Harper Lee’s first published novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, was released at exactly the right time, 1960, the year John F. Kennedy was elected president and the beginning of the decade in which the Civil Rights Movement changed America forever. Its attitudes about racial justice and the liberal humanist credentials of its hero, the lawyer Atticus Finch, were unimpeachable. The novel was a natural Pulitzer Prize winner.
In high school in Alabama, it was placed on our required reading list well above works by Southern writers of far greater artistic merit. William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, and even Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote, all took a back seat to the millions who embraced To Kill A Mockingbird. It was proudly displayed in the living rooms of countless homes alongside Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, a paradox that has never been fully reconciled, or even recognized, by Southerners.
Now, Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird are back in the headlines with the publication, 58 years after its submission, of her real first novel, Go Set A Watchman, causing many to ask the wrong questions, such as “Is Atticus Finch A Racist?” (USA Today) and “Will this book diminish my love for Atticus Finch?” instead of “Have we all overrated To Kill A Mockingbird?”
In an email quoted by The New York Times, Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher of the HarperCollins imprint Harper, wrote, “Harper Lee wanted to have the novel published exactly as it was written, without editorial intervention. By confronting these challenging and complex issues at the height of the Civil Rights movement, the young Harper Lee demonstrated an honesty and bravery that makes this work both a powerful document of its time and a compelling piece of literature.”
But Harper Lee didn’t get her first novel published exactly as it was written, without editorial intervention, and in the rewritten result, she did not confront the challenging and complex issues at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Instead she reshaped her manuscript into a simplistic and soothing story. Publishing To Set A Watchman now, nearly 60 years after she wrote it, hardly qualifies as a brave or powerful act.
In a February press release, Lee says that when she first submitted the manuscript of Watchman, “My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of the view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.”
What she did was something that has oddly gone unnoticed by most critics, but picked up immediately by her fellow Southerner, Flannery O’Connor, who made a brutally frank observation: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.” O’Connor did not mean that was written from the point of view of a child; she meant that it was meant to appeal to a child’s mentality.
This should be obvious from nearly every utterance that comes from the mouth of the “virtuously dull”—to borrow a phrase from Pauline Kael on Gregory Peck’s cinematic portrayal—Atticus Finch:
“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” To which a skeptical reader might reply: Okay, yes, that sounds noble when it refers to questions of racial equality. But Atticus doesn’t tell us how we should respond when someone’s conscience tells them that the Confederate battle flag should fly over the town square or that gay marriage is wrong on “religious grounds.”
“Why do reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up is something I can’t pretend to understand.” What Atticus doesn’t seem to understand is that anyone who goes stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up isn’t a reasonable person in the first place.
“If you can learn a reasonable trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view …” Oh, I don’t know about that. I think it’s fairly easy to understand the point of view of Dylann Roof. Nor do I particularly want to get along better with people like him.
At times, Finch’s sugar-coated myths are downright offensive, as when he tells Scout the “real” story of the Ku Klux Klan. “Way back around 1920, there was a Klan. But it was a political organization more than anything. Besides, they couldn’t find anyone to scare.” He goes on to explain that Klansmen gathered one night at the home of Sam Levy, a Jewish friend of his, and “Sam made them so ashamed of themselves they went away.” I wouldn’t have thought that anyone near or above the age of Scout could read this passage—as blatantly false a characterization of the KKK as D.W. Griffith’s in Birth of A Nation—and not feel that their intelligence had been insulted.
And yet, it hasn’t stopped To Kill A Mockingbird from becoming what was recently called in The Wall Street Journal “the most beloved novel in American history—more popular than even the Bible in numerous polls.” Not surprising, really, considering that the Bible is in many ways more realistic.
One longtime fan of the book, an Alabamian quoted in the New York Times, said about Watchman, “I’m not reading it. I want Atticus to remain the Atticus I adored.” Someone needs to inform that fan that neither Atticus is real, they’re fictional characters in different books who simply share a name.
That fan and millions of others should also be forced to acknowledge that the Atticus of Mockingbird was an idealized version of Lee’s father while the Atticus of Watchman is no doubt closer to real life. According to her biographer, Charles J. Shields, Amasa Coleman Lee once remonstrated a white preacher in the family’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, for sermonizing on racial justice. Early in Watchman, Atticus angrily asks Scout, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?” Perhaps not, the wishy-washy liberal Atticus of Mockingbird might reply, but we could sure use a few on our football team.
In all great novels, there is some quality of moral ambiguity, some identifiable but not necessarily explainable element that keeps the book from being too easily grasped. One hundred years from now, critics will still be arguing about the relationship between Huck and Jim or why Gatsby gazed at that green light across the harbor.
But there’s no ambiguity in To Kill A Mockingbird. At the end of the book, we know exactly what our instincts told us halfway through, that Atticus is a good man, that Tom Robinson, a cipher of a character on paper, is an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad. As Thomas Mallon once remarked, the book acts as “an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious.”
It’s not just time to stop pretending that To Kill A Mockingbird is a timeless classic, it’s time to stop pretending that stories whose characters fall neatly under labels of good or bad can give us real insight into the insidiously subtle and complex nature of racism.