Harper Lee’s shocking revelation in Go Set a Watchman offers us an extraordinary learning opportunity. Set twenty years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, this second novel discloses that Atticus Finch, the saintly hero of the first book, actually harbored some of the racist views dominant in the early twentieth century.
In Watchman, Jean Louise, known earlier as Scout, returns home as an adult only to have the idealized memories of her childhood destroyed by a reality she had been sheltered from as a child. Many readers are crushed to learn this other side of the story, but the response is forcing us to admit that Mockingbird has been sheltering us all for half a century.
In the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck portrays Atticus Finch as an exemplary human being in a small town populated by white citizens, whose racial prejudice is so deeply ingrained that they would rather convict an innocent black man than embarrass a lower-class white family. But when you merge the Atticus of that story with the Atticus portrayed twenty years later, what you have is a much more convincing character in context.
Harper Lee’s experience bringing Mockingbird to publication in the late 1950s suggests that her editor held reformist views about human rights and helped Lee mold Atticus into a virtuous moral icon. Now, absent the former editor’s influence, Watchman seems more truthful to Lee’s experience growing up in the South. I’m sympathetic with critics who suggest that the supremacy of white culture is also palpable in Mockingbird. Of course it is, because racism was endemic in the South in those days, but the idealism in the story moved millions.
Imagining Gregory Peck as Atticus making racist statements is like going to the doctor for a common cold and finding out you have cancer: it’s earth-shattering.
Imagining Gregory Peck as Atticus making racist statements is like going to the doctor for a common cold and finding out you have cancer: it’s earth-shattering. In the second novel, discovering the truth about the father she idealized makes a grown-up Scout sick to her stomach. This should offer us some insight into how people feel who are targeted for discrimination because of their race.
Racial bigotry is complicated, but it’s not hard to understand. Psychologist Gordon Allport laid the subject bare six years before the publication of Lee’s first book. His work tells us everything we need to know to function peacefully as adults on a planet teeming with racial diversity.
We experience, internalize, and record bias and racial prejudice in a smoldering hotbed of congealed and congested memories residing in our subconscious. When circumstances pose questions about race, we rationalize because our feelings are vague and indecipherable, existing as they do in an enormous database of conflicting experience. Our gray matter keeps records, not of what is right, but of what it accepts as real.
That we always have the upper hand in emotional matters is an illusion, especially in social matters concerning ethnicity. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of our reasoning ability as a rider and our emotional subconscious as an elephant illustrates how we hold racial biases without being aware of the fact. The metaphor emphasizes the power of our subconscious and the difficulty of taming our emotions. The Atticus Finch in Mockingbird is a rider in complete control, but in Watchman his elephant rumbles and, at times, trumpets.
I’ve always found it wretchedly disappointing that on a Saturday, people can read books or watch movies like To Kill a Mockingbird, Roots, Mississippi Burning, or 42 and empathize and sympathize completely with the oppressed characters in the drama. Taking in the story, they agree wholeheartedly about the injustice being depicted. And yet, by Monday morning, their elephant is back to humming along, murmuring low-frequency racial prejudice.
In Watchman, Atticus is said to be 72, my current age, so I can relate to his being cantankerous. But more importantly, I remember what it’s like to grow up in a racist community. It’s a context of prejudicial social conformity with so few exceptions that I can recall none like the first Atticus, myself included.
In a recent debate, I was asked if I thought we know more today about human behavior than, say, William Shakespeare knew in his time. After some deliberation, I had to say no. The Bard was an astute observer of human behavior, and the research conducted in recent decades offers hard evidence supporting how predictably we, or Shakespeare’s characters, will behave.
What we’ve discovered is critical for improving human relations—namely that we are much more dependent upon context and much less firm, resolute, and unwavering in our stalwart character than we have been taught. This is significant. In Watchman, instead of continuing to idealize Atticus, Lee puts him in precise context with his time and place.
It’s time we stopped romanticizing Mockingbird through Scout’s childlike innocence. Public naiveté is an enormous obstacle to overcoming bigotry. The same idealism that enables belief in Mockingbird's Atticus is an impediment to acknowledging Watchman’s older characterization of Atticus and the subtle racism that’s still ubiquitous today.
We need to apply everything we know about human behavior to relegating bigotry and racism to the dustbin of history. The objective is simple: strive to make the first Atticus the norm, not the exception.Mockingbird is aspirational fiction; working through the disenchantment in Watchman is a way to begin the dialogue necessary to achieve genuine equality.
When Scout confronts her father and they have an emotionally aggressive exchange, it opens the conversation we should be having now about dealing with intolerance. If you don’t think racism is a problem today, either you are being childish or you aren’t paying attention.
If you are avoiding reading Watchman because you prefer the illusion of innocence in Mockingbird, I think Scout would say it’s time to grow up and speak up.