Much of the anger and chaos which resulted from the publication of Go Set a Watchman stemmed from the apparent changes in the character of Atticus Finch. Transforming from the beloved Saint Atticus of Mockingbird who faced down lynch mobs and championed the black community in court, to an apparently passive member of the racist community was dismaying to many who loved the original character. The Atticus who stood for bravery and determination in the face of adversity, had seemingly withered into a man willing to listen to and himself espouse morally bleak sentiments. But this outrage in the literary community demonstrates an ingrained blind optimism about the past, and that history is still being viewed through rose colored glasses.
“The novel is ‘about white people within white culture making Tom Robinson’s life and death about themselves’ and that is precisely why it is a novel so beloved by the white literary community (Nichols).”
While Watchman has been called “a string of cliches,” it is perhaps the other way around (Gopnik). Mockingbird is filled with nothing but cliches as viewed through the naive eyes of a young Scout. Her father is a God-like entity who stands for goodness and faith in humanity, lynch mobs are filled with men who can be dissuaded by speaking with an innocent child, and mysterious strangers appear to save little girls and boys being attacked in the woods. While the book deals with heavy issues, the cliches are more than abundant. This book is loved so much because Atticus is a hero, and has even inspired people in the real world to become lawyers who will defend the innocent in court. Unfortunately the novel is “about white people within white culture making Tom Robinson’s life and death about themselves” and that is precisely why it is a novel so beloved by the white literary community (Nichols).
This adoration of such a racist novel and character is terrifying because “Atticus is canonized as the ultimate “good white person,” whose ostensible goodness hides the fact that they’re overly comfortable with the way racism has positively structured their life” (Nichols). Atticus himself, as a knowledgable man, may be attuned to this fact himself. Because he is a white male from a decent family, any racial cause he takes up within the white community of Maycomb will simply be “the blind leading the blind,” especially when it comes to the ways both he and Jean choose to approach the racial turmoil (Lee).
While both feel strongly about their approach to the changing social climate, neither seem to consider the perspective of the African Americans. It is continuously about how the changes will impact the white community, with no thought to the people at the center of the change. The racism of Atticus in Mockingbird has been articulated by scholars for decades, but the most common classroom lessons choose to ignore this perspective and instead continue to preach the valor of Atticus as a character (Marsh). This is detrimental not only to learning, but to the racial caste system of America.
“The racism of Atticus in Mockingbird has been articulated by scholars for decades.”
So Watchman being a rough draft, is everything that Mockingbird is, but lacking the hidden racism. Instead, it is blatantly racist and sexist. The present culture is too eager to accept white people as the champions of oppressed African Americans in the past when in fact “we can see why the civil rights movement in the United States had to be instigated and led by black people themselves” because even the most well-meaning white citizens were too complacent in their privilege to imagine the true revolution necessary to bring about equality (Smiley). Atticus remarks that “negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people,” echoing a more blunt sentiment he mentioned in Mockingbird when he portrays Tom Robinson as a strong negro man who was childlike in his innocence of the crime of rape (Lee). This shows that the racism throughout Watchman did not materialize from thin air, but just revealed the more sinister side of Mockingbird.
Perhaps it is not Mockingbird itself which is frightening, but the response to it in the modern era. Very rarely will people criticize Atticus’ character in Mockingbird for being a racist, because the fear of backlash over this beloved novel is very real. As much as Atticus perpetuates the stigmas surrounding the black race in his defense of Tom Robinson, he voices them more clearly in Watchman when he explicitly denotes America as “our world”–a white world–and questions whether or not Jean really wants “Negroes by the carload in [their] schools and churches and theaters” (Lee). This is perhaps one of the most telling statements. While Atticus does not share the more extreme views of some of the South, he still feels that white dominance not only exists but is justified. Just as he is the ultimate father figure to Jean, he is also acts like a condescending father to the African American race. He does not find them capable of standing on even ground with white people.
“Very rarely will people criticize Atticus’ character in Mockingbird for being a racist, because the fear of backlash over this beloved novel is very real.”
Watchman is a cruel but necessary reality check for modern society. The paternalism that has permeated culture since the patriarchs of the great slave plantations still exists, and is apparent in the celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird. It is an ethnocentric novel which suggests that white people must overcome the racial problems experienced by minority populations, and deliver them to a better life. Watchman reveals Atticus’ paternalism for what it really is–racism. And because so many people related personally to the seemingly altruistic actions of Atticus, they are now outraged by the idea that because he is racist, so are they. This willful ignorance is a sign of fear not only of admitting to the existing biases in society, but to the very changes the people of Maycomb county fear. The novel holds up a mirror to the face of the readers, and what people see inside is discomfiting because it shows how much work we still have to do as human beings to overcome ingrained prejudices and achieve true equality.
“This willful ignorance is a sign of fear not only of admitting to the existing biases in society, but to the very changes the people of Maycomb county fear.”
Regardless of the ambiguous beginnings of Watchman as a novel, it is important not to dismiss it, without taking into account how it forces us to reevaluate a novel deemed an American “classic” and purported throughout the nation to young and impressionable youths. Could the commonly taught analysis of that novel be subtly reinforcing institutionalized racism in America? If Watchman really is the first draft of the novel, then it does indeed suggest that for decades the subtlety of Mockingbird has been misconstrued, and Harper Lee’s true narrative glanced over.
Gopnik, Adam. “Sweet Home Alabama.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 15 July 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print., Harper. Go Set a Watchman. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.
Marsh, Laura. “These Scholars Have Been Pointing Out Atticus Finch’s Racism for Years.” New Republic. New Republic, 14 July 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.
Nichols, Catherine. “Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise.”Jezebel. Gizmodo Media Group, 20 July 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.
Smiley, Jane. 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print.
(Mike Marshall is commentary editor for Alabama Media Group, and served as executive editor of The Mobile Register from 1999 to 2013.)
Journalism is almost as misbegotten as the Ewell clan, at least as it was practiced in mythical Maycomb, Ala., as imagined by Harper Lee.
"Mr. B.B. Underwood was at his most bitter," she writes in the voice of Scout in Chapter 25 of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Underwood, the editor and publisher of The Maycomb Tribune, wrote an editorial condemning the killing of Tom Robinson. But Scout quickly dismisses the effort: "If he wanted to make a fool of himself in his paper that was his business."
Underwood wrote the worst sort of editorial a newspaper can publish, one that condemns an injustice after the fact having abided the behavior that led up to it.
And the folks in Maycomb ignored his bleating.
Harper Lee does throw a couple of bones to hapless old Underwood. He helps to develop the novel's eventual title. In his editorial, "he likened Tom's death to the senseless slaughter of song birds by hunters and children, and Maycomb thought he was trying to write an editorial poetical enough to be reprinted in The Montgomery Advertiser."
In Chapter 15, Underwood protects Atticus from a mob with his double-barreled shotgun, thereby deferring the death of Tom Robinson for a time.
But right from the start in "To Kill a Mockingbird," we get a sense that Underwood's newspaper is not so much an instrument of goodness. From Chapter One: "Boo was sitting in the livingroom cutting some items from The Maycomb Tribune to paste in his scrapbook. His father entered the room. As Mr. Radley passed by, Boo drove the scissors into his parent's leg, pulled them out, wiped them on his pants, and resumed his activities."
In "To Kill a Mockingbird," the pen is not mightier than the kitchen knife or the scatter gun. And in 1960, when the book was published, racists just like Mr. Underwood still owned almost all of the printing presses in the South. It was a time of ignominy for the southern press, something we continue to atone for to this day.
And it's yet another reason why I wish Harper Lee had not stopped at one novel. What has she thought about The Mobile Register these last several decades? How does she like her hometown Monroe Journal?
If she'd written another book, and if a newspaperman were among its characters, would we have fared any better?
AL.com's Red Clay Readers, in partnership with the Alabama Center for Literary Arts, is a book club designed to take a fresh look at a southern classic with the help of our readers. The first version of the club, which focuses on "To Kill a Mockingbird," will culminate with a panel discussion at the Alabama Writers Symposium in Monroeville on April 25. Click here to get 20 percent off your copy of the book at Books-a-Million.