Cover of book: Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee
Go Set a Watchman

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the young Scout Finch sneaks into the “coloured balcony” of the courthouse in fictional Maycomb County, Alabama, to observe the trial of Tom Robinson, a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Nestled among the black citizens of the town, sharing their literal and moral vantage point, the little white girl feels infinitely proud of her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, as he mounts an inspired and spirited defence on behalf of his client.

Author Harper Lee set Mockingbird in 1936, but wrote it in the 1950s just as the civil rights movement in the United States was gaining momentum. In Atticus Finch, she gave America the moral hero it needed, salving the nation’s conscience and advancing the national debate by giving people a way to speak about it. Now Lee’s other novel, Go Set a Watchman, supposedly written first and the subject of much speculation over the years, has finally been published. And we need to talk about Atticus.

When Watchman opens, the still cheeky and independent-minded Scout is 26 and living in New York. It is the 1950s and she is on her way home for a visit. She now calls herself Jean Louise. As her train rolls towards Maycomb Junction, “She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful.” But then, it comes into focus, with its “drabness, lights, and curious odors”. This perceptual shift foreshadows what is to come – as in Mockingbird, here too Lee begins with a light and charming vision before revealing the shadows and “curious odors” that lie over the land.

If returning to Maycomb feels to Jean Louise like “coming back to the world”, it is not the same world she left all those years before. Her childhood home is now an ice-cream parlour, her beloved brother Jem is dead, her adored best friend Dill (a stand-in for the young Truman Capote) is lost to Europe, and the father she worships is now 72, bent and crippled with arthritis. There’s also a man in her life: Henry, Jem’s best friend, her father’s protégé and her ardent suitor, whose devotion she does not entirely reciprocate.

The town is still stratified into communities of “respectable” white folk, white trash and black people. But the civil rights movement has arrived in Maycomb – or as Jean Louise’s meddlesome and conservative Aunt Alexandra puts it, the blacks are getting “uppity”. When Jean Louise wants to go see Calpurnia, the retired black family servant who helped raise her, Alexandra informs her: “Nobody in Maycomb goes to see Negroes anymore.” The truth is that the people of Maycomb have never really seen the black people in their midst at all.

While she finds her aunt maddeningly small-minded and platitudinous – and much of the novel’s humour is built around this – Jean Louise appreciates that Alexandra has devoted herself to looking after Atticus. As she puts it, if she had to move back to Maycomb, the place would drive her “stark raving”. And then, suddenly, it does that anyway.

One day, Jean Louise discovers among her father’s things a pamphlet titled “The Black Plague” full of pseudoscientific theories that would make “Goebbels look like a naive little country boy”. She secretly tracks Atticus to the very same courthouse where he had once defended Tom Robinson and steals into the “coloured balcony” once again where, alone this time, she struggles to comprehend what she sees.

Below, and oblivious to her presence, the “Citizens’ Council” is holding a meeting. This is an organisation that, she is aware, is composed of the same kind of people who populate the “invisible Empire” of the Ku Klux Klan: “ignorant, fear-ridden, red-faced, boorish, law-abiding, one hundred per cent red-blooded Anglo-Saxons, her fellow Americans – trash.” And both Atticus and Henry are among them. What she sees cannot be unseen: the father she worships and the man she may marry are both part of this ugly enterprise. The sight makes her so sick that she actually vomits.

 “You confused your father with God,” her Uncle Jack will later admonish.

Fans of Mockingbird have long had a similar problem. But the Atticus of Mockingbird – endlessly patient, wise, kind and humorous – was always something of a cardboard hero, a child’s fantasy of her father, too good to be true. He now tells his grown-up daughter what he really thinks: “…the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people”; while “They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways”, they are not, in his considered opinion, ready for full equality. Atticus, we never knew you. Jean Louise is as confused as we are.

Uncle Jack tries to explain. He says the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery or about race at all. It was about states’ rights and the tribal identity of the south. The Supreme Court decision that ruled segregated schooling to be illegal was not offensive because (or mainly because) white kids would have to share classrooms with black kids, but because it was another example of that damn federal government interfering in affairs that were properly the domain of the states.

The prominent African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote in The Atlantic about this category of logic: “the most potent component of racism is frame-flipping – positioning the bigot as the actual victim.” It’s exactly what we have seen in recent weeks in Australia in the bleating of the Andrew Bolts and others who have argued that the real victims of the booing scandal were those whom football player Adam Goodes and his allies have called out for their racism.

Mockingbird was a tale of the loss of innocence, but a redemptive one. Watchman is a far lesser work of fiction. It reads like a draft: some passages are even the same, word for word, in both books. Yet in its acute observation of the deep structure of racism, bleakness and uncertainty, Go Set a Watchman has a far more contemporary feel and resonance. Would that it were not so.  CG

William Heinemann, 288pp, $45

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 8, 2015 as "Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Reviewer: CG

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.