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Scout Comes Home Again


ISSUE:  Fall 2015

Go Set a Watchman. By Harper Lee. Harper, 2015. 278p. HB, $27.99.From the moment that its discovery was announced, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been awash in controversy. Questions abound. Conspiracy theories circulate. Who found the manuscript and when? Did Lee, now eighty-nine and living in a nursing facility, approve its publication? Which manuscript is it—the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird or the manuscript of the race novel that Lee from time to time said she wanted to write after Mockingbird? And then comes the book itself, with the surprising revelation that Atticus Finch, the upholder of law and courtroom justice in Mockingbird, is now, eighteen years later, a leader of the segregationist Maycomb County Citizens’ Council and spearheading efforts to resist the federal mandate for school integration resulting from Brown v. Board of Education. If that’s not shocking enough, we also learn that Atticus is a former member of the Ku Klux Klan.

It certainly could be argued that the characters of Go Set a Watchman are not the same characters, other than in name, as those in Mockingbird. One could reasonably maintain, particularly if Watchman is Mockingbird’s abandoned first draft, that in revising her manuscript into a new novel Lee created an entirely newset of characters as well, whatever similarities those characters share with their previous manifestations. Adding some credence to this perspective is the fact that events in Mockingbird as they’re later recalled in Watchman don’t always match up perfectly, including Atticus’s courtroom defense of Tom Robinson. In Mockingbird, Atticus takes the Robinson case not because he wants it but because Judge Taylor appoints him; once assigned, he does his best, despite knowing he’s going to lose, trusting he’ll win on appeal. In Watchman, Atticus volunteers his services, even though he rarely takes criminal cases, because he knows the accused is innocent and will be found guilty without a vigorous courtroom defense; at the trial, despite “an instinctive distaste” for what he’s doing (apparently, the fact that he is defending a black man), he mounts a strong case and wins.

Even with the inconsistencies, however, much of the material from the two narratives does coincide closely, allowing us without much difficulty to read the novels in tandem, which is what a vast audience is doing—returning to Maycomb to find out what happened to Scout, Dill, Jem, Calpurnia, and others. Reading Watchman alongside Mockingbird, in fact, gives Watchman a significance that it lacks by itself (the novel’s structure is often clunky and its prose mostly pedestrian), with the paired novels giving us insight into the segregated South’s complicated racial dynamics from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, particularly the pressures toward racial solidarity within the white community. Those dynamics are best revealed in Scout (as twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise, visiting home from New York City) and Atticus, both of whom in the face of repeated challenges must define their fundamental positions on race and take stands for or against the system of segregation. Their individual struggles, as we move from Mockingbird to Watchman, give their lives a consistency not always immediately apparent, and that consistency includes Atticus’s turn to the Klan and the Citizens’ Council.

If one reads Mockingbird alongside Watchman—rather than relying on recollections of the 1962 film—Atticus’s political stances in Watchman are less surprising than one might think. The Atticus of Mockingbird has been widely lionized, to the point of idolization (no doubt in part due to Gregory Peck’s portrayal in the film; Peck, it should be noted, had a significant say in the script’s final shape), as a man of honor and integrity who is leading the South slowly forward toward racial justice. As admirable and courageous as the film’s Atticus is, this lionization goes way too far in construing the novel’s Atticus in our memory as some sort of social reformer. Atticus’s concern for justice and fair play does not extend into the social realm, but instead remains rooted firmly in two places: his household and the courtroom. We hear not a single argument from him in the novel about the injustices of the segregated system; he doesn’t want blacks beaten or taken advantage of by unscrupulous whites, and he wants them to have the right to a fair trial. He wants the family helper, Calpurnia, to be treated politely by his children. But that’s about it. He wants, in other words, separate but equal—and maybe not even equal. Often overlooked in discussions of Atticus is his attack on public education. Public schools, he believes, lump students of all levels of intelligence and skill into a single classroom and thus drag down the best qualified. “People who run public education,” he says, “promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious—because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority.” Also characteristically overlooked is Atticus’s even more troubling statement to Scout when she asks him (because she’s been asked this question by her friend Cecil) whether he is a radical: “You tell Cecil I’m about as radical as Cotton Tom Heflin,” he replies. Heflin was a firebrand white supremacist whose despicable rhetoric and actions (early in his career, he shot a black man during an altercation on a streetcar, later claiming it was one of his life’s most significant triumphs) need no elucidation here. 

Heflin was often reputed to be a secret member of the Klan, while Atticus, as we learn in Watchman, has made no secret of his membership in that organization, though by the time the novel takes place he has forsaken his white robe for a leadership position in the local Citizens’ Council—not, in fact, all that much of a change. Henry Clinton, Atticus’s business associate and Jean Louise’s boyfriend, claims that Atticus joined the Klan only in order to discover its membership list. But that declaration seems suspiciously simplistic and forgiving, particularly in light of what we come to know about Atticus’s political positions and what he likes to read: Beside his living-room chair, Jean Louise finds a racist pamphlet, The Black Plague,with a lurid cover depicting a black cannibal. When Jean Louise confronts Atticus about his participation in the Citizens’ Council (in an echo of the courtroom scene in Mockingbird, she has witnessed the segregationist group’s meeting from the courthouse’s upstairs balcony, eighteen years later still reserved for black people), Atticus makes no bones about his allegiances. He asks her later: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” “Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?” “What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ’em?”

Upon witnessing Atticus’s participation at the segregationist meeting, Jean Louise is initially stunned to the point of being physically ill. She believes that Atticus has betrayed his ideals of justice and equal rights and that he has betrayed her as well, since she has patterned her beliefs after what she understood were his. As she quickly comes to realize, however, she has misread Atticus (just as many readers have), and when she first sees him the day after the meeting, she’s surprised he looks like the same man, since she had “expected him to be looking like Dorian Gray or somebody.” Here’s where the novel’s title comes into play, as Jean Louise says that she now needs a watchman to help her see through the masks and mystifications behind which people hide their true nature. As she puts it: “I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.” Once believing that Atticus’s private character was his public character—and that this was the foundation of his integrity—Jean Louise now concludes it’s all a sham.

In idolizing her father and modeling herself after him, Jean Louise has failed to see that Atticus, as well as others in town who share his views, works not to initiate progressive change but to maintain the status quo in terms of racial dynamics and barriers. The system might work more humanely with Atticus around, but it still works efficiently and lethally. Underscoring this is the simple fact that when Jean Louise returns to Maycomb in Watchman, the racial codes are still firmly in place, apparently having changed not one bit in the intervening eighteen years. Intriguingly enough, Jean Louise may be more like Atticus than she even realizes, for upon setting foot in Maycomb she notes how much the white community has changed with the influx of people from the countryside, but has nothing to say about the entrenched racial order. No doubt she would be upset by acts of overt racial violence, but she doesn’t seem troubled by the town’s institutional and systemic racism. Nor does she seem troubled when Atticus rushes to take the case brought against Calpurnia’s grandson, not in order to help Calpurnia’s family but to keep NAACP lawyers from coming in and mucking up Maycomb’s judicial system—which would eventually threaten to bring down the barriers of segregation.

The only time that Jean Louise ever seriously questions the Southern racial system itself occurs many years earlier, as the events of Mockingbird unfold. Indeed, as that novel underscores, the true possibility for social change within the white order lies not with the adults but with the children, because they can recognize the inconsistencies and mystifications of the segregated system—at least for a while, before socialization brings them entirely into the fold, making the system seem perfectly natural and unquestionable. Most of what Scout, Jem, and Dill do in Mockingbird interrogates in some way Maycomb’s rigid boundaries of caste and class, bringing them under the scrutiny of a gaze not yet befouled by prejudice. Some of their activities involve crossing physical borders, as when Scout and Jem go to Calpurnia’s church and when the three children watch the trial from the blacks-only balcony. Even more significant are their musings about the injustices and inconsistencies that they see in Maycomb that the adults don’t, particularly in the classifications of people by background and breeding. Two such ponderings come dangerously close to exposing the deepest evils of the system: when Scout recognizes, despite the claims of her teacher, that Southern racial violence might mirror that of Nazi Germany; and when Jem, in a conversation with Atticus following Tom Robinson’s conviction, repeatedly poses questions about—and suggests changes to—the legal system. That it’s Jem rather than Atticus interrogating and pondering alternatives underscores the fact that the true heroes of Mockingbird are the children, and not Atticus or any of the other grown-ups (one of the reasons that Mockingbird is so popular with young adults). 

In contrast, in Watchman there are no children pondering different ways of doing things; youth only appear in flashbacks focusing on personal rather than social issues, like what dress to wear to the dance. Jean Louise, however, apparently thinks that she still possesses something of this unsullied, childlike vision, believing that in being raised by and in modeling herself after Atticus she has largely escaped the South’s rigid and racist social conditioning. While she’s had to adapt to what she calls the Southern “world of femininity” (most of the novel’s flashbacks show her fumbling through that world), she believes that her white knight Atticus has protected her from the evils of Southern racism. But as already delineated, Jean Louise has misjudged Atticus (he is a white knight of an entirely different order); and, as becomes progressively clear, she has likewise misjudged herself, failing to understand how strongly her core beliefs have been shaped by her Southern upbringing. 

Jean Louise’s misunderstanding of herself and her upbringing is the central subject of Watchman as the novel moves forward, especially after Atticus’s unmasking, peeling away the many layers of her self-deception. Following the Citizens’ Council meeting, Jean Louise initially sees herself as the unprejudiced hero of racial justice, completely separated from the community, which she now sees as having a nightmarish underside. She recoils in horror. As she walks the town streets, she feels as if the buildings are looking back at her: “Go away, the old buildings said. There is no place for you here. You are not wanted. We have secrets.” Jean Louise is likewise horrified by the townsfolk and what she configures as their secret lives. “What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved?” she thinks to herself. “Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually through the years until now? … What turned ordinary men into screaming dirt at the top of their voices, what made her kind of people harden and say ‘nigger’ when the word had never crossed their lips before?” 

Partly in order to answer these questions, Jean Louise engages in a series of conversations with friends and family, most importantly with Atticus and his brother Dr. Finch (“Uncle Jack”). Through these exchanges, she begins to crawl toward a shocking but finally comforting revelation to which the reader has long since come: that she is intimately a part of the very world against which she rails. Uncle Jack begins her reeducation by arguing that the Citizens’ Council, rather than an organization driven by racial hatred (as Jean Louise claims), is dedicated to the preservation of the Southern way of life against “a political philosophy foreign to it,” and that race is merely an incidental issue in that struggle. Likewise, he suggests that the war he sees raging within Jean Louise has nothing to do with race (despite her rants) and everything to do with the conflict between two opposing ways of life. Jean Louise does not respond to this observation, as she still regards herself as free from Southern taint—there’s no internal struggle, she believes, there’s just rage. But the fact that Jean Louise so willingly accepts Uncle Jack’s Southern apologia (which includes a long discussion on the Civil War and Reconstruction) clearly identifies that she is deeply gripped by and grappling with Southern sympathies. 

Those sympathies reveal themselves even more visibly in a later exchange with Atticus. In a performance worthy of a courtroom cross-examination, Atticus elicits from Jean Louise a number of responses that show her holding the same fundamental political positions as her father, even as she is heatedly denouncing him and them. Not only does Jean Louise reveal that she is every bit as angry as Atticus about the Brown v. Board of Education decision, but also, in her defense of the rights of black people, she embraces a paternalism similar to Atticus’s, fueled by all the tired stereotypes of blacks (as being childlike, backward, comical, needing help, and all the rest) that are used to defend the bulwarks of segregation. But Jean Louise still refuses to accept this knowledge about herself, and she continues to taunt her father, positioning herself as what she configures as the untainted Atticus of her childhood standing up to the traitorous Atticus of the present. 

It’s not until a further talk with Uncle Jack, followed by a reconciliation with Atticus, that Jean Louise finally comes to accept the truth toward which her elders have been leading her: that she is at heart a traditional white Southerner and that her zealous commitment to what she mistakenly believed was Atticus’s idealism has masked her own Southern allegiances and her acceptance of them. Uncle Jack explains that he and Atticus had worked in tandem to bring her to this conclusion (employing a strategy resembling that of a “good cop, bad cop” interrogation). He further explains that they had to kill her to get her to live: They had to destroy, in other words, the misguided idealism that had led her to configure herself as the Atticus of old; and only by “killing” this misshapen vision of herself could the real Jean Louise emerge, the true white Southerner. The once brash and rebellious Jean Louise now understands her mistakes, and at the end of the novel seems ready to move back to Maycomb and follow in Atticus’s footsteps, fighting the NAACP, the federal government, and any other threat to the Southern way of life. “I was an exceedingly odd young lady— / Suffering much from spleen and vapors,” she recalls Uncle Jack saying (lines from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore), to which she responds with two other lines from the same duet, “I’ve given up all my wild proceedings. / My taste for a wandering life is wanting.”

There’s no doubt that Lee intended this to be a happy ending, the return of the wayward child, a story suggesting that you can indeed go home again and it’s best to do just that. From a slightly different angle, Watchman is also a story of reintegration in the defense of segregation, a modern-day plantation romance (though set in town) whose politics are quite simple: Leave us alone, we know best how to run our society. But there’s another way to view it: not as an illustration of the reasonableness of the Southern system, but as the triumph of its power to brainwash its children, who remain under its grip for the rest of their days. Two lines from Ruddigore, which occur in the same dialogue cited by Uncle Jack and Jean Louise but which go unmentioned, point to this darker reading of the novel and Jean Louise’s fate: “The duties are dull, but I’m not complaining, / This sort of thing takes a deal of training!” It’s the idea of training, of the grinding socialization of children, that haunts Watchman but that the novel doesn’t openly acknowledge. 

Or perhaps it does in an oblique way, for if there’s a fitting companion piece for Watchman,it’s actually not Mockingbird but Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream. In Killers, Smith analyzes the segregated South’s sophisticated mechanisms of cultural training that destroy the dream of freedom and equality in the hearts and minds of Southern children. It’s that dream that Uncle Jack and Atticus must destroy in Jean Louise in order to bring her back into the Southern fold—and that’s what they really mean when they say they must kill her. Once they’ve killed that dream, Jean Louise can be happy in Maycomb and can truly become Atticus’s daughter. Like him, she will now live by what Smith calls the segregated mind—a mind that operates “by closing door after door until one’s mind and heart and conscience are blocked from each other and from reality.” Jean Louise will proclaim freedom and democracy while practicing segregation; she will proclaim equal rights for all while keeping those rights from black people. And, barring some catastrophe, she’ll never question these contradictory positions. She’ll be a good, happy, white Southerner. At the end of the novel, cheerfully reconciled with Atticus and ready to enter fully into his way of life, Jean Louise suddenly trembles, as if somebody walked over her grave. She thinks it might be Jem, but more likely it’s Calpurnia, or maybe even Lillian Smith. 

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