Exactly 100 pages into Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the illusions of Jean Louise Finch and several generations of idealists are shattered when, arranging her father’s pile of reading material on a visit home from New York, Jean Louise discovers a pamphlet called “The Black Plague.” She picks it up, reads it all the way through, then takes it “by one of its corners … like she would hold a dead rat by the tail” and throws it in the garbage.
“Jean Louise,” her aunt says, in response to her indignation. “I don’t think you fully realize what’s been going on down here.”
It’s an awakening that’s not so much rude as cruel: Maycomb County, Alabama, is now a different world from the one she grew up in, and To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, the paragon of the legal profession, the father figure and steward of the nation’s conscience, is revealed to be frail and flawed. He is, at 72, a rheumatic and unrepentant segregationist who believes with complete conviction that the white race is superior. “Jean Louise, have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one civilization and have a social Arcadia?” he asks late in the book, to her horror. “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
The publication of Watchman has been mired in controversy, and the knowledge that a much-beloved figure in an incomparable work of American literature was once portrayed by his author as an indefensible racist promises to be no less so. The murky origins of the book (it was reportedly found by Lee’s lawyer in a safe-deposit box last year, although that account has been disputed), the uncertain agency of Lee in its publication, and the squirminess with which the publisher, HarperCollins, has presented the novel as a newly discovered manuscript rather than a rejected first draft of Mockingbird or a failed sequel: Every step of the book’s rollout has added to a sense of unease.
But for all its flaws—a meandering, distinctly unfinished style; stilted dialogue; an unsatisfactory ending—Go Set a Watchman is worth welcoming. It’s not just that Jean Louise, now 26, is as wry and engaging and bold as she was at the age of 6. It’s that through her eyes, and her imperfect but well-meaning attempts to interpret the fall of her hero, the book offers what’s become increasingly difficult and necessary in the five decades since Mockingbird was published: an unflinching attempt to wrestle with racial prejudice.
In the opening chapter, Jean Louise, tomboyish and incisive as ever, is returning home to Alabama for a two-week vacation, immensely happy to be back, but with a sense of foreboding—“an ancient fear”—that something is wrong. Atticus, sketched only briefly in the first few chapters as a gruff but straight-talking figure who occasionally gets “an unmistakable profane glint” in his eyes, is happy to have her home, but soon raises an unexpected question. “Jean Louise,” he asks. “How much of what’s going on down here gets into the newspapers?”
This sense of anxiety lingers through the first half of the novel, with Jean Louise aware that something has shifted in her hometown, and her family and friends vaguely edgy in deference to her new status as an outsider. Eventually, sneaking into a Maycomb County Citizen’s Council meeting at the courthouse in much the same way she snuck into Tom Robinson’s trial in Mockingbird, she witnesses her father and her prospective fiancé, Henry, flanking a speaker named Grady O’Hanlon as he addresses the assembled group. O’Hanlon, Jean Louise observes, “had quit his job to devote his full time to the preservation of segregation. Well, some people had strange fancies.” Her characteristically dry dismissal turns into appalled revulsion when he starts to speak.
Mr O’Hanlon was born and bred in the South, went to school there, married a Southern lady, lived all his life there, and his main interest today was to uphold the Southern Way of Life and no niggers and no Supreme Court was going to tell him or anybody else what to do … a race as hammer headed as … essential inferiority …kinky woolly heads … still in the trees … greasy smelly … marry your daughters … mongrelize the races … mongrelize …. mongrelize.
This ugliness, this raw hatred, is what has happened while Jean Louise has been away, and the realization makes her physically sick. “The one human she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her;” Lee writes, “the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, ‘He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,’ had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”
In some ways, Watchman is structured like a mystery novel, with the decanonization and subsequent autopsy of Atticus Finch as the central conundrum around which the story unfolds—a story that turns out to be about Jean Louise’s struggle to fathom her own racial (and other) views, not just her father’s. One of the great strengths of Mockingbird is its narrative voice, which captures both the innocence of six-year-old Scout and the wisdom of an elder Jean Louise. In Watchman, Jean Louise comes off like a self-deprecating cross between Dorothy Parker and Nancy Drew, and in the mix of caustic wit and earnest zeal, her level of self-awareness can be hard to gauge. Whether or not that’s entirely intentional on Lee’s part, the result is a vivid rawness as Jean Louise veers between the principled outrage of the outsider and an insider’s visceral reflexes. “Mercy, what do they think they’re doing?” the bold defender of racial equality blurts out early on to Henry, her prospective fiancé, when “a carful of Negroes” drives by.
In her quest to discover what might have happened to Atticus, Jean Louise gets a broad dose of local sentiment, spending time with her Uncle Jack and a gaggle of Maycomb ladies, and paying a visit to Calpurnia, the black maid who helped raise her, who delivers the biggest jolt of all. Jean Louise finds the elderly woman “sitting with a haughty dignity that appeared on state occasions, and with it appeared erratic grammar.” Calpurnia, Jean Louise recognizes instantly, is “wearing her company manners.” Cal, she cries, “Cal, Cal, Cal, what are you doing to me? What’s the matter? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out?”
“What are you all doing to us?” is Calpurnia’s response.
Jean Louise’s consternation at the sudden change in relations between white and black people in Maycomb is heartfelt, but no less selfish for its genuine pain. When Scout asks how the world works, her curiosity is admirable, but when Jean Louise does the same, she can seem more naively blinkered than she realizes, and her own prejudices emerge in fleeting glimpses throughout the novel. The black folks she knew “were poor, they were diseased and dirty, some were lazy and shiftless,” Jean Louise unselfconsciously reflects, “but never in my life was I given the idea that I should despise one, should fear one, should be discourteous to one, or think that I could mistreat one and get away with it … That is the way I was raised, by a black woman and a white man.” A chasm looms, even as she proclaims her empathy.
Jean Louise manages a more nuanced perspective when she steps back to make sense of the regional political sentiments that have shaped her and that seem to animate the father she can no longer begin to comprehend. Both she and Atticus refer at various points to an unnamed Supreme Court decision—presumably Brown v. Board of Education—and she’s half-surprised to find herself sharing his anger at the trampling of states’ rights. Yet she endorses the decision, and delivers an insightful mini-lecture on Southern complicity in hastening federal intervention. “We missed the boat, Atticus,” she says. “We sat back and let the N.A.A.C.P. come in because we were so furious at what we knew the court was going to do, so furious at what it did, we naturally started shouting nigger.”
But just because Jean Louise can grasp the nuances of ugly Southern overreaction to the civil rights movement doesn’t mean she—or Lee—can understand or explain her father’s evolution. In Mockingbird, Atticus taught Scout about not just empathy but compromise (they’d keep reading at home, he proposed, if she agreed to go to school, where she’d gotten in trouble for already knowing how to read). Neither lesson serves Jean Louise as the novel nears its end. “I grew up right here in your house and I never knew what was in your mind,” Jean Louise tells him. “I only heard what you said. You neglected to tell me that we were naturally better than the Negroes, bless their kinky heads, that they were able to go so far but so far only.” In an echo of the Southern response to racial progress, she erupts in fury and tries to tear him apart. “You double-dealing, ring-tailed old son of a bitch!,” she says. “You just sit there and say ‘As you please’ when you’ve knocked me down and stomped on me and spat on me … You son of a bitch.”
Lee seems to want to tidy up the message at the close, and gives Jean Louise’s uncle a chance to diagnose her as a daughter at last able to see her father “as a man, with a man’s heart and a man’s failings”—just the preparation she needs for life in Maycomb, where he hopes she’ll stay. “It takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days,” Uncle Jack says. “You don’t have it yet, but you have the shadow of the beginnings of it.” But it’s a bleak benediction, as he later suggests when he warns of what she’ll need to unlearn. She’s always been “color blind,” he tells her, “… you’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You only see people.”
It would be hard to find a starker contrast to the broad-minded optimism of Mockingbird than that message, which leaves a reader wondering about just where this unearthed novel really stands in Harper Lee’s career. Would such a clear-eyed author have been ready to so radically sanitize her own insight to please a publisher? Maybe Watchman really was a sequel—a follow-up by an author who learned more about the prospects of post-racial progress than she’d hoped to. If readers several decades ago weren’t ready for such honesty, perhaps they are now.