believe it’s mainly my fault for being too diplomatic and afraid of confrontation.  I’ve always been afraid, probably a little more than is entirely reasonable, that even someone who knows me quite well might experience some kind of transformative revelation about our relationship upon discovering even a mild disagreement between our deeply-held values.  And while tact, non-judgmentalness, and diplomacy are good traits in general, I suspect I take them a little too far.  Very indirectly, Go Set A Watchman was yet another reminder for me to work on this.

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