The publishing of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been a fascinating event. Lee wrote Watchman before To Kill a Mockingbird, but was told by her publisher to scrap it and rewrite the story from a different perspective. It was precisely that advice that led to a book, To Kill a Mockingbird, so popular it can score ahead of the Bible in “most inspirational” book polls. The effect of Go Set a Watchman, however, is not nearly inspirational, and some are finding it downright depressing.
Go Set a Watchman radically changes many readers’ perceptions of a modern hero, Lee’s character Atticus Finch. This radical change actually mirrors the change in understanding that Atticus’ daughter, Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, undergoes in watching her father through the plot of Watchman. In Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is the lawyer who stands against racism for equal representation before the law. In Watchman, however, an older Atticus Finch stands with his hometown Maycomb, defending Jim Crow. Jean Louise, visiting from her new home New York, finds her father disgustingly racist. She is disillusioned and undone.
Many reviews find this portrayal of Atticus Finch “awkward” (WSJournal), “disturbing,” and “disorienting” (NYTimes). Some are even in denial. Megan Garber at The Atlantic warns of “a dent in the universes” unless readers simply reject Watchman’s portrayal.
On the other hand, others are claiming to have long known Atticus Finch was a racist. One of the best commentaries on the paradox of an Atticus who can seem both ahead of his time and behind his time on race was actually written before both of Harper Lee’s novels. Walker Percy was a contemporary Southern novelist to Harper Lee. In 1957, in his essay “Stoicism in the South,” Percy says,
Until a few years ago, the champion of Negro rights in the South, and of fair-mindedness and toleration in general, was the upper-class white Southerner. He is their champion no longer. He has, by and large, unshouldered his burden for someone else to pick it up. What has happened to him? With a few courageous exceptions, he is either silent or he is leading the Citizens’ Councils.
Percy’s paragraph is a neat summary of Go Set a Watchman, where Jean Louise Finch is disturbed at her father’s participation in a Citizens’ Council. (Citizens’ Councils were local groups organized to oppose desegregation in the 50s and 60s.)
Percy’s essay goes on to explain how, in his view, the earlier proponents of “fair-mindedness and toleration” represented classical Stoicism. The nobility of the Stoic was
the stern inner summons to man’s full estate, to duty, to honor, to generosity towards his fellow men and above all to his inferiors- not because they were made in the image of God and were therefore lovable in themselves, but because to do them an injustice would be to defile the inner fortress which was oneself.
In this way, Percy explains the confusion Southerners were feeling in the 50s and 60s as the voice of the church and the voice of Southern tradition could no longer be heard in harmony. Southern Stoicism felt ennobled by showing generosity to the inferior. The Bible had all along ruled out the idea of inferiors, for all are made in the image of God.
In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch struggles to apply her Southern American Methodist catechesis with the actions of her home town, Maycomb. She accuses Atticus of saying on the one hand that Jesus loves everyone, but that for some that love only goes so far.
That “love of Jesus” described by the Finches is not the love described by Jesus’ own Apostles in the New Testament. The Finches' “love of Jesus” is the Southern Stoic variety. In Watchman, Atticus says, “Hypocrites have just as much right to live in this world as anyone.” The Stoic’s love is “live and let live.” “Live and let live” does build walls, often telling people just where to live so our messy lives don’t messily intersect. Contrast that with the Apostle Paul trying to maintain congregations where Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female all came together:
For Jesus Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16)
Jean Louise, as a true-to-life Southerner coming of age in the era of Watchman, faced the moral confusion Walker Percy described. No more could the Christianity of the Bible and the Stoicism of the South be reconciled. If Jesus loved all His little children, the walls had to come down, even if that meant sacrifice. But the “Christian” South could not abide the walls coming down. So Watchman shows a moral rite of passage, a painful rebirth through the shattering of Atticus’ perfect image. Jean Louise began as a character completely trusting Atticus’ rectitude. She is reborn, developing her own conscience. But it is not a Christian conscience she embraces. Through the midwifery of her Uncle Jack, she develops her own Stoic conscience, able to tolerate even the racist hypocrite.
This is precisely why the novel is so dissatisfying for modern readers. Harper Lee tried to preserve a Southern Stoicism that Walker Percy more sagely recognized as headed for extinction. American society did not come to tolerate racism. For many in modern American culture, prejudicial thinking is the one unforgiveable sin.
Jean Louise in Watchman is particularly disturbed that Atticus could still be a gentleman while failing to have the right political views. Go Set a Watchman takes its title from Isaiah 21:6. In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, the watchman is the prophet, alone given the Divine insight to know which is the “right side of history.” In the context of Harper Lee’s Stoic ideal, each individual must guard her own heart, developing a conscience that progresses past the generation who raised her. Jean Louise had let Atticus be her watchman, stunting her imagined moral growth. His fall was necessary for her ascendency.
Indeed, this view of comparative moral maturity stands behind the viciousness of modern American moral culture. It is easy to imagine you have the right views about prejudice. It is much harder to bear with the failings of your neighbors. Go Set a Watchman is awkward to read because the latter half of the novel follows Jean Louise treating her neighbors, friends, and family horribly, all in the name of her imagined greater righteousness.
In his book i told me so, Gregg A. Ten Elshof describes how the modern, a-Christian worldview has not cured racism even as it has elevated racism to the greatest of evils. The problem, he suggests, is that whenever we calculate a particular sin as worse than others, it becomes harder to recognize our own failings in that sin category. “If racism is worse than we thought, then it’s harder than it used to be to admit to yourself that you’re a racist” (11).
The American Stoic’s identity requires the self-image of a better-formed conscience than her neighbor’s. This very identity is in direct contradiction to the Christian identity where the meek inherit the earth, where daily repentance constantly humbles the man who lives by grace. The American Stoic’s pride curses each generation to a lonely homelessness and creates the modern need for generational echo chambers.
Go Set a Watchman is an “awkward” novel because it does not satisfactorily resolve the tension it creates. It cannot, for its answer, Attican Stoicism, is part of the problem. On the other hand, Go Set a Watchman does a service in revealing not only the historically accurate “dark side” of Atticus Finch, but the self-destruction inherent in a progressive conscience.
As our country continues, 150 years after the Gettysburg Address, 70 years after the Voting Rights Act, to grapple with race relations, it’s far past time to recognize that each of us pretending to be the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird has not enlivened the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.
My own son is about the same age as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. We watched him grapple with encountering racism while reading Little House on the Prairie. The story is filled with heroic characters, yet several express despicable attitudes about Native Americans. My son could not understand why some people so good could think that way.
It is precious and heartbreaking seeing the innocence of youth recognize the injustice of prejudice. We live in a world where Little House characters and Atticus do express ugly prejudices. But it’s not just Little House characters and Atticus. Real heroes have thoughts of persistent dehumanization mixed into the way they think about things. Rather than pretend to be the Atticus of Mockingbird, we all would do well to recognize ourselves as the Atticus of Watchman. We, too- I, too- have prejudices hidden within that are worth uncovering, repenting, and turning from.
Jesus once spoke to a Pharisee named Simon who thought he had a progressive conscience, better than his neighbors. Simon wanted to reveal Jesus as a sinner, so Simon set Jesus up, inviting the Nazarene to dinner only to insult Him once there. A woman described as a “sinner” saw the offense of Simon not washing Jesus’ feet, not greeting Him as a rabbi. So she washed His feet with her tears.
Jesus told a parable in this moment that speaks exactly to our reluctance to uncover our own prejudices, to our desire to see our own consciences as having evolved past the generation before. Jesus spoke of two people, one who owed a small debt and one who owed a great debt. When both debtors were forgiven, Jesus asked which would love the forgiver more, the one with the greater or smaller debt. Simon could only answer that it was the one with the greater debt. Jesus brought His point home by saying that the reason Simon loves little is because he thinks he is forgiven little and the reason the “sinner” loves much is because she knows she is forgiven much.
Prejudicial thinking is sinful because it fails to recognize the image of God in every human being. It is not unforgiveable, however. And the way to replace prejudice with love is not to pretend it cannot infect us. We, too, can love more by being forgiven more. "We love because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19).