One year, an ESL student told me To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book she had ever read all the way through. Teachers across the country have countless stories just like this. As a ninth grade English teacher, I have read Mockingbird with students every year but one––not that it’s required reading, or that I wish Atticus Finch were my husband. It just works so well. Every year. And kids love it.
But last fall, as I planned out my units for the year, I felt a sinking in my chest. After the protests in Ferguson, the traction of Black Lives Matter, I wondered if it was really productive to teach a book written by a white lady in which a black man is murdered by the police.
I refrained from reading anything about Go Set a Watchman in the papers or online until I finished it. I wanted to experience the piece for myself—to enjoy Lee’s lyricism, to see the characters my students and I know so well, without thinking about the internet buzz or the morals of its publication. But through the stray headline shared on Facebook and passing conversations in my own childhood small town, where I was visiting during the release, I heard the rumor: Atticus is a bigot; he’s changed. I wondered when the last time was they’d read To Kill a Mockingbird.
Granted, I’ve had the privilege of reading Lee’s first novel regularly for my job, asking reading questions about its intricacies five times a day for weeks each year, brainstorming essay topics with students, and reading at least a thousand analyses with correctly integrated quotations. So, having inadvertently memorized the contents of each chapter and a good number of lines, it was with deep familiarity and trepid anticipation that I set into Watchman the night of its release.
If you think To Kill a Mockingbird is a model of a perfect society and Atticus Finch is the best father ever, #flawless, obviously you’ll be disappointed. But if you have as troubled a relationship with Mockingbird as my students and I do, Go Set a Watchman is a freeing, fascinating read.
As a way of jogging the memories of those who only remember the gist of Mockingbird, I’d like to first explain a bit about how my students have experienced it.
This year, my student teacher Mr. Michel (a young man of color) saved me from my moral quandary and went for it himself, framing the novel through its acclaimed reception at the onset of the Civil Rights Movement. Smart.
He allowed us to discuss the problems of race and activism that young people right now need to discuss. He allowed us to link our reading to the film Selma, which the entire freshman class had just seen. And he allowed the white lady in the room to take a step back and see the novel on new terms. We cotaught, I observed him, and after he left at 1:00 each day to go to his graduate courses, I had to fend for myself in the afternoon classes.
As we read, we talked about what it means that all the black characters had either not advanced (Cal) or died (Tom).
I read aloud one of my favorite lines, describing Tom Robinson in court: “Tom was a black-velvet Negro, not shiny, but soft black velvet. The white of his eyes shone in his face, and when he spoke we saw flashes of his teeth. If he had been whole [with two working arms], he would have been a fine specimen of a man,” (219) and the women in the class let out an impassioned, “Mm! Yes. Introduce me to him.”
Some years, we wondered, alongside Malcolm Gladwell, if Atticus had done enough. This year, we wondered if Harper Lee had done enough.
Mr. Michel asked the question, “What is an appropriate response to injustice?” We looked at Nikki Giovanni’s poem on Rosa Parks, Rockwell’s painting on Ruby Bridges, interviews about Emmett Till, and more, and we wondered, “Whose response to injustice is best?”
“Emmett’s mother,” they said. “That was brave. She wanted everyone to see what they did to her baby.”
“Harper Lee,” they said. “She wrote this book that everyone reads. It’s a classic now and we’re having these conversations because of it.”
Before our final discussion, I read to them a section of Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name as we talked about paternalistic control over black bodies and Southern womanhood.
When we watched the film after school and Robert Duvall appeared from behind the door in Jem’s room, the girls gasped and said, “Oh hey boo. He cute. Why he been hiding?”
But I pushed back. I said, “But what happens to the black characters? Why do they have to die? Why is the dog’s name (Tim Johnson) only four letters different from the black man’s name (Tom Robinson)? Who does that? What kind of story is this? Couldn’t she have done better?”
I worried I was teaching them what James Baldwin disparagingly calls the protest novel, the failure of which “lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended” (23). This novel is paraded through liberal culture like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and, like it, rejects to give full life to its black characters.
“No, Ms. Garvoille,” they said. “He has to die. We have to feel for him, we have to know how bad it was. It’s more realistic this way.”
For those who find Atticus’s immorality in Go Set a Watchman startling, I want to remind readers of the fascinatingly twisted morality at the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird.
“You can shoot at all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em,” Atticus says after Christmas, conceding that his own children will become thirsty for blood with their new air rifles, that tin cans will not satiate their hate, “but remember it’s a sin to . . .” You know the rest (103). The unspoken words of the title (It’s a Sin) invoke a didactic morality from the beginning, but examine the source of that famous line about songbirds and the veneer begins to crack.
What does it even mean? I ask. Is this a justification for murder? Do we exterminate those we see as unhelpful to society, those who “eat up people’s gardens” and “nest in corncribs”? What does it mean that three privileged white men plotted to cover up the murder of the poverty-striken alcoholic Bob Ewell? That the cop, the lawyer, and his neighbor who, though an outcast, is still white, male, and moneyed, are writing the law from the Finches’ front porch?
“It’s complicated,” they said. “You have to make exceptions. It was wrong to accuse Tom Robinson; think of all the lives he threatened. Bob Ewell had it coming. I was sitting at home reading and I cheered when they said he died.”
What’s the difference between killing Bob Ewell and lynching Tom Robinson? Between “shooting at all the bluejays you like” and “killing a mockingbird”?
The whole point of Atticus is that he is trained to interpret the law, to bend it, to make compromises and make them seem right. For my students, this double standard regarding the value of lives is central to our study of the novel.
And so we circle back again to Atticus Finch. In the days surrounding the release of Go Set a Watchman, Atticus has been the talk of the town. We adore him like a six-year-old girl with no mother. He is our conscience: the man who knows good from bad, the man who doesn’t use the n-word and thinks it’s wrong to hate Hitler, the man who wouldn’t be able to “face [his] children” if he doesn’t take on the Tom Robinson case (100), the man with God’s gift of marksmanship who only uses it to save the town (112).
And then in Watchman, we, along with Scout, see him sitting in the “Citizens’ council” listening to a pro-segregationalist lecture, and later arguing with his daughter about the swiftness of the NAACP’s actions to integrate schools and enforce voting rights. “Honey,” he starts during the climatic confrontation with Jean Louise (this word makes me cringe each time it’s uttered). “Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life. They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of ‘em voting than ever before. Then the NAACP stepped in with its fantastic demands and shoddy ideas of government. . .” (246).
We are outraged at his backwardness. And rightly so. Atticus, who had raised us so well, the literary father we never had, the paragon of justice, is yet a product of his time, is yet imperfect, and, yes, of course, racist. He’s also a parent, which makes him de facto wrong on at least some things.
The poet CA Conrad’s work on the bigotry of gay icon Walt Whitman brought out a similar rage. Conrad’s essay on Whitman’s racist and expansionist views expressed in his nonfiction and poetry (while more directly repulsive than those of Atticus) elicited incredulous, angry responses from Whitman fans. “An attack against Whitman is too much for many white liberals to bear,” Conrad wrote. At a reading in Madison, Wisconsin, he put it more bluntly: “[Important White Male Poet’s Name Withheld] lost his sh–– on me” on Facebook. CA explained to us his feeling of betrayal, the feeling that someone who had his back––“Gay Grandpa”––was an utter stranger and an ass. So it is with many for Atticus. “It was like a library I loved had burned down,” Conrad wrote to describe the feeling. Indeed, the reading nation seems to be warming itself on the embers of Atticus Finch’s stake.
Like us, Jean Louise finds herself physically ill at the thought of her father even listening to a segregationalist. He should have been taking aim, we thought, using his marksmanship for good. But Atticus is not John Brown. (Only one of them is a martyr.)
Jean Louise sets her father straight, she swears she’ll never trust him again, she lashes out, she may as well have taken to Twitter. But in our own anger, we may miss the most glorious moment of the scene: she breaks with the patriarch, and then she arises herself, renewed, a woman unencumbered by the skewed morality of her father, with insight enough to be her own Watchman.
Jean Louise is everything: a feminist resisting the forces of post-war domesticity, an advocate, and some shade of queer. We learn that “it had never fully occurred to Jean Louise that she was a girl,” until the terrors of pubescence when Cal has to explain what the bleeding means (116). That day, the revelation of a gender binary leaves her “crying with rage” (126). Indeed, the difficult and mostly solitary adolescence that follows is rooted in the oppressively gendered nature of the South.
Her scenes with Hank, the man we hope she won’t consent to marry the entire novel, are painfully awkward, like a write-in advice column titled “My Best Friend Has a Crush On Me, What Do I Do?” She rails when he presumes to make her a housewife. One of my favorite sections of the novel occurs just as she leans her head on Hanks’ shoulder, driving back from a boyish jump in the river at Finch’s Landing. After settling in, she snaps herself back to reality, thinking, “But I am not domestic. I don’t even know how to run a cook. What do ladies say to each other when they go visiting? I’d have to wear a hat. I’d drop the babies and kill ‘em” (80). Preach, said the women of America.
For young women who felt a kinship with Scout, it is a delight to meet her as an adult, for we’d like to think we turned out just as clever. While we get a taste of her demure sass in the narrator of Mockingbird, in Watchman the third person omniscient allows her to shine as she stalks around Maycomb shooting silent barbs like an air rifle, each insult punctuated by a rimshot. Her snappy (mostly internal) comebacks could become an app: “Why don’t you go pee in your hat?” (38); “Go to hell, then” (13); “[You have] all the latent characteristics of a three dollar bill” (28); the much-discussed insult hurled at Atticus, “you double-dealing ring-tailed old son of a b[––]” (153); and my favorite, “I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth” (175).
If To Kill a Mockingbird is a bildungsroman, in which Scout learns to be a lady, escorting Boo Radley home properly, Go Set a Watchman is its reverse, in which Jean Louise learns to say deuces to societal norms and forge her own path.
That said, I’m concerned that in centering our conversations around Atticus we are reinforcing a deference to the partriarchy instead of focusing on this wild, wonderful, queer young woman.
In fact, I am inclined to think that anyone currently preoccupied with Atticus Finch suffers from one of two illnesses: either they are operating under halcyon days racism and think that Atticus was a perfect fighter for black rights (one commentator even wonders why neither James Baldwin nor Ralph Ellison, “those most qualified to comment upon Mockingbird” [because they’re black!] never mentioned it in their writings); or they are boring sexists, insisting, simultaneously, that for God’s sake these books are about men, not some sniveling 20-something floozy, and that Harper Lee is currently or was in the past incapable of putting words and characters together satisfactorily, but isn’t it darling that the old girl tried?
When we taught Mockingbird this year, we discussed how the novel was an instant hit, how she won the Pulitzer, how the film was made and released in only two years, and how it then won two Oscars. We talked about why it was a hit: right place, right time, right story. White hero fights for equality, but don’t worry, the black guy still dies in the end.
(Unfortunately, To Kill a Mockingbird was not directed by Quentin Tarantino. I relished showing the closing scene of Django for comparison––the exploding plantation home, the black hero alive, and he gets the girl!)
“Ms. Garvoille, it was 1960. White people couldn’t handle an ending like that back then. Heck, they can barely handle it now.”
I wonder what Go Set a Watchman’s teetering reception says about society today.
In 1960, we could all believe we were Atticus Finch, directed by a higher moral code but working within the system to change hearts and minds––that one Cunningham on the jury who held out for so long? That one man who we made think, for a moment, that Tom Robinson is a man before he was once again won over by the prejudices of his peers? That was a success.
But when we see Atticus at seventy-two, we are disgusted. We say, “That’s not the Atticus I remember!” Because we were there. We were Atticus. And, following the logic, now we are gradualist bigots, fighting for symbols of “Southern Heritage,” and against black Twitter, and against affirmative action, and against coming to terms with the fact that a seventy-two year-old fictional white man living in the pre-civil rights era deep South is operating within institutional racism.
But actually, we were never Atticus. We were always Scout.
We were Scout, whining that our father had betrayed us, yet defending him to the hilt, when really we just needed to yell at him, to tell him he’s a bigot, to call him a ring-tailed old s.o.b., and then go join the NAACP and ask pointed questions when our friends and acquaintances and students say stupid things on a daily basis. In fact, we are left at the end of Watchman with Uncle Jack’s suggestion that Jean Louise stay in Maycomb to subtly change the culture: “the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise” (273). Our friends need us when they share racist posts on the internet, our students need us when they thoughtlessly call something gay, our families need us when they don’t understand Supreme Court decisions.
The stiff minister Mr. Stone reads from Isaiah a passage that lends the author her title. Isaiah starts chapter 21 in upheaval: “the whirlwinds in the south pass through” and “a grievous vision is declared unto me: the treacherous dealer deals treacherously, and the spoiler spoileth” (21:1-2). Though Isaiah’s vision ends up foretelling the fall of Babylon, I can’t think of a more fitting description of America in 2015: the treacherous dealer deals treacherously, the spoiler spoileth. The country is racked with violence both domestic and abroad, the treacherous keep dealing treacherously, robbing the poor of education and of healthcare, marginalizing people of color, lining pockets for campaign advertising, feeding the machine.
In response to his vision, the Lord tells Isaiah to “Go, set a Watchman, let him declare what he seeth” (21:6). And the dutiful watchman, indeed, reports chaos: “Babylon is fallen” and chariots rush on and war begins (21:9).
“Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?” someone asks (21:11). “The morning cometh,” the watchman replies, “and also the night” (21:12).
We must be the watchman when we are called. We must see that Babylon is fallen and the night cometh. But, as the watchman notes, the morning cometh as well.
The lesson is clear: you are the watchman for justice. Not the canonized white man, not Atticus Finch, not the church or society or your parents. Sure, it’s easier for Keith Olbermann or Scott Walker or Atticus Finch to tell you right from wrong, but in the end, according to Lee, it’s your job.
But by not taking time to understand Lee’s presentation of the conflict between Atticus and Jean Louise, we refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of Jean Louise’s and Lee’s own stances at the watchtower.
Instead, we need to acknowledge that while Jean Louise is “color blind,” Atticus Finch does not have perfect vision (and never has––remember after taking out the mad dog Tim Johnson we learn his right eye is better than his left?). We need to stare into our own history and, yes, be “dismayed at the seeing of it” (21:3). We need to acknowledge the imperfect achievement of equality, to acknowledge the paternalistic storyline of Mockingbird, to acknowledge why we loved it in 1960, and to acknowledge there is work to be done in 2015.
Then, looking into the hatred of our past, the bigotry of our heroes, the imperfect and terrifying nature of the racism on which our country was claimed and formed, declare it, just as Lee has, just as Jean Louise does. Then, perhaps, we will see for the first time the ravages of our history and begin to rebuild what has always been fallen.
Baldwin, James. “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Notes of a Native Son. 1955. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012. Print.
Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. The Weinstein Company. 2012. Film.
Giovanni, Nikki. “Rosa Parks” from Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems. New York: William Morrow, 2002. Print.
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. 1960. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Print.
Rockwell, Norman. The Problem We All Live With. 1964. Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA. Web.
Tyson, Timothy B. Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story. New York: Crown, 2004. Print.