Haper Lee and Her Two Books

After re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird and finishing Go Set a Watchman, it seems to me that Harper Lee’s literary intent has been laid plain (if it wasn’t already): to write a ‘coming of age’ story amid a penetrating and honest portrayal of the mid-20th century American South. The twin forces of racism and classism, buoyed and protected by courteous southern charm and ‘go along to get along’ pragmatism, rear their heads in both books as they’re insightfully probed by Lee’s crafty storytelling. While race is perhaps the more memorable tension in Mockingbird, the issue of class is ever-present in both books as ‘trash’ becomes the most disparaging category of people.

It’s also apparent that this tale was always to be told from the perspective of Scout (Jean Louise) Finch, with whom Lee clearly identifies. In Mockingbird this comes across more natural and polished with Scout as the narrator than it does in Watchman, which is told somewhat awkwardly in the third person. In this and other ways Mockingbird is the far more refined novel in terms of storytelling, language, and character development.

Both stories are ‘coming of age’ tales in their own right. In fact, what may account for the most significant difference between the two novels is not just when Scout comes of age – that process of molding of one’s own identity, moral and otherwise, which inevitably includes some disillusionment with the world and the people in it – but the context of that process. In Mockingbird this takes place during Scout’s late childhood and early adolescence, armed with her father’s moral idealism and faced with the discrimination of her town and its people. This is made especially clear when tensions reach a high point surrounding the Tom Robinson trial. In Watchman this takes place during Scout’s early adulthood. Rather than the town this book rushes to a confrontation with the bigotry of her father, where she faces the painful reality that he doesn’t live up to her more moral expectations. She is confronted by the fact that he’s human, imperfect, with blind spots, concessions, and prejudices like anyone else.

Outcry against the revision of Atticus’ character is understandable. Atticus has certainly become a literary and cultural icon, and for good reason, but in reading both books in light of one another it seems his story wasn’t quite the one Lee was trying to tell.

We’re not to blame here. In Mockingbird Atticus Finch is one of the more compelling depictions of the lone conscientious, righteous individual somehow summoning the moral courage to stand apart from a dehumanizing social milieu, full of pithy folk wisdom and a most gentle, upright manner. Yet the two novels considered together reveal not who Atticus truly is but what Lee wanted to do with her writing.

The contrast of Atticus in the two books is somewhat jarring, and it seems a misguided task to try and bridge the two. They read like two different characters to me, and I think it’s that simple. Yes, nuanced evaluations of Atticus’ paternalistic view of race in Mockingbird could, along with the passage of time and the heightened tensions of race relations in the 1950s, account for Atticus’ at least partial shift in perspective. But upon reading the actual book such explanations fall flat.

In Watchman Jean Louise’s outrage at her father’s overt racism is so intense because she remembers him otherwise: “She heard her father’s voice, a tiny voice talking in the warm comfortable past. Gentlemen, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” (Watchman, 108). Nevertheless he seems like a different character in some important ways, and it’s not simply because I can’t stomach the fact that a white anti-racist hero is actually not so perfect. In fact, Mockingbird’s Atticus is guilty of subtle patronization of Tom Robinson and severe classism.

While the similarities abound – after all, he was created by the same mind,occupies the same skin, and has many of the same characteristics – it nevertheless seems like there are important changes in Atticus’ character. In Mockingbird he’s a moral idealist largely able to transcend his context. In Watchman, by contrast, he’s fully a man of his context, perhaps better than most but nevertheless possessing the same moral vision as his neighbors. Indeed, perhaps the change is due to the passage of time and/or the fact that in Mockingbird we only see Atticus from Scout’s admirable gaze, but the significant differences between the books go beyond his character. There is also a jarring difference in the tone and style of the stories themselves: Mockingbird is an idyllic, Andy Griffith-esque tale while Watchman is a tortured, realist, almost postmodern internal struggle of self-actualization. The moral landscape in Mockingbird is simpler, more naive and childlike than it is in Watchman, and it’s possible that is due to the mindset of the narrator. While it could have been Lee’s original intent to take the reader through a gradual disillusionment from Mockingbird to Watchman, it seems to be that history shows she was willing to let Mockingbird – and its Atticus – stand on its own.

Another contrast between the books that shouldn’t escape notice is the way the issue of class is handled. While it is ever-present in Mockingbird, it never becomes a topic in its own right like it does in Watchman. In chapter 16 of Watchman Hank (the boyfriend) and Jean Louise have an argument about his activity in the citizens’ council and, unlike it ever does in Mockingbird, the issue of class is given overt consideration. Hank’s defense is that, although he doesn’t agree with the council’s ideology, his lower-class origins compel him to join for the sake of building community report and trust. He believes his membership in the racist organization is the only way he can overcome his class origins. He hates that this is true but sees no other way to build a better life for himself. This morally concerning yet pragmatic approach makes for an interesting contrast between the two novels. In both class and race are major issues, but only in Watchman, especially toward the end of the book, does class achieve conscious narrative attention. This sets the books apart in a way, as Mockingbird perpetuates troubling classist sentiments without the narrative ever explicitly denouncing them.

Lee aimed to write a deeply personal novel that ‘outed’ Southern genteel racism and classism, which in Mockingbird even the noble Atticus doesn’t fully rise above. It seems to me that Lee found a more powerful way to tell the story she so badly wanted to tell, which in Mockingbird centered around a different Atticus than the one in Watchman, whose renewed presence played a big part in Mockingbird’s brilliance. But outrage about the book and Lee’s legacy in light of these changes are problematic precisely because I don’t think she set out to write a story about Atticus, even if that’s how we remember Mockingbird. Even those who settle for a realist and harmonious interpretation of Atticus’ ‘evolving’ views on race subtly miss this point.

Perhaps the contrast of these two novels – or even a convincing argument of their cohesion – can help us see more clearly what it is Harper Lee wanted to say with her writing by helping us break our myopic gaze from Mockingbird‘s (mostly) deserving hero. After all it seems the story Lee wanted to tell, one which shrewdly and honestly reveals the virulence of polite society’s discriminatory posturing, systemic racism, and overt classism, is the one we need to hear most. Perhaps the gift of this second book is that it might shake us from identifying too closely with Mockingbird’s Atticus so that we might begin seeing ourselves as the people of Macomb, AL (or even Watchman’s Atticus) – from seeing ourselves in the courageous and magnanimous exception rather the disingenuous and complicit rule. The contrast here is generative, and insofar as it might allow us to hold up a mirror, particularly in these times, it’s a gift. Watchman doesn’t ruin Harper Lee’s legacy, it deepens it, not by being a great novel – which it isn’t – but by helping us see ourselves more honestly. Which may after all be Harper Lee’s lasting accomplishment.


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