As a self-made multimillionaire with a solid literary reputation, Harper Lee does not need our sympathy, but she deserves a more reflective response to her decision to give us a searching look at Atticus Finch, the heroic Southern lawyer depicted in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
To put matters bluntly, commentators and readers who have lamented her “spoiling” their image of Atticus got things wrong on just about every level, including the importance of “Mockingbird” and its late-blooming prequel, “Go Set a Watchman” as artistic, sociological and historical texts.
A narrow reading of “Watchman,” wherein Lee portrays the aging Atticus as a conventional, small-town racist, is not just unfair, it ignores the key elements of the new book and distorts our understanding of the earlier one, which has become a part of the world’s intellectual heritage. Further, it unjustly lumps in Lee with Margaret Mitchell and “Gone With the Wind” as being overly tolerant of the evils of affluent Southern bigots. A threshold issue then becomes placing both Lee books in their proper place in the Southern literary canon.
“Mockingbird” (1960) is one of the monuments in the blossoming of Southern fiction-writing in the 20th century, achieving a success even greater than earlier masterworks by more ambitious writers. As an artist, Lee does not climb to the level of William Faulkner or Robert Penn Warren, but she has earned a spot on the same platform when it comes to definitive renderings of fictional archetypes. And faulting her for damaging a plaster saint of her own making is as myopic as faulting Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom” (1936) for overemphasizing the tormented psyche of post-Confederate Mississippi or Warren’s “All the King’s Men” (1946) for highlighting Louisiana’s political corruption in creating Willie Stark, the most complex demagogue in modern fiction. Lee has earned admission to the Dixie Pantheon by giving us two views of upper-class whites in a vanishing world, setting “To Kill a Mockingbird” during the lynching epidemic of the 1930s and this new book at the dawn of the civil rights movement in the mid-’50s.
The “Mockingbird” Atticus was the kind of moderate, educated Southerner sympathetic to the New Deal’s progressive racial attitudes. The second Atticus is another Southern “type”: the erstwhile civic leader driven crazy by the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated public schools. History changes us as we move through it, just as Huck Finn came to see Jim as a human being while they drifted down the river. Atticus changed, too, but in a less admirable direction. In “Watchman,” the cardboard hero becomes a real person, failing as a legion of otherwise sensible Southern politicians and preachers failed in the twin realms of law and religion as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his movement exposed Southern racist violence to a watching world.
The mature, worldly narrator of “Watchman,” Jean Louise Finch, is the grown-up version of “Mockingbird’s” guileless Scout. Using the same characters in both books, Lee offers two coming-of-age stories: the child’s recognition that evil exists in the world and the adult’s recognition that elements of that evil exist in the people she loves. From a stylistic standpoint, “Mockingbird” is a polished gem. “Watchman” is a lesser stone of rougher cut, but it deserved publication as it stood when Lee delivered the manuscript to Lippincott in 1957.
Her editor, the late Tay Hohoff, recognized instantly upon reading “Watchman” that Lee was “a true writer,” but she took a bold step in asking that this workmanlike first novel be recast from the child’s point of view. Many an editor of that day would have sent the author a small advance and put out a serviceable first novel by a promising author. Hohoff’s eye for Scout’s inner story, glimpsed in flashbacks in “Watchman” but fully explored when rewritten as “Mockingbird,” means we have a great book that sold 40 million copies worldwide and is taught to students in 70 countries.
Lee’s decision — and the weight of the evidence suggests it was her decision, not just that of her willful attorney, Tonja Carter — means that we now have a good book to stand alongside the great “Mockingbird.” Moreover, the second book casts new light on the growth process by which the writer produced the more enduring work. From the standpoint of serious scholarship, there are ample precedents for the decision to publish. The posthumous appearance of Ernest Hemingway’s apprentice versions of the Nick Adams stories gave insight into how he developed the most arresting style of the Modernist era.
Here are several insights scholars may glean from “Go Set a Watchman.”
First, it meets the Faulknerian standard that the only fit subject for a serious novelist is “the problem of the human heart in conflict with itself.” What better description could there be of an idealistic old lawyer aligning with the white-trash and white-collar forces of the White Citizens Council?
Second, Lee has given us a sociological portrait of a watershed moment in Southern, and American, history. Chapter 8 of “Watchman” is a tour-de-force of segregationist oratory as it really sounded in the Black Belt, and Birmingham, in the aftermath of the 1954 Supreme Court decision. In impressionistic and stenographic passages, we can hear the original version of the hate speech that by 1962 would make George Wallace the very real dictator of Alabama.
Critics will fault the last chapters as melodramatic and overly didactic, and they are, but to a purpose. In releasing them from the vault, Lee fulfills the novelist’s deepest obligation, which is to expand through imaginary characters our understanding of the morals and manners of the real world.
In “Go Set a Watchman,” we see the adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch do something excruciating to herself and her father, who is honest, bewildered and irreversibly Southern as to his era and place. She strips Atticus Finch, who on his best days was Maycomb’s most idealistic lawyer, of his “godlike” aura of perfection. Now, nearing the end of her fascinating life, Nelle Harper Lee has freed her readers to extend to Atticus the same blessing for the services of his better angels in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Howell Raines is a former executive editor of the New York Times. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.