My copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is in danger of splitting in two. When I lay the spine of the book on my palm it flops open to page 168, roughly the middle of the novel, where the last layer of binding is slowly disintegrating. I am sure that my book is just one of thousands like it: crinkled, yellowed, and worn with readings and re-readings.
Thus the discovery of an earlier version of Harper Lee’s renowned novel was met with a whirl of excitement and uncertainty from the book’s vast group of followers like myself.
The first draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” titled “Go Set a Watchman,” follows an adult Jean Louise Finch, no longer called by her childhood name “Scout.” It was not until later that Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, suggested that she rewrite the story in first person from the perspective of young Scout, a decision that ultimately produced the work we know today.
The earlier draft follows 26-year-old Jean Louise as she returns to her home in Maycomb County, Alabama from New York in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Upon her return, Jean Louise finds the tired yet quaint Southern town stirring as it is forced to contend with organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which prohibited segregation in schools. As white supremacism is called into question, the townspeople cling to their segregationist views with renewed assertion, and Jean Louise, a liberal young woman returning from New York, finds herself repulsed by a place she calls home.
The element of the novel that has received the most discussion is Lee’s characterization of Jean Louise’s father, Atticus. The deified man of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” who defended a falsely accused black man in court and taught his children to approach the world with unwavering courage and empathy, reappears in “Go Set a Watchman” as aged and bigoted, overcome by defiant anxiety in the face of the Civil Rights movement.
Jean Louise soon discovers that her father and his protégée, Jean Louise’s boyfriend Henry Clinton, are part of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, an organization of respectable townspeople with the aim of upholding racial segregation.
This revelation sets the stage for the rest of the novel, throughout which Jean Louise grapples with the question of whether it is wrong to abandon her home and the people who love her because she holds differing ideologies. The struggle continues until the conclusion of the book, an abrupt ending that leaves Jean Louise’s contending emotions ringing dissonantly.
What I have found most intriguing among the discussions of “Go Set a Watchman” are the arguments for not reading the book at all, for fear that the “new” Atticus will ruin their view of the “old” Atticus. But such talk implies that Atticus has changed.
While “Go Set a Watchman” certainly amplifies Atticus’s faults and throws them under a harsh light, that is not to say they were never present before. In Atticus’s words, the Blacks are “still in their childhood as a people” and to give them rights would be to disrupt a social order that, in his eyes, ought to be dictated by how “advanced” a group is. Atticus’s racism is paternalistic: those who are superior deserve their rights and those who are inferior must be elevated to a higher level to earn them. His defense of an innocent black man does not contradict this belief, and his passivity regarding the whites-only jury in “To Kill a Mockingbird” supports it. To Atticus, clean, rigid justice does not interfere with a clean, rigid social hierarchy.
Atticus’s racism is the manifestation of his fear of a disrupted social order, and thus this racism is not evident in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” when segregation was so deeply rooted that it was never called into question. Atticus’s other traits, like empathy, are thus highlighted in the novel, glorified by his daughter and generations of readers. Such characteristics are perhaps watered-down in ”Go Set a Watchman,” but they are certainly not absent. It is the same Atticus who listens to and respects the opinions of others. “I’m proud of you,” he says to Jean Louise. “I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right—stand up to me first of all.”
Readers will never be able to talk about Atticus Finch without considering both sides of his character: an educated man, a man loyal to justice, and a loving father, but also a conservative man, a bystander, and a bigot. For some, a shadow has descended over a saint. Like any other reader, I am reluctant to allow my view of Atticus to be tarnished, but I think that if there is one benefit the publication of this book has brought, it is the nuance it has introduced to Atticus’s character and his society as a whole. It was, after all, Atticus Finch who coined the aphorism, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” How ironic it is that we should refuse him the same benefit of understanding that he taught us to afford others.
We have elevated “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a glorious fight for justice, but in the process, rendered it an unrealistic one. “Go Set a Watchman” allows us to see that the fight is uglier, messier, but for that, more genuine.
We must constantly make an effort to open our eyes to the complexity of the racism that existed—and still exists—in our country, for that is the only way we can begin to overcome it. It’s a patchwork effort composed of big steps and small steps, some obvious and some unlikely. And pondering a world where a man like Atticus can still be racist, however uncomfortable it may be, is such a step.
Despite the potential of the nuanced story told in “Go Set a Watchman,” Lee’s editor’s request to tell the story from Jean Louise’s childhood was perfectly reasonable. Indeed, the most colorful moments of the book are the flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood. In one tale she is “baptized” by her brother, Jem, and childhood companion, Dill, in a pond in Dill’s backyard. Another tells of her grief when, as a sixth grader, she believed she was pregnant because a boy in her class stuck his tongue in her mouth. A third recalls a mishap with falsies at the high school prom. In the latter two stories, Henry Clinton comes to her aid, ever the comforting hero, allowing the reader to further understand Jean Louise’s quandary.
In contrast, the “real-time” parts of the story, while inspired at some moments, feel like, well, a first draft at others. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise is obstinate and quick to aim sharp comments at her family. While the cause of her behavior is reasonable, Lee portrays her as bull-headed and close-minded, causing the reader to quickly lose sympathy for the protagonist. The book would not have been published, as it was not in the past, were it not for its legacy.
I anticipate that my copy of “Go Set a Watchman” will not be as worn as my copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It is, after all, just a first draft, and cannot be expected to be as compelling as the brilliant coming-of-age tale that captivated generations of readers. But it will sit on my shelf next to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” equally important in the history it conveys.