American Literature, Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, Book review., Books, Children, Children's fiction, Feminism, Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee, Liberalism, Literary criticism, Margaret Mitchell, Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Racism, Racist, Revolution, Scout Finch, The Mind of the South, To Kill A Mockingbird
Let us start by considering the dubiousness of all this. Go Set A Watchman is a radical first draft of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) and it has remained unpublished for fifty-eight years. Why, after decades of strenuously insisting that Mockingbird was a one-off, has Lee now relented? It is, of course, impossible to answer this question in any way which is tasteful. Either we condemn the book’s publication and implicitly dismiss the eighty-nine year old author as being non compos mentis, which is hardly kind; or else we agree to read it and become complicit in the apparent arm-twisting of an elderly lady by her carers and representatives.
Lee has issued a remote, disembodied endorsement of Watchman’s publication through her lawyer Tonja Carter, though this has the unsatisfying cheerfulness of tidings from a séance. We will never be able to relax with this startling book until it can be verified beyond doubt that we are not handling stolen goods. With the crowdsourced reviewing of Watchman, by Twitter forums and regimented Waterstones book groups, we have also come painfully far from the loneliness of childhood reading, which had often made encountering Mockingbird such an intense, intimate experience in the first place.
Incidentally, Tychy published a short story in 2010 about two men who burgle Lee’s house in search of a second manuscript. Their antics now appear to be greatly more innocent than the circumstances of the latest publication:
“A fantasy novel!” James wailed. “I don’t believe it!”
“You can read it for yourself, but I wouldn’t bother if I were you. It’s truly dreadful. As far as I can make out, it’s an eight-volume epic which chronicles the intergalactic warfare between two tribes of mutant lizards.”
“No way!” James cried. “We are not publishing that!”
Now, however, we really are spilling an old lady’s secrets and they are secrets of such a devastating magnitude that I cannot think of anything remotely comparable in the history of Western literature. Out of the thirty million or so people who have read Mockingbird, Lee was the only one who knew that the boy hero Jem had been killed in print before the novel was even written; that the noble rhetoric of his father Atticus Finch had been cooked up in a racist mind; and that the porch of that sundrenched, magnolia-wafted house where millions of children had crept up to join Scout in her games, had first appeared in the world flattened and with an ice cream parlour plonked on top.
It is not that Mockingbird is a detective mystery and that Watchman is its dazzling solution. It is more that Watchman is Mockingbird pathetically falling to pieces in front of us. Scout’s vitriolic rebuke to Atticus will have an unavoidable resonance with all of those thunderstruck readers who feel equally let down by Lee:
“You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible, but don’t let it worry you, because the joke is entirely on me. You’re the only person I think I’ve ever fully trusted and now I’m done for.”
Perhaps to dodge the full force of this blow, Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker tries to assure himself that “it would not be surprising if this novel turns out to be a revised version of an early draft, returned to later.” A good try, but the prose of Watchman is obviously inferior in every respect to that of Mockingbird. The magisterial care with which Mockingbird is narrated remains an undeveloped muscle, and it is altogether absent from the prequel.
I have been struggling to think of a precedent and Lee’s detachment from the chronology of her fiction at last calls to mind the composition of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind (1936), the mightiest Southern romance of the period. The climactic chapter of this novel was written first, and Mitchell then wrote her way back through the book, to discover how her own story would begin. Anybody who has ever been in thrall to this romantic epic may think it unbelievable that Mitchell, alone amongst its readers, had never travelled on the same journey as all of her passengers.
Because it was written prior to Mockingbird, and preserved as an unholy secret history of the Mockingbird characters, we can never read Watchman as it was intended to be read. We are supposed to be meeting its characters for the first time, when in fact we already know them far better than the author had done when she was spinning their stories. Had Watchman been published in 1957, its readers would not have found the meeting with a “haughty” Calpurnia to be so harrowing because they could have never put in the necessary groundwork, spending endless summers within call of her homely voice. Its readers would not have shuddered with the same fascinated horror at Atticus’ racist musings, because they were never required to believe in him so profoundly to begin with. But in contemplating the veritable Catch-22 of reading Watchman, we can start to come to a tentative hypothesis about the creation of Lee’s two books.
Watchman is, in a nutshell, a horror story, but the horror, or a necessary effect of the uncanny, was in danger of coming across as shallow to its prospective readers. In 1919, Sigmund Freud had defined the uncanny, das unheimliche, as “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” In Watchman, the “long familiar,” or a consciousness of what readers are meant to be alienated from, had not yet been successfully conveyed. Lee had resorted to flashbacks of homely life in the old Finch household, little capers in which Dill ends up in a fishpond and Scout learns to dance. The prose is witty and always under firm control, but when compared to, for example, the enrapt narration of the snowman scene in Mockingbird, it appears detectably inauthentic. These scenes were just not powerful enough.
Lee would have to begin all over again, and so the whole of Mockingbird was extrapolated from one innocuous page in Watchman about Atticus’ distaste at a rape trial. Nonetheless, the whole purpose of this enterprise was always to prepare the ground for Watchman’s eventual and more spectacular return. Mockingbird was nothing more than a temporary retreat. The third person narrative of the prequel, heavily laced with free indirect speech, was abandoned for a commitment to the first person. Only after we had fully inhabited the dreamy spell of Scout’s childhood could the reality of her later moral awakening acquire a jolt of the proper force.
Far from providing a magical experience of learning about dignity and justice, the whole of the as-yet-unwritten Mockingbird is weighing like a nightmare on Jean Louise’s beleaguered brain throughout Watchman. When reading this book, we might think it strange that its twenty-six-year-old heroine is in a constant reverie about amusing episodes from her childhood. The moral is spoken repeatedly and sometimes with embarrassing bluntness: she needs to break free, grow up, nullify her father and become an adult. The problem might have been that Lee was personally still looking back over her shoulder at Jean Louise; she was still on a backwards course which was washing her further downriver to the Mockingbird story. When she arrived she would be thirty-five and bogged down in its monstrous childhood memoir.
Here, Mockingbird quickly malfunctioned: the spell was too dreamy and intoxicating; Atticus, a character who was only ever put on to be shed, proved too gorgeous; and Lee was evidently not brave enough to bring millions of her readers down to earth with a bump. Next, the 1962 film was made, with many of Atticus’ more questionable actions in the book being mislaid in a glamorous, Presidential, and somewhat cardboard portrayal by Gregory Peck.
Under any objective criteria, Lee had failed as an author, and hers was a failure of phenomenally humiliating proportions. She had seemingly meant to write a trilogy of novels about a woman’s liberation, but she was thwarted in this after millions of readers had fallen in love with the patriarch and they could not bear to part with him.
Let us look first at Atticus and then at Scout. This has not been an edifying week for the UK’s feminism. All of the headlines over the last few days about Atticus’ stunning racism and his fans’ disappointment have neglected the basic truth that the patriarch is not the hero in this book and he was never intended to be.
Mockingbird is steeped in the fiction of Mark Twain; Scout observes a fractious Southern town through a child’s eyes, just as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn had once done (albeit a bit higher up the map, in Missouri). No trace of Atticus’ authority is to be seen in these early carefree novels, but he is still lurking in Twain’s fiction, instantly recognisable when you spot him but not recognisably dignified:
“Yes, sir, he’s a dam fool, that’s the way I put him up,” said No. 5. “Anybody can think different that want to, but those are my sentiments.”
“I’m with you gentlemen,” said No. 6. “Perfect jackass – yes, and it aint going too far to say he is a pudd’nhead.”
Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) is a novel of almost Shakespearean power and intrigue. David Wilson is elected a “Pudd’nhead” hours after first arriving in Dawson’s Landing, due to a joke which flies over the town’s heads like a mockingbird. On being interrupted by some disagreeable barking, Wilson quips that, “I wish I owned half of that dog… Because I would kill my half.” Killing half a dog might be a serviceable metaphor for the South’s fate during the Reconstruction years, but it also connects Pudd’nhead Wilson to his Reconstructed counterpart, Atticus Finch, who literally shoots half a dog, or at least a dog which has lost its mind. Wilson’s adopted town of Dawson’s Landing is modelled upon Twain’s childhood home of Hannibal, Missouri, and its name finds a later echo in Atticus’ own childhood home of Finch’s Landing.
Both Pudd’nhead and Atticus play dynamic roles as defense attorneys in trials which astonish their respective towns. Yet neither lawyer’s stance is morally effective. Pudd’nhead solves the town’s baby-swapping murder mystery only with recourse to the plodding technology of fingerprinting rather than through any inspired detective flair. Puddn’head may be consequently feted throughout the town, and he has certainly saved the hides of the wrongly accused defendants, but he has left no mark on the disastrous system of slavery which had authored the whole tragedy. The restored heir, who has been living with the Negros since he was a baby, is now a woebegone figure, cut off from black and white society alike.
Atticus is at heart just as un-revolutionary as Pudd’nhead. Unlike Pudd’nhead, he does not solve a detective mystery, for even a child can see the innocence of Tom Robinson. Despite almost falling into the hands of a mob, Atticus is not a lone campaigner who is standing up to the town, for he is always hobnobbing with the judge, the prosecutor, the town’s newspaper editor, and the sheriff. He is actually just one amongst a ruling class who are trying to reconcile the ugly reality of segregation with their own ethic of Southern gentility.
Maycomb is a town in which genuine liberals, such as the cowardly Dolphus Raymond, have to walk about in disguise. Atticus serves in the state legislature – the same legislature which forever upholds the Jim Crow system. He would rather not represent Tom Robinson, and he views this as being a delicate obligation rather than a crusade. The most jaw-dropping moment in Mockingbird comes when Atticus attempts to have the courtroom “cleared of spectators.” In the context of America’s democratic justice system, this is, to put it mildly, controversial. Just imagine this being shown in the film adaptation.
Moreover Mockingbird ends with Atticus and his cronies hushing up a crime, and in doing so abandoning the equality-before-the-law which Atticus has spent this entire hagiography espousing. Although he is reportedly an enfeebled housebound invalid, Boo Radley proves disconcertingly nifty with a knife. Since he appears to have saved Atticus’ children from being murdered, however, no difficult questions are asked about this. “Bob Ewell,” it is decided, “fell on his knife.” If a black man was in the same shoes as Boo at the end of this novel, he would be promptly hanged from the very tree which Boo leaves the children gifts in.
Of course, it is impossible to interpret Atticus’ story in such a merciless way because it is captivatingly narrated by his almost clinically infatuated daughter. You cannot help getting swept up in this. Scout is not an unreliable narrator – it is just that she is, without realising it, a very good defense attorney. It does not devalue Mockingbird to question Atticus’ role and values or, as his brother urges in Watchman, to “reduce him to the status of a human being.” It instead reinforces what a beautifully complicated and powerful book Mockingbird is.
We are reacquainted with Atticus in the prequel and yet we seem to meet him for the first time. He is now a segregationist who believes that all black people are too uneducated to be granted civil rights. But this is actually just a subtle clarification, a gentle shake, of the character who we already know and who we have always known. Atticus has yet another lesson to teach us – a lesson about our mass inadequacy as readers. For we are not quite finished with those ole classic words from Mockingbird, words which have been also considerably clarified:
If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
How many of us have ever really stepped into Atticus’ skin and walked around his Jim Crow Alabama, seeing it through his eyes and considering “things from his point of view”? It is hard not to be reminded of Lee’s own scornful response in 1966 when a Richmond school board tried to ban Mockingbird as “immoral literature”: “… the problem is one of illiteracy.” She sent “a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.”
But if Atticus is still Atticus, then is Jean Louise still Scout?
One of the bitterest blows at the end of Watchman, when Jean Louise is finally confronting the old men, is their barrage of patronising insults. Atticus even tells her at one point to “go back to school!” Various reviewers have commented snidely upon the frequency with which Jean Louise pretentiously drops literary quotes into her narrative, but I think that this is a tactic rather than a fault. In Watchman, Uncle Jack is almost ludicrously knowledgeable about minor Victorian aesthetes, a trait which would be transplanted into Mockingbird with Judge Taylor’s love of “fruity metaphors and florid diction.” If Atticus believes that the blacks are “still in their childhood as a people,” his brother has educated himself beyond all reason, as a transparent reassurance of his own racial superiority. Those childhood scenes in which Scout is reading to her father now assume a profoundly bleak, sinister aspect. She has not just been educated – she has been deliberately erected as a white exemplar. Note that for all of her consciousness of injustice in Mockingbird, she never demands to know why there are no black children in her school. Her impatience with her teaching perhaps expresses a subliminal anxiety about this horrific absence.
The paradox of Scout is that in being educated to white perfection, she has grown too educated to believe in segregation. Once she is in disagreement with the old men in Watchman, though, they immediately forget about her wondrous education, dismissing this woman in her mid-twenties as an ignorant little girl.
“But the Jews with whom she identifies were victims of something worse than ‘weird luck’. Whatever her father did to her, it could not have been what the Germans did to the Jews. The metaphor is inappropriate . . .”
Leon Wieseltier is here writing about Sylvia Plath’s 1962 poem “Daddy,” which conflates “whatever her father did to her” with the murders of millions of people in the Holocaust. Watchman is as much a feminist period piece as “Daddy” and it tells the same, faintly questionable story. Jean Louise’s own desire for personal liberation conceivably corresponds with that of the revolutionary black struggle for civil rights. Still, her boyfriend Henry Clinton points out that, as a privileged middle-class woman, she is already free, that “there are some things I simply can’t do that you can.” Scout’s awkward distance from any real Negroes gives her anguish an ultimate unreality. And the flimsiness of her revolutionary credentials means that her father will welcome her back to the family home, expressing “pride” at her defiance, but remaining weirdly unconvinced by her words.
It is not a revolution when compared to the bravery of the black Scouts and Jems who would confront a spitting mob at Little Rock in the same year that Watchman was written. It is nonetheless a revolution in the fullest sense of the word. Jean Louise will stay at home to try to educate her father and correct his failed morality. It is time to teach him a lesson.