Past Perfect


Review of Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

New York: HarperCollins, 2015

If you somehow haven’t heard, Harper Lee’s controversial novel, Go Set a Watchman, is the revealing origin of To Kill a Mockingbird, involving the same central characters and small town setting. Lee wrote Watchman in the mid-1950s, which is when the novel is set, but, instead of publishing it, her editor directed her to focus on developing the “flashback” scenes, those that depicted events twenty years earlier when the protagonist was a young girl. The result was the distinct novel, Mockingbird, set in the 1930s and published in 1960. The lawyer Atticus Finch is the only main character who is an adult in both novels, in his early fifties in Mockingbird and early seventies in Watchman. Discussions of Watchman invariably raise the question of whether there is anything in Mockingbird that prepares the reader for the older Atticus’ racially reactionary politics or whether they are even really the same character. I find myself disagreeing with most of the commentary. Atticus is both worse and better than various observers think. History has more to say about both judgments than has been understood. I start with the earlier novel.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Near the end of Mockingbird, after Atticus has stood up to a lynch mob and vigorously defended a black man charged with raping a white woman, his daughter Scout asks him an important question. Is he, as her classmate Cecil had claimed, a “Radical”? Scout narrates: “Atticus was so amused [that] I was rather annoyed, but he said he wasn’t laughing at me. He said ‘You tell Cecil that I’m about as radical as Cotton Tom Heflin.’” Who is Cotton Tom? James Thomas Heflin was the U.S. Senator from Alabama in the years shortly before the time of Mockingbird, who the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Douglas Blackmon describes as “Alabama’s most flamboyant white supremacist” and an “early master of the rhetoric . . . that would be emulated . . . by men such as” Bull Connor and George Wallace. Reportedly a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Heflin once shot a black man who confronted him on a D.C. street car and vigorously defended the institution of “convict leasing” (where men doing forced labor as part of a penal sentence, overwhelmingly black, were “loaned out” to individuals and corporations, termed “Slavery by Another Name” in Blackmon’s book of that title).

Obvious to readers of Mockingbird, Atticus stood against men like Tom Heflin. In many ways, the two were ideological adversaries. For example, at one point, Atticus speaks to Scout with unusual vehemence: “[L]et me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man [cheats] a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” He could have had in mind the men and corporations who corruptly benefitted from the forced labor of “convict leasing,” as staunchly defended by Heflin.

Less obvious to Mockingbird readers, apparently, is what it meant that Atticus was not a radical. Jim Crow was a racial caste system; African-Americans were subjugated to the lowest caste. In the 1930s, the southern whites who rejected racial caste in all aspects, root and branch, were radicals. The full-throated and violent defenders of Jim Crow, the white supremacists, were the most obvious racists. But the southern liberals of this time also favored segregation and black disenfranchisement. One should not mistake the liberals’ strong opposition to lynching nor a liberal lawyer’s insistence on due process for black defendants accused of crimes against whites, as evidence of opposition to Jim Crow. Indeed, the Supreme Court in the decade of Mockingbird twice ruled to save the Scottsboro Boys from legally compromised trials in Alabama, but upheld an all-white primary system in Texas that deprived black voters of any political voice. Even if some liberals questioned some forms of segregation and disenfranchisement, and even if some demonstrated humanity in their personal interactions with black citizens (usually with paternalistic overtones), all stopped short of full repudiation of caste by rejecting “social” equality, which would include, among other things, breaking with the taboo on interracial sex and marriage. Violent white supremacism was surely worse than compromised racial liberalism, yet both camps – nearly all white southerners – were unquestionably racist (a generalization I take no pleasure in observing as it applies to my three southern grandparents).

As much as Atticus Finch disagrees with Tom Heflin, he is, in his own words, on his side in rejecting radical change. It should never have been overlooked or controversial that Atticus, not being a radical, was a racist. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to being shocked by the most ordinary things.

In recent decades, there have been critics of the Mockingbird Atticus, iconoclasts like the law professors Monroe Freedman and Steven Lubet, and the generalist Malcolm Gladwell, among others, who argued that Atticus was an accommodator of Jim Crow. These critics were right in some ways, but have received too much credit after Watchman. Their essays look for evidence of Atticus’ failures in the specific scenes of the novel, often straining to interpret events in their worst possible light. As one example, as Randall Kennedy recently repeated in the New York Times, one of Freedman’s arguments is that Atticus “told his children that the Ku Klux Klan was merely ‘a political organization.’” But the context for the conversation in which Atticus minimized the Klan’s violence was his effort to reassure his young children who were terrified at the prospect that he would be targeted for Klan violence, hardly a context in which to interpret Atticus as stating exactly what he believed.

The decisive scene for grasping Atticus’s racial limitations is the one about Cotton Tom Heflin, but even without it, there was always a simpler, demographically obvious path to the truth. Atticus Finch was a white man born in a small Alabama town in about 1885 and educated entirely in the state. As far as we know, he has never left the South and he reads only Alabama newspapers, not the New York Times, much less The Nation or the Daily Worker. Aside from his defense of Tom Robinson, he is (as some of the iconoclasts reasonably argued) a respected member of the community, well-liked by most of his neighbors, including those depicted as unabashedly racist (e.g., Mrs. Dubose, Braxton Bragg Underwood, the Cunningham member of the lynch mob). He has a successful, generalist legal practice and is repeatedly elected to the state legislature, even after the rape trial, at a time when the decisive primary electorate would have been all-white. Obviously, most of the racist white population of Maycomb does not believe Atticus is a radical; they distinguish his liberal demand for a fair trial from the radical demand to end segregation. Occasionally, other critics of Mockingbird have said that Atticus Finch is too good to be believed, too heroic. He certainly would have been if, despite this background, he was somehow entirely outside the ideology of his time and place and in favor of full economic, political, and social equality of African-Americans. The novel gives us no reason to believe he was a closet radical and, to the contrary, shows us that he finds the idea laughable.

Yet apparently none of this – not the demographic facts, Atticus’ denial of being a radical, nor the iconoclast’s commentary – prepared readers for the July publication of Go Set a Watchman, which depicts Atticus as a reactionary defender of Jim Crow set against the advance of civil rights. Many readers of Mockingbird never fully accounted for the fact that we receive our understanding of Atticus through the eyes of his eight-year old daughter, whose failure to make the above inferences is not evidence that Atticus is free of racism, but of her limited understanding. These readers projected their own views of racial equality onto Atticus, willing into existence the anachronism of a southerner born in the nineteenth century having the racial views of, say, a liberal baby boomer. I suspect that some readers only remember the film version in any event, which does not contain Atticus’ convincing denial of radicalism. And it may be particularly difficult to imagine the liberal Californian Gregory Peck, who portrayed Atticus (listed by the American Film Institute in 2003 as the greatest hero in American film), as thinking about race as a 1930s white southerner did.

While it might then appear that I am in accord with the iconoclastic critics of the Mockingbird Atticus, I am not. I understand the misreading of Atticus in a way that parts company with them. The problem is not, as these critics seem to think, that Mockingbird readers saw Atticus as a hero because they mistakenly thought he was a true racial egalitarian. The problem is that the readers saw Atticus as a radical egalitarian because, for other reasons, he was a hero, and it alleviates cognitive dissonance to believe our heroes are unsullied and uncompromised. Which is to say that, despite my criticisms of the Mockingbird Atticus, he is heroic. Facing considerable risks, he tried to save a man he hardly knew from a false charge of a capital crime.

The dangers were even more obvious than the racism, but also bear description. First, Atticus faced risk to his livelihood. The generalist practice of law is a socially conservative business and some southern lawyers of the 1930s had to leave their town to practice elsewhere after their community decided they had fought too hard to defend blacks accused of serious crimes against whites. Atticus also faced physical risks, starting with the lynch mob outside the jail where Tom Robinson was held. That the newspaper editor, Mr. Underwood, was hiding in the shadows prepared to intervene with a shotgun on Atticus’ behalf merely confirms the potential for injury or death if the mob had pushed past him, which would likely have transpired but for Scout’s accidental intervention. Atticus faced an added danger from impugning the credibility of the Ewells at trial. In retaliation, Bob Ewell tried to provoke Atticus into a fight by spitting into his face and, when that failed, tried to murder his young children with a knife. Atticus did not stay home when the lynch mob formed and he did not play it safe by offering a perfunctory defense for Robinson, as his community expected.  

Like most readers, I therefore revere the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird. Partly I admire him because he led his white community in the right direction, towards racial justice, however impossible it would be for him to lead or push very far given his compromised moral vision and the ultimate need for black leaders to mobilize mass action. More importantly, however, I revere Atticus because he was willing to take serious risks with his life and reputation to stand for the limited justice his conscience demanded. If there were white radicals in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, I would join others in praising the superiority of their vision of racial justice. But I would also lament the fact that, unlike Atticus, their courage apparently failed them and they remain invisible in the novel, realistically so, as they were frequently (though not always) invisible in small towns throughout the 1930s Jim Crow South. When it comes to preventing or correcting injustice, sometimes the world works this way: the courageous but compromised individual accomplishes more than the principled but timid one. Here, I think of the fact that the Yad Vashem in Israel bestows the honorific “righteous among the nations” on non-Jews for having risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, not for holding the best, most enlightened views of Jews. There was never reason to think Atticus had the most enlightened views of African-Americans, but when the racist mob came for Tom Robinson, he did more than speak out.

For that reason, the contrarian criticisms from Freedman, Gladwell, and Lubet, and the like, always struck me as strangely miserly with praise, as if they share in common with the deifiers of Atticus Finch the inability to abide a flawed hero. More generally, I have always suspected that much of the criticism and occasional disdain for Mockingbird and the Mockingbird Atticus is inspired by the novel’s best-seller status, its being required reading in many public schools, and the sanitized popular understanding of Atticus, all factors about the public reaction to the novel rather than the novel itself. If there were any one race novel good enough to require millions of school children to read, to prompt difficult discussions of race, it would plausibly no longer be a novel set in the 1930s South when the salient racism was so overt and vicious that it makes it difficult for white readers to recognize contemporaries in the racists of the story, who are entirely too easy to condemn. As inventive as it was to tell the story though an unreliable narrator, an eight-year old girl, any singular literary introduction to race would contain deeper depictions of the victims of racism, who are mostly beyond Scout’s comprehension.

Yet, taken on its own terms, the novel, as opposed to what might be called the legend, of Mockingbird is a brilliant execution of its narrator’s coming of age story, beautifully written, and deserving of its critical successes. As I’ve previously argued, the novel emphasizes the virtue of empathy and demands it from the reader, who must work hard to understand events and people – like Atticus – more than the eight-year old narrator can. That is one reason that the common failure to understand Atticus is so disappointing.

Go Set a Watchman

With these perspectives on Mockingbird, I come to Watchman, Harper Lee’s first effort at writing a novel. The publication has been controversial, first, because of fears that the 89-year old Lee was manipulated into publishing something she had decided not to publish for more than 50 years. Second, there is the “new” Atticus. Given what I’ve said, I partially agree with the commentary that proclaims Atticus’ reactionary views are unsurprising. In anticipation of the book’s publication, I predicted last April, that we would learn what Atticus thought of the civil rights movement and that “[t]hose who revere him may have to reassess his heroic status.”

Yet I only partly agree with the commentary because the hero’s flaws turn out to be greater than we previously knew. None of the above context demonstrates that all of Atticus’ reactionary views in Watchman were inevitable. If the first wave of reactions was naïve shock at the “new” Atticus and the second wave was the widely shared sense of having known it all along, I offer a third reaction, which is that even the most careful reader of Mockingbird has cause for some surprise and disappointment, given the particulars of what the Watchman Atticus believes in the mid-1950s.

If there were literally no surprise to the Watchman Atticus, then the novel would be deeply flawed because the 26-year old Jean Louise (having dropped her childhood nickname, Scout), who should know more about her father than any reader, is badly shocked by her father’s reactionary stance. Indeed, her psychological disturbance over her father’s views is the driving force of the end of the novel, a coming-of-age of a different sort, when Jean Louise first sees her parent for what he truly is. The year being 1956 (by my estimate), there was much for her to ponder as she returns from New York, where she now works, for a visit to Maycomb, as the entire nation is contemplating the racial struggles of the South. This is less than two years after Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision invalidating racial segregation in public schools. 1955 is the year of the brutal lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi and of Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit in the back of the bus, which began the Montgomery bus boycotts. 1956 is the year of riots to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama. Each of these events is obliquely mentioned in Watchman. The time is very different than the sleepy 1930s of Mockingbird and Jean Louise notices the presence of new racial tensions in Maycomb, most painfully when she visits her childhood nanny Calpurnia.

Early on, Jean Louise doesn’t dwell on Atticus’ sarcastic quip that Brown is the Court’s “bid for immortality.” But in the middle of the novel she discovers in his study a crude racist pamphlet depicting black men as cannibals and declaring them “The Black Plague.” She then discovers his participation in Maycomb’s white Citizens’ Council, the business class analog to the Klan that sprang up after Brown throughout the South and worked to preserve segregation by exploiting economic power. The scene of discovery – the courthouse – could not be more symbolically loaded and disheartening to those familiar with Mockingbird (which is strange because it was written before Mockingbird). Jean Louise goes to find her father in the courthouse, where she knows he is meeting other men but not why. As in Mockingbird, she sneaks mostly unseen into the balcony, ordinarily reserved for its black citizens and now empty, and watches in horror as her father introduces a white man from out of town who gives a vile racist rant, full of epithets. This balcony is the same place where the eight-year old Scout had watched her father defend Tom Robinson in Mockingbird, when the balcony was full of the black citizens of Maycomb. One of the most memorable scenes of the book and the film is when these citizens rise as he departs at the end of the trial, in respect of his passionate defense in defiance of his white community. It is difficult to unremember this Mockingbird scene, and experience this passage as it existed when Lee first wrote it. For anyone who reveres Atticus Finch, there could be no more sobering location for him to reveal to us his racially reactionary allegiance.

Jean Louise flees the scene, suffering from a physical sickness that may match what some fans of Mockingbird feel. Only near the end of the novel does Jean Louise finally confront Atticus over his newfound political cause and this provides the book’s climax, an argument that had enormous dramatic potential, but could have greatly benefitted from editorial feedback and rewriting (as is generally true of the last third of the novel). This is where we learn the specifics of Atticus’ views. He rejects the racist diatribe of the man he introduced, whom he calls a “sadist,” and, we guess from that, he rejects the crude depictions of the pamphlet Scout found but neglects to mention to him. But he gives two reasons for his membership in the Citizens’ Council: “The Federal government and the NAACP.” In the ensuing argument, he expresses his rejection of the legitimacy of the decision in Brown, his opposition to social equality (“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres?”), his hostility to the NAACP (“I’d like for my state to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP”), and his rejection of black voting rights. Atticus argues that the “backward” black people of Maycomb are not prepared to exercise political power – “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people” – and that their enfranchisement will lead to disaster.

Why was Jean Louise shocked? If we know from Mockingbird and history, as I’ve claimed, that Atticus is a racist, why was Jean Louise physically ill when he revealed himself? Why does her disappointment become the fulcrum of the novel? This is a central interpretive puzzle Watchman poses. A small part of the answer is that Jean Louise is living in New York and probably moving to the left on racial issues. Yet she is not so far to the left that she isn’t herself torn by Brown (thinking the decision a necessary but painful use of federal power). Another small part of the answer is that Jean Louise had watched Atticus introduce a man who gives a racist rant and she initially thinks that Atticus might have approved of the things he says. In the confrontation, Atticus rejects the man and his speech, though he thinks it appropriate that the Maycomb Citizen’s Council let such men have their say, which still connects him to the rant, just not as much as Jean Louise originally thought.

We should also set aside one point that was frequently made in early commentary: that Atticus was a member of the Klan. That is a red herring in that his membership is described as having lasted for a single meeting in his youth, long before the events in Mockingbird. The explanation offered is that Atticus opposed the secrecy of the organization and attended so he could learn who in his community was a member. Even if we were skeptical of that claim, the single meeting doesn’t tell us much. (The “Atticus Finch, Klan member!” headline that I read before reading the novel now seems a bit like the sensationalism of Senator McCarthy during the 1950s Red Scare, targeting someone who attended a communist party meeting thirty years before). Consider the Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, born in Alabama in 1886, nearly the same time as Atticus, and educated there. Black was famously a member of the Alabama Klan for years and yet that did not well predict the limits of his evolution on race, as he joined the Court’s opinion in Brown. Justice Black had previously joined Shelley v. Kraemer, which held that the judicial enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in real estate violated the federal constitution. He would later join opinions upholding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and invalidating laws against interracial marriage.

The real explanation for Jean Louise’s shock is simply that the Watchman Atticus is more reactionary than she had reason to expect, given the times. Take the all-important topic of Brown. Polling data after Brown showed that some southern whites supported the decision. In 1956, the number was 16%. We don’t know what the percentage was among lawyers, but note that three of the Justices signing onto Brown were southern contemporaries of Atticus: Hugo Black, Tom C. Clark (from Texas, born 1899) and Stanley Reed (from Kentucky, born 1884). Reed (who also authored the 1944 opinion invalidating the all-white primary) apparently disagreed with the Brown majority but decided not to dissent because of the risk a divided opinion posed for the institution of the Court. But there is no reason to suspect that Jean Louis knew this detail. For the public, it appeared that the southern third of the Court favored Brown. Perhaps Jean Louise expected Atticus to be able to go along with the opinion joined by three southern justices or at least to avoid denouncing the decision, instead of energetically joining a group devoted to its resistance. Perhaps she thought he was part of the 16%.

Some commentary has observed the possibility that the Atticus Finch of Watchman is a different character than the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird, rather than being older and younger versions of the same fictional self in the same fictional universe. After all, in Mockingbird, the jury convicts Tom Robinson; in Watchman, the unnamed black defendant is acquitted of rape. Perhaps the effort to write Mockingbird caused Harper Lee to give up certain ideas about the Atticus character; perhaps that break in characters is what caused her to resist publication for decades. One might point to the above context in support of this argument, saying that a character as racially liberal in 1935 would have matched the views of the southern Justices and the 16%.

As intriguing as the possibility is, there is nothing in the narrative that forces this conclusion (though nothing rules it out either). There is reason for Jean Louise to be surprised; her father is not as liberal as some, including the Justice from the state of Alabama. But white liberals were divided; most were not as liberal as Black in 1956. It is entirely possible that the Atticus Finch of Watchman is the same as the one in Mockingbird.

The right comparison here might instead be Mark Ethridge, a white liberal journalist from Kentucky who fought against lynching in the 1930s, alongside black political organizations, and who President Roosevelt appointed to chair the Federal Employment Practices Committee during World War II. Ethridge rejected “social equality” and integration, repeatedly reassuring other whites that black Americans did not seek the freedom of interracial intimacy and marriage. After the War, however, the pace of racial change increased and various African-Americans started to publicly demand the right to social equality, i.e., the complete repudiation of Jim Crow. As the historian Jane Dailey describes, Ethridge and others were “pushed from left to right without ever altering their position. . . . Ethridge . . . moved from the front of the revolution in race relations to the rear just as the real battle was heating up.” For large scale social change, one may simultaneously revere members of a prior generation for bravely pushing in the right direction and disdain them for stopping short and resisting further progress. If we read the novels together, such is the realistic and (for us) painful fate of Atticus Finch.

Having considered the dominant issues raised by the previous Watchman commentary, let me briefly emphasize that the protagonist of Watchman is not Atticus Finch, but Jean Louise Finch. For those who ever wondered what kind of woman the child Scout turned out to be, the answer is here, a clever and acerbic woman struggling to be independent in a world that finds independent women, at best, eccentric. The novel depicts the difficulties she faces when making the weighty choice between continuing her life in New York and going home again to marry a traditional southern man she has known since childhood (Henry, who does not appear in Mockingbird) and to look after her ailing father. One does not wonder if the Jean Louise/Scout characters of the two novels are the same. Both resist conventions of southern femininity as perfectly embodied in Atticus’ sister, Aunt Alexandra. Both struggle with the ordeal of vapid conversation at coffees with the ladies of Maycomb. Both cope with disappointment.

Some commentary laments the publication of Watchman and praises Lee’s original editor for choosing not to publish it, but to encourage Lee to develop the parts of the Watchman story that recalled Jean Louise’s childhood as Scout. I have the opposite reaction. The writing in Watchman is not evenly successful at the level of Mockingbird merely because it represents a first draft of an aspiring writer, where Mockingbird represents a fully polished effort, based on years of feedback and rewriting. But a race novel written in and about the 1950s, amidst momentous political events, was more morally provocative than a 1960 novel about the 1930s. Had it been fully realized, the perspective of an adult disillusioned by a beloved parent would be more psychologically illuminating than one told from the perspective of an adoring child. The full arc of a reformer-turned-reactionary had more literary potential than the first half alone. Prodding Lee to shift gears and develop the story of the young Scout seems a regrettable effort to avoid controversy, to make the novel more polite and palatable. The 1950s editorial decision not to shepherd a revised Watchman to publication is more questionable than the decision to publish the first draft in 2015. It might not have been as popular as Mockingbird, but it would have been a better novel.

RICHARD H. MCADAMS is Bernard D. Meltzer Professor of Law, University of Chicago. His recent book is The Expressive Powers of Law.