Is Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set A Watchman’ really a shock?

"Atticus embodies the systemic racism of white paternalism," says John T. Matthews. "It's white people who take responsibility for black people's problems. This is what Toni Morrison meant by calling Mockingbird a 'white savior' narrative." (Credit: Jackie Ricciardi/Boston U.)

HarperCollins published Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman last month, some 60 years after she wrote it and amid controversy over whether the author, who is 89 and in frail health, fully supports its publication.

Soaring to the top of the bestseller lists, the novel sold more than 1.1 million copies in its first week.

In a front page review in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani recalls the Atticus Finch who was “the moral conscience” of  Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, the white Southern lawyer defending an innocent black man against rape charges in Alabama in the 1930s.

“Shockingly,” she writes in her review, the Atticus Finch of Watchman “is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.'”

Other readers, however, saw Watchman’s Atticus through a different lens. Writing in the New Yorker, Dale Russakoff, who grew up in Birmingham in the 1960s, explains why Southerners of her generation “mourned the loss of an icon,” but were not shocked by the racism of Watchman’s Atticus.

“I think there’s a kind of continuum with Mockingbird’s comparative indifference to the lives of black people”

“In nineteen-sixties Birmingham, as in Scout’s Maycomb, the two Atticuses could coexist, and did,” Russakoff wrote. “History delivered Southerners of that era into an immoral world where segregation shaped everything.”

At Boston University, English professor John T. Matthews has concentrated much of his teaching and research on the literature of the American South. While he shares the concern over whether Harper Lee really wanted Watchman published, Matthews eagerly read the novel. At the same time, he felt compelled to plunge back into his dog-eared, vintage paperback edition of Mockingbird, which he read for the first time in 1963 as a freshman at Central High School in Philadelphia.

University writer Sara Rimer talked with Matthews about Watchman and Mockingbird, and how Harper Lee’s relationship to the South played out in her novels.

Were you surprised by the racism of Atticus Finch in Watchman?

I’d read about it before I read Watchman. I think there’s a kind of continuum with Mockingbird’s comparative indifference to the lives of black people. I have a former student—I taught her in a [William] Faulkner class 10 years ago—who says she doesn’t understand why people are upset about Atticus being a racist in Watchman. She thought that was obvious from To Kill a Mockingbird.

How do you see that in Mockingbird?

Atticus embodies the systemic racism of white paternalism. It’s white people who take responsibility for black people’s problems. This is what Toni Morrison meant by calling Mockingbird a “white savior” narrative.

“But when we think of the civil rights movement, too many Americans still think of white people from the North going to the South”

It’s not that Atticus is overtly hostile. It’s that the dominant society itself doesn’t recognize black people as having experiences that count. No question, there’s a bravery in what Atticus does in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s just that all the circumstances around him suggest he’s still a person with prejudice operating inside a world that is blind to the full humanity of black people. That, I think, is how Watchman is somewhat different.

What do you think Harper Lee’s intention was with Watchman, the original manuscript that seems to have turned into Mockingbird?

I think the book is probably closer to what Harper Lee felt when she began writing it in the 1950s. By then she was living in New York City. She had left the South. She had identified with an art crowd in New York. Truman Capote, a childhood friend, was there, and other young writers. The 25- or 26-year-old Scout—Jean Louise—who comes back, I think she is closer to Harper Lee’s relationship to the South.

How do you think Watchman might have evolved into Mockingbird?

I think what Lee’s original editor, Tay Hohoff, decided, and I think Harper Lee bought into this, was that the book should be something else. She took two and a half years to revise it. I think what they wanted to do was create a narrative that provided a model for how the South could reform itself, and there’s a kind of conservative agenda to that, I suppose, in the sense that the white South was pictured as to be trusted to address its issues without the threat of (so-called) hostile intervention from the federal government.

What did you think of that scene in Watchman where Scout visits Calpurnia, who took care of Scout and her brother when they were young?

I thought it was really powerful because she goes to Calpurnia’s house. What’s interesting is how communication fails. There’s a very enigmatic, ambiguous moment in which Scout—Jean Louise—says, ‘Did you hate us?'” Calpurnia shakes her head. I read this as Lee leaving some ambiguity. This scene touches on the private world of blacks. Calpurnia, we’re told in Watchman, has two ways of speaking. She can speak Jefferson Davis English, or she can speak the way her community and church talk among themselves. It’s double speak, the way African Americans in an oppressive regime had to deal with communication.

“Mockingbird is unquestionably a powerful novel”

In Mockingbird, you never question that Calpurnia loves Scout and Jem.

Scout never questions it. That’s why this is a piece of literature and not a history—because it’s a fantasy. It’s a fantasy about a society; it’s a fantasy about the South’s capability, its own moral capacity to handle the question of the extension of black rights. It’s a national fantasy partially in a Cold War context, but also deep in our tradition that a liberal democracy gradually extends rights to those who “deserve” them.

I thought Mockingbird inspired a lot of Northern liberalism in a good way.

I think it did. It sensitized northern whites to racial injustice in the South, in ways similar to what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did a hundred years earlier on the issue of slavery. But when we think of the civil rights movement, too many Americans still think of white people from the North going to the South. We don’t think about African Americans in the 1930s working away, laying the foundation brick by brick, town by town, state by state, being lynched for speaking out. It’s a complex story and it’s full of shifts, and I think that’s what makes Watchman and Mockingbird diagnostically interesting. It’s like looking at a CAT scan.

In what way?

You see the healthy parts, the diseased parts. You have to interpret it. The South, the individuals in it, it’s not one thing. Mockingbird/Watchman is kind of a cross-section of the American psyche, too, since Atticus’s nobility allows a form of self-congratulation for white liberal sensitivities in Mockingbird.

Why do you think so many critics are calling Watchman a failed novel?

It’s a book that doesn’t know what it’s doing exactly. There’s all that stuff about Tom Swift and children’s fantasy lives and then suddenly there’s tremendous anger from Jean Louise that culminates in a long talky confrontation with Atticus.

The differences between the two books are extreme. This is not just fussing with sentences, sharpening narrative angles. It’s a complete relocation of the story. The writing is far better in Mockingbird, Lee has control of more descriptive things, the introduction of characters, the weaving of plot and dialogue. Mockingbird is unquestionably a powerful novel.

Source: Boston University