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Harper Lee and Civil Rights

Since I just finished re-reading "To Kill A Mockingbird" with my 9th graders, I decided to finally get around to reading the copy of "Go Set A Watchman" that I picked up a couple of years ago. If you don't know the story, Harper Lee wrote Watchman BEFORE she wrote Mockingbird, the publisher rejected it & suggested instead that she play up "the childhood stuff," and so she wrote & published Mockingbird about the idyllic summers of young innocent white Scout Finch against the backdrop of Depression-era racial violence in 1930s rural Alabama. Mockingbird was published in 1960 and went on to become, by many accounts, one of the best novels of the 20th century, while Watchman sat locked away in a drawer until very near Lee's death when she was talked into publishing it in 2015.


Although written before Mockingbird, Watchman takes place LATER, in the 1950s, as the story of grown up Scout (aka Jean Louise Finch), now a 20-something independent young woman who has gone off to New York but now returns to Alabama to visit her elderly father, the heroic white lawyer Atticus Finch of Mockingbird fame.



Has anyone else here read "Go Set A Watchman?" Oof, I almost wish I hadn't. Not because it is a little clunky, more overtly political, and has none of the storytelling charm of "the childhood stuff" that became Mockingbird (that publisher was right, btw), but because, it is just not where you want the Mockingbird characters to have ended up 20 years later. And not just because it turns out, surprise! ALL the white people in Maycomb are racist! (More on that below.) But also some key characters are prematurely dead (ugh), and Watchman also has some inconsistencies with the plot and characters that were later developed in Mockingbird, so that's probably another reason she did not previously publish it. FOR EXAMPLE, although only very briefly mentioned in Watchman as part of Atticus's past legal work, the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, and the KEY plot point of Mockingbird, turns out to have a DIFFERENT VERDICT than what she wrote in Mockingbird - interesting.



As for the fast-forward 20 years to catch up with a now 70-year-old Atticus Finch in Maycomb... If you thought Atticus was the white liberal moral compass of 1930s Alabama, you may end up disappointed in how that turns out. Even Jean Louise is angry about the Supreme Court (in Brown v. Board) "telling the South what to do," but boy howdy, you should hear Atticus and Aunt Alexandra (and Jean Louise's suitor, Henry, a supposed childhood love who, by the way, never appears in her Mockingbird childhood) go off on how the NAACP is trying to get black people all riled up about their rights down here! And then there's black housekeeper Calpurnia, who helped raise motherless Scout and her brother, but somewhere in the intervening years finally got fed up with the Finches and leaves them - a credible move inserted by author Lee, although from Jean Louise's still childlike and self-centered perspective this is a personal betrayal, not a political move.



It's hard to come to a conclusion about Lee's project here. Did she intend for 1930s Atticus Finch - sensitive single dad, progressive intellectual, smalltown moral leader - to EVER be the hero that millions of (white) readers have held him up to be? Or was he ALWAYS (even in Mockingbird) just progressive *enough,* committed to the pursuit of justice under the law, and equally committed to treating neighbors (black or white, rich or poor) with civility, but actually holding the same prejudices as his white contemporaries?


One of his most famous dad lines in Mockingbird is the quote about walking in another person's shoes, and he has this calm rational perspective that everyone is battling their own struggles, which we may not know anything about. But, even in Mockingbird, his own children uncomfortably struggle with how Atticus can "defend" everyone and not take a more vocal stand against all kinds of injustices?? At the end of Mockingbird, Atticus's children CHALLENGE him - how can he defend a black man against false accusations, and yet allow the white racists to express their views unchallenged? Scout wonders how her teacher at school can teach the children that anti-Semitism is wrong because you shouldn't judge someone based on religion, but the white adults all around her constantly judge black people based on the color of their skin? Atticus says everyone is entitled to their beliefs, live and let live, but the CHILDREN know that is wrong, that beliefs lead to actions. By the white juries, by the white police, by the white neighbors.



So the first reaction of (white) readers of both books (and the reaction of Jean Louise) is shock and sadness that the gentle guiding Atticus Finch of Scout's childhood - the one who loved his black housekeeper as a co-parent and defended Tom Robinson with everything he had - is 20 years later resisting the anti-segregation and voter registration efforts of the mid-1950s and joining the local "Citizen's Council" alongside the town's most obvious racists.




Adam Gopnik writes, "So the idea that Atticus, in this book, “becomes” the bigot he was not in “Mockingbird” entirely misses Harper Lee’s point—that this is exactly the kind of bigot that Atticus has been all along. The particular kind of racial rhetoric that Atticus embraces (and that he and Jean Louise are careful to distinguish from low-rent, white-trash bigotry) is a complex and, in its own estimation, “liberal” ideology: there is no contradiction between Atticus defending an innocent black man accused of rape in “Mockingbird” and Atticus mistrusting civil rights twenty years later. Both are part of a paternal effort to help a minority that, in this view, cannot yet entirely help itself."


https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/27/sweet-home-alabama


By the way, before teaching Mockingbird, I did some research on controversies about the novel and teaching Atticus as white savior, and about how white students might read it compared to black students. I listened to this podcast on "Teaching While White," which points out that Atticus Finch, given his own family history and upbringing, could NOT HAVE EXISTED in the way white readers have wanted him to exist.  And I now think that was probably Harper Lee's point.


https://teachingwhilewhite.org/podcast


In Watchman, Jean Louise realizes, and in an angry confrontation tells her father, that children don't learn racism from school or from society... they first learn it at home. And in that one accusation, Lee puts a completely different spin on Mockingbird, on going back and telling the story of how that happens in Scout's childhood.


Maybe the books do work as joint novels after all.

About Tiffany 

 

Historian of women, gender, & feminism. Author & editor of academic reference books. Novelist.

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© 2020 by Tiffany K Wayne, PhD. 

Photographs taken by Marian "Clover" Hooper Adams obtained from the Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society