Editor’s note: Michael Skube is a former book editor at The News & Observer. In 1989, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his N&O book columns. He now teaches journalism on the faculty of Elon University.
“Children,” Oscar Wilde said, “begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.”
Generations of Americans have known that the irrepressible tomboy whom Harper Lee named Scout both loved her father and admired him as she could no one else. They came to know him simply as Atticus, just as his daughter did, and they made him the touchstone for all things good – courage and kindness, patience and probity, above all an abiding sense of right and wrong. That Atticus Finch should be a lawyer only underscored his Lincoln-like character.
Such was the outsize and not wholly plausible effect of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published 55 years ago and long since taken to be Lee’s one and only book. Lightly regarded by critics when it was published in 1960, it nonetheless won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the next year, was made into an Oscar-winning movie and achieved a cultural status rarely accorded a mere novel. In one poll it has been ranked after the Bible as the most influential book Americans say they have read. After such a debut, what magnificence might come next? Her editor and publisher could hardly wait. But years and then decades passed, and that was it from Harper Lee. In time, hope that there would be more waned and eventually vanished.
Now, under circumstances that are nothing if not suspicious, comes a novel that Lee and those close to her either had forgotten completely or preferred not to remember. Knocking on the door of 90, nearly blind and deaf, living in a nursing home, Harper Lee evidently was not finished after all.
Little wonder, then, that “Go Set a Watchman” should be the most remarkable story in publishing in years, with a first printing of 2 million copies and all manner of attendant publicity.
The book’s backstory – its details still in question – is fascinating enough: Lee’s new lawyer in Monroeville, Ala., comes upon what she takes to be the original manuscript of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in a safety deposit box, only to discover that it is another novel altogether and then to be advised by an appraiser for Sotheby’s that what she has in her possession is highly valuable. It is, apparently, the manuscript of an unpublished novel by the long-silent author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
But “Go Set a Watchman” is not the second novel Lee’s editor and publishers went to their graves hoping to see. Rather, despite its reading like a sequel, it is “Mockingbird’s” precursor, an early draft that was set aside once Lee’s editor in the 1950s persuaded her to rework it from scratch.
In transforming “Watchman” into “Mockingbird,” Lee produced an unrecognizably different novel, even though Atticus Finch and Scout are at the center of both. But this is not the Atticus readers thought they knew. Immortalized in the film version by Gregory Peck – heroic defense attorney for Tom Robinson, a black man convicted by an all-white jury of raping a white woman in Lee’s fictional town of Maycomb – Atticus personified Justice itself, even when the verdict is guilty on all counts. Largely because of Atticus, “Mockingbird” became all but mandatory reading for American schoolchildren. Ask college students what novels they have read and, after much head scratching, the one they typically will come up with is that sentimental standby “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
It’s seldom noticed that “Mockingbird” does not mean to African-Americans what it means to whites. Bryan Stevenson, a professor of law at New York University and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., has spent much of his life doing what Atticus did once – defending African-Americans in the judicial system. Indeed, he did what Atticus could not do: He won the freedom of a black man who had been on death row for six years – a man, no less, from Monroeville, Ala., the model for Harper Lee’s Maycomb. Stevenson is black, and he sees “Mockingbird” as something less than a civic catechism. In an email Tuesday he wrote:
“I do think we have romanticized ‘Mockingbird’ in a way that is in tension with the reality of racial discrimination in this country. That legal organizations name awards after Atticus Finch is what provokes me. It’s as if the fate of the wrongly convicted client who dies from a lack of hope is irrelevant to the nobility and success of the attorney’s effort. I identified with Tom Robinson when I read the story and couldn’t celebrate Atticus in quite the same way that others did.”
Here and there, contrarian-minded whites have likewise wondered – for other reasons – what all the fuss was about. Flannery O’Connor, soon after “Mockingbird” was published, told a friend it was “a child’s book.” Nine years ago, in The New Yorker, Thomas Mallon called it “a kind of moral Ritalin,” with its hero “a plaster saint” who never passed up an opportunity to intone Aesopian rectitude.
“Go Set a Watchman” does not offer the moral ablution that “Mockingbird” does. And yet it is a truer novel than “Mockingbird,” with its dollops of Karo syrup, ever was. But the novel’s dialogue poses an insurmountable problem: The word commonly used in the ’50s by Southern whites to refer to African-Americans. If the sensibilities of American adolescents are unprepared for the incidental vulgarisms of “Huck Finn,” the vernacular freely deployed in “Go Set a Watchman” goes many degrees beyond Mark Twain. It is frankly and offensively racial. Race is at the crux of the novel, and the language of its characters reflects that.
An unerring ear
It is the mid-’50s and the first stirrings of the civil rights movement have Southern towns like Maycomb on edge. A way of life is being challenged – by the NAACP, by its allies in the national media and Northern universities, by the federal government in general and the U.S. Supreme Court in particular. The Court, in 1954, handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled school segregation unconstitutional. Three years later, Congress enacted civil-rights legislation that made further inroads, and more change was on the horizon. In Alabama, George Wallace was waiting in the wings.
“Watchman” anticipates what is to come. The spunky Scout of “Mockingbird” has grown up and gone away, and knows only from a distance of the unrest in Maycomb. She is 26, going now by her given name, Jean Louise, and living in New York, where Atticus had urged her after college to find her independence. The onetime tomboy is a woman of the big city, and separated from Maycomb and her aging and arthritic father by more than just the miles. On a short visit home, she realizes she is psychologically no longer part of Maycomb any more than she is the barefooted girl in dungarees who played under the chinaberry tree.
There is so much about Maycomb the grown Jean Louise loathes – the provincialism, the meanness, the brainless patter of Southern matrons (for which Lee’s ear is unerring). But there would always be Atticus. When she could count on nothing else, she could count on him. And then one night she sees him at a meeting of the town’s White Citizens Council, discussing the need to oppose federal intervention in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Watching from the courtroom balcony – the same balcony from which she had seen Atticus defend the doomed Tom Robinson 20 years ago – she is sickened and revolted. Confronting him the next day, she unburdens herself:
“I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me – if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. …”
For his part, Atticus listens in his patient, lawyerly way, asking clarification here, prodding for specificity there. At length he says:
“Honey, you do not seem to understand that Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life. They’ve made terrific progress as a people in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of ’em voting than ever before. Then the NAACP stepped in with its fantastic demands and shoddy ideas of government – can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?”
The Atticus that Jean Louise Finch comes to know in her adulthood is not the Atticus who was the moral compass of Scout’s world, and the disillusionment presents a crisis in her life. He is not one of the crude and ignorant men of the White Citizens Council, and he refers to black people politely as Negroes. But race, for him, is an irreducible reality. She is compelled to judge the father who has meant everything to her and yet has disappointed her grievously. Her father’s brother, an eccentric physician with a penchant for obscure literary allusions, sees to the core of her.
“The only differences you see between one human and another,” he tells her, “are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like. You’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You see only people.”
And yet, even in the severity of her judgment, she cannot not love the deeply flawed man who has sponsored her in this world. In standing up to him, she showed Atticus what he privately had wanted to see: Scout has grown into a woman who can stand on her own, whatever their differences. His own days are numbered, and his world with them – that much he knows. Jean Louise’s world lies beckoning before her.
Go Set a Watchman
By Harper Lee
HarperCollins, 278 pages. $27.99