"Innocence of Childhood" Myth, Atticus Finch, Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee, Human Developement, Idealism, Individual Will, Literature, Parents, race, racism, Reading, To Kill a Mockingbird, White Savior Complex
I won’t hesitate to admit that Go Set a Watchman scared the living hell out of me before I’d even considered purchasing the book. Harper Lee has stated in interviews in the past that she would only publish this manuscript after her death. Rumors abound that Harper Lee’s relatives have either pushed Lee into publishing the novel, or that her mind is no longer what it was and so her family have taken advantage of her. I will not dignify nor explore these rumors in his essay. If you want Jerry Springer go somewhere else. I will instead try to explain to you why the book is worth your time even if it will leave you frustrated or heartbroken.
Now even if the reader hasn’t read the book yet, they have probably heard about this book online and the terror that it’s inspiring. The words “Atticus Finch was a racist the whole time” is quickly becoming the dominant interpretation, and before an individual even opens the book to discover this isn’t the case, they are polluted by bias ruining any hope to see the book for what it is: a hard lesson about growing up.
I usually don’t do this part because giving away details shouldn’t matter to someone genuinely interested in reading a book for the story, but I understand a great many people want to read this book for themselves. Besides this isn’t STAR WARS where we all know the twist(Han said “I know” instead of” I love you”), so I’ll address this now.
If you have not read the book and do not want anything to be spoiled, STOP READING NOW. This essay will have to reveal plot points in order to continue. If you don’t mind this then continue but if not, leave and we won’t think badly of you.
Can you believe those losers? What? Oh they’re still reading, well I feel foolish.
Go Set a Watchman takes places two decades after the events of Lee’s first novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout, Jean Jouise as she’s called in this book, returns to Maycomb or a few days. We find out a few things right away. First of all Jean Louise is living in New York but before this can really sink in we find out that her brother Jem has suffered a heart failure and died when he was in his early twenties. Dill, the childhood friend of both of them, is living in or else touring Europe. Atticus Finch is still living and practicing law, however he’s becoming frailer and has since passed most of his legal responsibilities to a friend of the family named Henry Clinton who is Jean Louise’s on-again-off-again boyfriend/fiancé. There’s no mention of Boo Radley, or any of the Radley’s for that matter, but Jean Louise often thinks back to that time reassessing her memory. The book takes place over the course of two days of her trip, with some flashbacks. Jean Louise has returned to Maycomb and, after squabbling with her Aunt Alexandra for some time, discovers a pamphlet in her father’s newspaper pile that the reader understands immediately to be racist snuff by the way Louise describes it. She learns Henry and Atticus are attending a Town Council meeting where the writer of the pamphlet is speaking. She sneaks to the courthouse and, hiding in the “colored” section of the audience box where she sat watching the Tom Robinson case, and listens to an hour long tirade where the words nigger are printed only seven times between “wooley Headed” and “communist.” Louise seeing her father sitting with this bunch, with the gentleman in question begins the affair that has generated much of the controversy that surrounds this new book. It’s later revealed that Atticus holds to the idea that, while he feels that the man speaking was a moron, he doesn’t believe blacks in the south are ready to govern themselves because they’re not mature enough yet to participate in democracy.
I’m going to dig into this right away. Yes Jem is dead, and nobody is disturbed about this. In fact in all the hubbub that surrounds this book, the fact that one of the chief protagonists of Lee’s first published novel dies suddenly with little explanation has garnered almost no conversation at all.
But that’s not why you’re here so I’ll stop dicking around and give you the quote you’ve been dying to hear:
Now think about this. What would happen if all the negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state government run by people who don’t know how to run ‘em? Do you want this town run by—now wait a minute—Willoughby’s a crook, we know that, but do you know of any Negro who knows as much as Willoughby? Zeebo’d probably be Mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money? We’re outnumbered, you know.
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—can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?
The NAACP doesn’t care whether a Negro man owns or rents his land, how well he can farm, or whether or not he tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet—oh no, all the NAACP cares about is that man’s vote. (246-7)
Everything in the novel builds towards this confrontation between Atticus and Jean Louise, and Louise’s reaction to this speech, I can imagine, is word for word what most readers will testify is their emotional reaction to this book:
The only human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly. (113).
Before you shout out “That’s exactly how I feel right now!” Jean Louise actually expresses herself when she says:
All right, I’ll come down to earth. I’ll land right in the living room of our house. I’ll come down to you. I believed in you. I looked up to you. Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life, and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me—if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. Then I’d have said that’s just His Way, that’s My Old Man, because I’d have been prepared for it somewhere along the line—“ (249-50).
I had hoped to write about the year of Scout’s childhood when she believes she’s pregnant because a boy stuck out his tongue at her, but this needs to be addressed now before it poisons all future interpretation and bias. Atticus Finch is revealed in Go Set a Watchman, to be imperfect. I cannot in good conscience however, argue that the man is a racist the way Thomas Robb is (current national director of the KKK). There’s no way to argue that Atticus’s attitude isn’t racist in any way whatsoever, but the title of racist bears prickly fruit these days, and headlines rarely develop into complexity in today’s media mentality. It’s easy to look at this passage and say “Atticus was a racist the whole time and he’s a despicable monster,” but that’s all it is. Easy.
The reader has to dig into what his argument is to discover the real racist attitude that’s peppered with a rational (lawyerly) appeal. Atticus suggests that blacks are not intellectually prepared to participate in democracy, and any person with half a brain knows that, even in the 1960s, there were plenty of literate people of color in the South that could have done the job he’s describing. However, a lawyer has to work not only with the law, but the real facts of the case. The reader is weakened by the fact that they don’t have all the facts of Maycomb, they know only their experience. What few people of color there are in the text, it becomes clear that the population is not exactly blessed when it comes to intellectual power. But this changes nothing. This attitude is racist, and the reader has to reconcile the fact that, even if Atticus doesn’t believe that black people are intellectual inferiors to white people, he is employing a racist attitude here.
Now the reader may be throwing up their arms and screaming, “I knew it, my childhood is dead!” But before they open up the bottle of wine and stew in a tub for a few hours, they might want to reconsider whether this realization is really worth opening that 1971 Port they’ve been holding onto. It’s not by the way, start with a Rose wine and sip gently. As I said in the beginning of this essay the real lesson of Go Set a Watchman is about the hard lesson of growing up. People tend to idealize To Kill a Mockingbird because the novel came first, and because the book is written from the point of view of a child. Now it’s an established fact that as people age, they tend to idealize their childhood and children in general. We’ve been force fed the idea that “children are innocent,” and should anyone attempt to address the fact that this is a myth they’re dealt with the accusation of being bitter or have forgotten what it means to be young.
Youth is not innocence, it is ignorance.
Looking back through the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird it becomes clear that the reason we never see this side of Atticus is because Scout never saw it, she was always on the outside edges of the adult world because that’s where children typically exist. We don’t tell them about sex, death, or racism because at that stage we try to protect them. The result of this is the impressions of people we get when we’re children tend to be idealized.
If we look at Scout, who only had a father and, since she was a girl, probably suffered from a small Elektra complex (think Oedipus complex for girls) it would make sense why she would idealize Atticus. But before I stop there I need to address the white savior complex that surrounds the character.
Now if you’re unfamiliar with what a “White Savior” is, it’s a character that is white (obviously) in a novel, play, film, etc. that saves a person of color from the consequences of society. You’ve seen this before whether you recognized it as such. The Blind Side, Gran Torino, The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and even Django Unchained all involve “white saviors” helping people of color out of some situation that poses a threat to them. Atticus Finch finds himself in a precarious position, because not only is he caught by this white sentiment, he is also steeped in the “Innocence of childhood” sentiment. I think for a great many white people in the south, Atticus Finch was our ace in the hole. No matter what could be said, we had that character in our back pocket. It was a way of showing, “Hey, we’re not all racist, look at this guy.” And now that Atticus has been shown in a less than positive light, we’re all left reeling trying to figure out what’s happened to our sense of identity.
This, dear reader, is bullshit.
The sad fact of growing up is learning that people aren’t perfect and that disappointment is inevitable. Sooner or later your father says something that you realize is racist. Your grandmother, you find out, cheated on your grandfather numerous times and you never knew. Your mom, you begin to discover, is actually an alcoholic and has only stayed with your father because she wanted you to grow up with a family. These are just some examples, I’m sure you have your own, but we each have that moment when we realize that the person we’ve modeled ourselves after has real human flaws, and that disappoints us because we feel, at that moment, that our childhood is really dead and we’ve become an adult.
That’s the story being told in Go Set a Watchman that people are frustrated with. It was easy to enjoy the story of a child knowing what was right and wrong and having a strong father that was perfect. It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that that child grew up and realized her father was a human being with faults, and that now she’s really grown up. Because that means that the reader is also forced to grow up.
Dr. Finch, Jean Louise’s uncle talks to her after her confrontation with Atticus and says to her:
Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along. (269).
The cover of the first edition hardback I own of Go Set a Watchman is almost identical to the new cover of To Kill a Mockingbird. On both covers are the knolled tree that played such a significance in the first book, though before I continue this point, let me clarify this for my reader. To Kill a Mockingbird was never meant to be the first book published. In fact Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first. The publisher didn’t want it, and instead they suggested to her to write a book about Scout as a young woman and that is the book that got published. Try to imagine what the legacy would have been if we had gotten Watchman first? Would the reader have idealized Atticus and placed so much hope for humanity in him? But as I said, both covers hold the image of the tree, but what separates both book is the way the tree works. On Mockingbird the tree is adorned with bright leaves, but on Watchman the tree is almost bare, with only a few lingering leaves clinging to the branches as a train enters from the horizon of infinite possibility.
I know I haven’t really reviewed this book, getting into the small details that make this book worth your time, and for that I do apologize, but when I finished this book a few days ago I felt a real wonderful sadness. I realized at that moment that my childhood days were done. This is not a tragedy. My love for To Kill a Mockingbird has not died and it never will. Instead the sadness came with a real relief. I could see Atticus Finch and Scout no longer with a pure idealized bullshit mentality for they became real people. It’s dangerous to try and cling to childhood and its ignorant state, and the people shouting with fists in the air are attempting to cling onto a reality that just doesn’t exist anymore. I felt sad because the people that are selling this book short will never see what a wonderful novel this book really is.
This book is not just about racism, it’s about growing up and seeing the world you existed in as a child and seeing how it has changed. Jean flashes back to small snippets of her childhood through the text remembering her brother and Dill. She remembers Henry taking her to the prom and the next day discovering with horror that the fake breast slips she’d worn and thrown out the night before have been taped to the school flag. She remembers playing preacher with Jem and Dill and how Dill stole his aunt’s good sheets, cutting out holes for eyes to be the Holy Spirit. She remembers a long painful year when she feared she was pregnant because a boy stuck out his tongue at her. These little moments won’t be sold or discussed because they do not generate controversy, but they will satisfy long time readers of Lee’s work for the way they describe being young and just learning about life. These memories assume more significance to the reader than they might in To Kill a Mockingbird, because they are set in context with Louise’s adulthood.
Despite the mass headlines that are swaying passionate readers about this book, it’s important to get a real understanding of Atticus. Dr. Finch, while talking to JeanLouise notes of the man:
–the Klan can parade around all it wants, but when it starts bombing and beating people, don’t you know who’d be the first to try and stop it?
The law is what he lives by. He’ll do his best to prevent someone from beating up somebody else, then he’ll turn around and try to stop no less that the Federal Government—just like you child. You turned and tackled no less than your own tin god—but remember this, he’ll always do it by the letter and by the spirit of the law. That’s the way he lives. (268).
This isn’t the grand speech in the courtroom followed by all the black citizens of Maycomb standing for a lone figure as he leaves the court. This isn’t even from the lips of the man himself. Despite this, the character of Atticus Finch survives in the mind of the reader, as a good man and a good lawyer. Flawed now, but still the man that defended Tom Robinson twenty years ago, fifty five years ago, in a wonderful book.
But what seems most relevant to me about this work, is that Jean Louise becomes her own hero in this work. Where before she was a young child dependent upon the wiser, older men that care for her, she has grown up with her own sense of self. Some have argued that Louise has become a whiner, but I cannot believe that. Louise, Scout, remains true to her nature, which is a true contrarian, and I would not be able to live with myself if I did not show you at least one instance of her bravery. At a Ladies Tea Part her aunt Alexandra throws, Louise questions a young woman who is spouting the usual racial garbage her husband throws to her and she responds:
Jean Louise interrupted. “Hester, let me ask you something. I’ve been home since Saturday now, and since Saturday I’ve heard a great deal of talk about mongrelizin’ the race, and it’s led me to wonder if that’s not rather an unfortunate phrase, and if probably it should be discarded from Southern jargon these days. It takes two races to mongrelize a race—if that’s the right word—and when we white people holler about mongrelizin’, isn’t it something of a reflection on ourselves as a race? The message I get from it is that if it were lawful, there’d be a wholesale rush to marry Negroes. If I were a scholar, which I ain’t, I would say that kind of talk has a deep psychological significance that’s not particularly flattering to the one who talks it. At its best, it denotes an alarmin’ mistrust of one’s own race.” (176)
I know this passage is nowhere near the drama of the courtroom scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, but real courage is not always about great displays and public speeches. The real bravery of action takes place in minor conversations, when we’re afraid of looking silly in front of strangers or friends. Louise’s challenge to Hester may not garner much attention in the media, but to my mind it stands as one of the most important passages of the novel because it shows that Louise is still the young woman readers fell in love with in Mockingbird. She is a young woman with her own mind, unwilling to allow another person to think for her. This is the Scout that readers will remember, and it’s the woman that will keep them reading until they finish the very last page.
There’s nothing more I can or will say about Go Set a Watchman except to quote a song by Public Enemy, “Don’t believe the hype,” read it for yourself and make up your own mind.
Go Set a Watchman is available for purchase at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and wherever books are sold.