book review

In ‘Watchman,’ Atticus Finch is deeply flawed

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Harper Lee, seen on Nov. 5, 2007, when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House.

One of the most indelible scenes in all American culture is the courtroom climax of “To Kill a Mockingbird’’: the moment when the black community of Maycomb, Ala., silently rises in its segregated balcony to salute the exit of Atticus Finch, who has just been defeated by an all-white jury in his eloquent defense of Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of raping the white Mayella Ewell. Even the angels would bow their heads for Atticus at this moment, but the scene is presented from the point of view of his young daughter, Scout, who, when she sees Atticus snatch this moral victory from the jaws of judicial defeat, learns to regard her father as an icon of pure, unwavering commitment to liberty and justice for all.

It works on the audience the same way (and for white Southerners at the time of “Mockingbird’s’’ 1960 publication, the effect was amplified by a weird resonance with the romanticized nobility of the “Lost Cause’’ of the Civil War). The scene plays just as well in the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck, perhaps because Harper Lee composed it with such simplicity that Hollywood couldn’t find a way to dumb it down. Read it or watch it as often as you want; the scene always has the same extraordinary effect, and seemingly nothing can diminish it — except possibly Lee’s “new” novel.

As has been exhaustively reported, “Go Set A Watchman’’ was written in the mid-1950s, before “Mockingbird,’’ though its events come later in the fictional chronology. Now 26 years old, Scout goes by her adult name, Jean Louise Finch. She lives in New York City, but has returned for a summer stay in Maycomb, to see her beloved father, family, and friends, especially her hometown suitor Henry Clinton.

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Scout’s adaptation to adult womanhood is conflicted and somewhat incomplete; she feels trapped in “a world of femininity, a world she despised, could not comprehend nor defend herself against, a world that did not want her.” Though she does love Henry, her childhood friend and her beloved father’s protégé, she also feels that to marry him would freeze her in that entrapped position. So recently plucked from its time capsule, this novel has real freshness in its picture of what a transplanted Southern woman’s striving for autonomy felt like in the 1950s — the satire of Maycomb’s better-adjusted young women is priceless.

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Jean Louise can’t figure out where she can best become herself — in the comparatively alienated and alienating culture of New York City, where everybody is plainly on her own, or in the supportive, suffocating, antique culture of Maycomb. This sort of ambivalence was also covered by Lee’s contemporaries Carson McCullers and Reynolds Price; Lee catches its nuances handily. Jean Louise’s subconscious intimations that the tiny world of Maycomb is about to explode are subtly handled early on. She does not connect her ironic insight, “If you did not want much, there was plenty,” to the racial conflict brewing behind the scene. She is just beginning to become conscious of how completely her moral compass is furnished by her father, his behavior and beliefs and all she thinks he stands for. She is ripe for a rude awakening.

This expertly managed material is enough to carry the novel about halfway through; after that it begins to suffer for want of a plot. A climax occurs in the Maycomb courthouse, when Jean Louise (occupying the same balcony seat as Scout in “Mockingbird’’) sees her father and her prospective husband attending a Citizens’ Council meeting; Atticus introduces a guest speaker who proceeds to regurgitate an hour’s worth of pseudo-scientific racist diatribe.

In response, Jean Louis loses not only her lunch and post-prandial ice cream but also her whole idealized conception of her father. Nothing much happens in the remaining third of the book except for people reciting long arguments to each other — a strong indication of dramatic failure.

The arguments themselves are bound to disturb “Mockingbird’s’’ devotees; it would be charitable to call them dated. They would have made this book acutely topical at the time of its writing, but today’s readers will need to look up the background. Outraged Jean Louise is instructed (or rather reminded) that the true cause of the Civil War was not slavery but proud Anglo-Saxon resistance to outside interference; most Southern combatants never owned slaves or even saw any — what was really being defended was states’ rights as per the 10th Amendment. (As a white Southern male, I imbibed this stuff with my mother’s milk — the argument was not very useful then except in the service of self-exculpation, and isn’t at all useful now.)

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When Jean Louise confronts her father, Atticus leads her, in a Socratic/lawyerly way, to further conclusions, coaxing her to reveal that her first reaction to reading the New York newspapers about the recent Supreme Court decision (by timing it has to be Brown vs. Board of Education, though not named in Lee’s text) was “furious . . . There they were, tellin’ us what to do again.” Atticus and his daughter actually already agree that “our Negro population is backward . . . unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship.” He asks her, “Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?’’ and warns her that “if the Negro vote edged out the white, you’d have Negroes in every county office,” down to a Negro mayor of Maycomb. There’s some rich stuff about miscegenation too (implied to be a goal of the NAACP).

Atticus, say it ain’t so! For so many “Mockingbird’’ readers, Atticus Finch has (or had until this book) the status of a real-life civil rights hero (at least one copycat novel has been written about him). Now we have to hear him say not only that the incipient civil-rights movement will amount to a reprise of 19th-century Reconstruction, with all its wrenching ills, but also that the 20th-century Feds are using Southern blacks as a mere pretext to extinguish states’ rights. The idea that slavery was “incidental” to the Civil War does not play well in 2015. The idea that Southern black people were “incidental” to the civil rights movement just doesn’t play at all.

Why publish this book now? Whether the elderly Harper Lee is competent enough to have had any agency in that decision has been much debated, but because she has been such a resolutely private person for so long, the answer likely will never be known. If the publishers were hoping to cash in on this publication of what normally might be a candidate for a posthumous work, they may instead have burnt their own meal ticket — nobody who has read “Watchman’’ can ever read — or even think about — “Mockingbird’’ in the same way again.

However any speculation about Lee’s motives is just that, but one can imagine that if she detested the notoriety “Mockingbird’’ permanently laminated onto her, she might not object to this method of blowing it up.

Admitted that these old issues have some very ornery complications, Lee and her then-editors made a canny decision to roll the story back two decades and put the rape trial (covered in two paragraphs of “Watchman’’) center stage. Portraying that drama through the innocent eyes of Scout created a classic for children of all ages — all the really hard questions have been smoothed out of it. “Mockingbird’s’’ Atticus is a fantasy figure; we wish we had people like him, but we don’t. Jean Louise’s crisis in “Watchman’’ effectively tears down the icon “Mockingbird’’ erected — and this ordeal is also inflicted on the book’s vast readership. To regain her psychological health and become a whole person, Jean Louise must find a way to accept and even love her father as a deeply flawed human being. However hard that is for her, it will be a lot harder for the rest of us.

GO SET A WATCHMAN

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By Harper Lee

Harper, 278 pp., $27.99

Related coverage:

‘The Mockingbird Next Door’ by Marja Mills

Madison Smartt Bell, the author of more than a dozen novels, teaches at Goucher College and can be reached at mbell@goucher.edu.