This piece discusses the plot of “Go Set a Watchman.” It is not, however, a particularly plot-heavy book.
I will confess that, as I opened Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” this morning, I was prepared to find the book a disappointment and to suggest that it would have been more appropriate to release the book as an annotated draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” A valuable model might have been the South Dakota Historical Society Press’s “Pioneer Girl,” a handsome annotation of the manuscript that would become Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series. I’m pleased and not a little surprised to be able to report, however, that for all the controversy that surrounds the way it came to be published and the state in which it was found, “Go Set a Watchman” is, in fact, a complete book. And if it’s a highly uneven one, it’s still worth reading at a moment when we’re grappling yet again with Northern and Southern variations of white supremacy and the idea that good people can do poisonous things.
The news that Atticus Finch is a racist is the headline for pieces about “Go Set a Watchman.” But the meat of the story is Jean Louise’s reckoning with her father and herself.
“Go Set a Watchman” begins when Jean Louise, better known to us as Scout, returns home to Maycomb from New York, where she now lives. Her vacation begins with a frisson of tension: Scout is trying to decide whether or not to marry her childhood friend Henry Clinton, now Atticus’s partner in his law business. But the trip becomes more fraught when Scout discovers that her father has been reading racist pamphlets and that both he and Henry are members of the Maycomb Citizens’ Council, the replacement for the local Ku Klux Klan. The dissonance between who she believed these men to be, and who they actually are, sets her up for a series of talky confrontations with Henry and Atticus, and ultimately with the guiding principle that has defined her life.
One sharp insight of “Go Set a Watchman” is the way race, racism and class are all tangled up in each other in Maycomb and in Scout’s understanding of Atticus. When she goes to the balcony of the courthouse where in “Mockingbird,” she watched her father mount a black man’s defense, part of her horror at what she discovers is the way Atticus has dirtied his own class status. “Below her, on rough benches, sat not only most of the trash in Maycomb County, but the county’s most respectable men,” Lee writes. “She knew little of the affairs of men, but she knew that her father’s presence at the table with a man who spewed filth from his mouth— did that make it less filthy? No. It condoned.”
Scout is confused by her father’s profession of belief because “Many times she had seen him in the grocery store waiting his turn in line behind Negroes and God knows what…He was the kind of man who instinctively waited his turn; he had manners.”
But those manners aren’t actually a display of respect for black people; they’re Atticus’s way of demonstrating his own virtue to himself, just as he took up Tom Robinson’s defense in “To Kill a Mockingbird” even though “he had no taste for criminal law. The only reason he took this one was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy go to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense.” Belief in the law or etiquette aren’t the same thing as a belief in social equality, or even equal access to the franchise. Atticus’s courtesies to black people are actually his way of distinguishing himself from them.
“[Thomas] Jefferson believed full citizenship was a privilege to be earned by each man, that it was not something given lightly nor to be taken lightly,” he tells Scout, explaining why he thinks blacks’ rights should be curtailed until they’ve proved — by Atticus’s standards — worthy of them. “A man couldn’t vote simply because he was a man, in Jefferson’s eyes. He had to be a responsible man. A vote was, to Jefferson, a precious privilege a man attained for himself in a—a live-and-let-live economy.”
Scout hasn’t perceived this distinction because, as Lee writes, “Had she insight, could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind.” In contemporary conversation, colorblindness is often invoked as a sort of admirable ideal, but it is nothing of the sort in “Go Set a Watchman.” The fact that Scout, as her Uncle Jack suggests, has “never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially,” means that she has missed both the racism of other Maycomb residents and the pain of Calpurnia, the woman who raised her. Scout has thought she was being just and liberal; instead, she has ignored the larger currents all around her.
When Scout goes to visit Calpurnia, hoping to reassure her that Atticus and Henry’s defense of her grandson Frank will be successful, she’s stunned by Calpurnia’s despair and indifference, emotions she never showed to Scout before. “She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me, she saw white folks. She raised me, and she doesn’t care,” Scout reflects, stunned by the reversed polarity of their relationship and by the idea that Calpurnia’s affection for her was just another commodity Atticus bought.
After that terrible visit, Scout has to go to a coffee her Aunt Alexandra is throwing to reintroduce the younger woman to the friends of her school days. During this extended scene, the strongest section of “Go Set a Watchman,” Scout’s perception of Maycomb — and herself — dissolves entirely. In between a flood of overheard sentiments and uncomfortable debates about life in New York, Scout finds herself drawing from literature to explain her increasingly confused feelings. “It takes a lot of what I don’t have to be a member of this wedding,” she thinks, channeling another tomboy of Southern literature. “I hope the world will little note nor long remember what you are saying here.”
The scene ends with Scout despairing over her own long-standing refusal to see the truth. “Mr. Stone set a watchman in church yesterday,” her mind races to a sermon of the day before. “He should have provided me with one. I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. 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.”
The rest of “Go Set a Watchman” lacks the power of that scene; the book ends with a series of long, dense dialogues that are of interest mostly because the idea of Scout confronting Atticus is novel and unnerving, not because they are particularly well-written. Lee makes a hash of some complicated but careworn ideas about Southern identity and states’ rights.
But for all the blockiness of the conversations, there is insight in them, particularly when Scout argues with Henry about his participation in the Citizens’ Council meeting. “I’m part of Maycomb County’s trash, but I’m part of Maycomb County,” Henry tells her, explaining that both her high-class status in town and her residency in New York give her a freedom of thought and speech that are not available to him. “I’ve got to live here, Jean Louise. Don’t you understand that?…I am trying to make you see, my darling, that you are permitted a sweet luxury I’m not. You can shout to high heaven, I cannot.”
“Go Set a Watchman” doesn’t settle for the easy canard of Northern superiority on the question of white supremacy. For all that Scout has moved to New York, she tells her Uncle Jack, “I don’t especially want to run out and marry a Negro or something.” And Jack makes a forceful argument that running away to the North and thinking you’re better for it is a kind of naivete. “It takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days,” Jack suggests to Scout. Henry may not have the freedom to speak his mind in Maycomb, but Scout does. Jack thinks she should move back to Maycomb and make use of her liberty. By doing so, he argues, she could give courage to people who agree with her, but are afraid that if they spoke up against racism, they could lose their jobs or social position.
“You, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s,” Jack tells Scott near the conclusion of the novel. “As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God.”
Scout isn’t the only one to experience that kind of moral confusion, that outsourcing of our sense of right and wrong to Atticus Finch. If finding that he’s not what we needed him to be disconcerts some readers, that doesn’t mean, as NPR’s Maureen Corrigan suggested, that “This Atticus is different in kind, not just degree: He’s like Ahab turned into a whale lover or Holden Caulfield a phony.” Instead, “Go Set a Watchman” is part of the process of divesting ourselves of the idea that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, “we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs.” If racism can belong to Atticus Finch — and if it became his property through the same processes that made him a hero — it can belong to anyone.