The Atticus Complex: Harper Lee Sets Her Flawed ‘Watchman’


At 26, Jean Louise Finch is no stranger to life’s reversals. Motherless, she was raised by her father, an attorney named Atticus, her Aunt Alexandra, and Calpurnia, her father’s black cook — all of whom are now elderly. Not long ago, she lost her brother and close friend, Jem, to the same weak heart that claimed her mother. After college, at the behest of Atticus, Jean Louise moved away from Maycomb, Alabama, where she was born and raised, to New York City, where she was asked to make her way in the world, alone. By every indication, her memory of life in Maycomb — pitched near the fraught truths of the color line — divides her from her peers in New York, a city for which she harbors an ever-deepening ambivalence. Her two constants: an old friend, Hank, whom she sometimes considers marrying, and Atticus, whose progressive spirit acts as her moral conscience.

This is the woman we meet in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and many will believe that they have already met her — as a six-year-old in the author’s To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps the most famous American novel on the subject of race relations. Readers who believe that this is the selfsame Scout Finch of Mockingbird will likewise believe that Atticus Finch, that icon of racial justice, has performed a stunning about-face, from anti-racist defense attorney to bigoted, old stooge. And they will do so abetted by countless flippant articles from the broader media — which has never been equipped for literary criticism — and perfunctory, inflammatory reviews from worn-out critics who impose continuity in order to prey on the reader’s desire for comfort.

But the reality is that we both know and do not know these Finches. The publication of Watchman brings with it a set of problems, consequences of publishing — which is nothing now but the making public of a book for the sake of profit. These problems persist whether Harper Lee wanted Watchman to be published or not, a fact which no longer matters now that it is in the world. The issue at hand is that the novel is two things at once: a draft and a sequel. This makes it a liminal thing, almost but not quite a paradox. Passages, memories, facts, and characters from To Kill a Mockingbird exist here in prototypical form, but they do so like sentient shadows, conscious beings tethered to their future selves. Jean Louise and Atticus and Calpurnia have some but not all of the memories they had in Mockingbird, but they also have new memories, on account of being older, and alternate memories of events that never occurred. “There is no such thing as collective consciousness,” Jean Louise’s uncle says in Watchman. Maybe, but between these two books there is no such thing as persisting consciousness: it’s all chasing after vapor, as a citizen of Maycomb might say.

Once this is understood, Watchman becomes a straightforward book. The novel begins with Jean Louise on a train to Maycomb, where she plans to spend a fortnight with her friends and family. She is met at the station by her friend and would-be lover, Hank, because Atticus is too old and tired and ill to make the journey. Even in these first pages, Harper Lee’s relaxed, often brilliant idiolect is on full display; so too is the ease with which she moves between present, memorial past, and anecdotal descriptions — often of Maycomb — many of which are found wholesale in the later Mockingbird. This is to say that on the formal level, Watchman is messy but sometimes confoundingly good. It’s a narrative style not untouched by literary modernism, and I’d offer that Lee’s greatest gift — beyond her warmly voluminous yet precise diction — is her ability to paint with time in a manner available only to America’s “regional” writers, a line extending from Faulkner to Marilynne Robinson.

Watchman’s theme, early on, is aligned more with Joyce’s The Dead. It’s almost as if Gabriel has come home to visit his aunts — a concept almost literalized by a chapter devoted to a conversation between Jean Louise and her aunt, Alexandra. The chapter, which features the first of many mesmerizing allusions to the French Revolution, is about the relative trashiness of Jean Louise’s love interest, Hank. And it’s the novel’s first strong indication that Harper Lee, by way of Jean Louise, is negotiating (or exorcising) her own class and race prerogatives. It is in, in other words, the first of many discomforts that soon multiply at an alarming pace.

Like Mockingbird, Watchman is a novel about the white perception of race and racial politics — it never considers these politics from the perspective of black life, from “another man’s shoes,” as the Atticus of Mockingbird would have put it. It is also something of an awkward bildung, where Jean Louise comes to terms with her father’s racism. The trouble begins when Atticus (and Hank) leave to attend a town meeting. After they depart, Jean Louise discovers a disturbing pamphlet that depicts black citizens as a white-flesh-eating plague:

On its cover was a drawing of an anthropophagous Negro; above the drawing was printed The Black Plague. Its author was somebody with several academic degrees after his name. She opened the pamphlet, sat down in her father’s chair, and began reading. When she had finished, she took the pamphlet by one of its corners, held it like she would hold a dead rat by the tail, and walked into the kitchen. She held the pamphlet in front of her aunt.

“What is this thing?” she said.

Alexandra looked over her glasses at it. “Something of your father’s.”

From there, Jean Louise makes her way to the town hall, where Hank and Atticus are attending a Maycomb County Citizens’ Council meeting — a congregation of scared, white racists terrified at the thought of losing a modicum of privilege. This is one example of what Jean Louise overhears:

. . . not the question of whether snot-nosed niggers will go to school with your children or ride the front of the bus . . . it’s whether Christian civilization will continue to be or whether we will be slaves of the Communists . . . nigger lawyers . . . stomped on the Constitution . . . our Jewish friends . . . killed Jesus . . . voted the nigger . . . our granddaddies . . . nigger judges and sheriffs . . . separate is equal . . . ninety- five per cent of the tax money . . . for the nigger and the old hound dog . . . following the golden calf . . . preach the Gospel . . . old lady Roosevelt . . . nigger- lover . . . entertains forty-five niggers but not one fresh white Southern virgin . . . Huey Long, that Christian gentleman . . . black as burnt light’ud knots . . . bribed the Supreme Court . . . decent white Christians . . . was Jesus crucified for the nigger . . .

Without summarizing the hell out of it, I’ll just explain that the rest of Watchman works like this: a distraught Jean Louise confronts her friends and family members about their intensifying racism. She is met with a range of pathetic, pseudo-centrist excuses about Southern heritage and slow change. Although she argues fiercely — with herself and others — and with great eloquence, Jean Louise — and by extension, Harper Lee — capitulates too easily to the idea of Southern blacks as “backward.” Also disturbing is her attempt to assuage her family’s anxiety by asserting that she has no plans to marry a black man — a proclamation made weirder by her claim that she is colorblind. To be frank, in a mix that seems equal parts intentional and accidental, Jean Louise comes off as a bit petulant and self-righteous.

But Jean Louise is not the adult Scout Finch. And the Atticus of Watchman is not the elderly version of the attorney that launched a thousand legal careers. The continuity is an illusion bolstered by observations Jean Louise makes about Atticus’ more progressive past, especially his role as a defender of black rights in an infamous trial. After the trial, Jean Louise realizes, “[Atticus] never counted what it cost him; he never looked back. He never knew two pairs of eyes like his own were watching from the balcony.” This is meant to describe a man whose ethical good health had been eroded, year by year, by a virus called the Protestant work ethic. He lost himself, she believes, because he was trying to save everyone.

Here’s the problem: in the version offered by Watchman, Atticus won the trial. He is not, then, the Atticus of Mockingbird but an adjacent, epiphenomenal creation. This fact, among many others, leads me to another conclusion. If Harper Lee wanted to complicate the image of Atticus, if she wanted to de-lionize a Southern Patriarch, she wanted to do this before she wrote Mockingbird. We know this because the present novel was written before that book; it is, according to Lee herself, the parent of Mockingbird. My suspicion, then, from reading her unofficial biography, and from reading this novel, is that Lee’s undeniable literary gifts were wielded against the complexity that she sought from the beginning. She set out to write a story that would complicate what we might call the Atticus Complex — the saving of black citizens by industrious, educated white men. What she gave us instead, along with her New York publishers, agents, and editors, was To Kill a Mockingbird, a more perfect book preloaded with easier answers.

And Jean Louise does not spare New York for its love affair with easy answers. In a passage that gives the full range of ambivalence to her split life between South and North, she lays bare her case against the city:

New York. New York? I’ll tell you how New York is. New York has all the answers. People go to the YMHA, the English-Speaking Union, Carnegie Hall, the New School for Social Research, and find the answers. The city lives by slogans, isms, and fast sure answers. New York is saying to me right now: you, Jean Louise Finch, are not reacting according to our doctrines regarding your kind, therefore you do not exist.

To which New York replies:

Look sister, we know the facts: you spent the first twenty-one years of your life in the lynching country, in a county whose population is two-thirds agricultural Negro. So drop the act.

Everywhere in Watchman, Jean Louise teeters between radicalism and surrender — the book, in my estimation, sides terrifyingly with the latter. But its most self-honest vision is of the South’s structural doom, of its broad, historical pact with white supremacy. The title, after all, refers to a sentinel who oversees the fall of Babylon. In Jean Louise’s most powerful, internal declaration a similar fate awaits her friends and loved ones:

Had she been able to think, Jean Louise might have prevented events to come by considering the day’s occurrences in terms of a recurring story as old as time: the chapter which concerned her began two hundred years ago and was played out in a proud society the bloodiest war and harshest peace in modern history could not destroy, returning, to be played out again on private ground in the twilight of a civilization no wars and no peace could save.

One thing is now clear. If Harper Lee has a salvageable vision of racial politics, it doesn’t look like To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that is undermined by Watchman at almost every turn. This is to say that as fraught and politically flawed as Watchman is, it is less fraught and politically flawed than Mockingbird. This is to say that Watchman questions the sanctity of the white savior at the risk of humanizing the bigot.

Go Set a Watchman, in the end, is easy to attack. And it will be defended on the basis that its arguments are still with us today. But no matter how closely it hews to extant debates in racial politics, it is not the book we need; nor is it the book we deserve. Why would it be? There is no watchman presiding over American publishing but profit, no conscience but the reader’s own.