In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Is a Racist Who's Gone to a Klan Meeting


Public anticipation for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird precursor Go Set a Watchman has been high and widespread—the book set a pre-sale record for Harper Collins—as well as fraught with skepticism for many good reasons: the notoriously private Lee had hid the manuscript for decades, and it was only discovered after the death of her sister, Lee’s closest companion and the long-term manager of her much-contended-over estate.

Now, the moment where one of the most beloved and fundamentally American works of literature will be permanently saddled with its earlier, uncontestably poorer draft is nearly here. The first chapter of Watchman is out and Reese Witherspoon-narrated via the Guardian; the book comes out on July 14. And, in Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review, there’s a lot of uncomfortable news for people who revere To Kill a Mockingbird as a certain distillation of a complicated American ethos, a slant of light and integrity at a difficult intersection of race and prejudice and public opinion.

We love this book, so many of us, for so many different reasons. As Kakutani points out: “In real life, people named their children after Atticus. People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus.” And, in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus—previously, the unimpeachably honest white public defender who vindicated, at least in the reader’s court, the wrongfully accused black man Tom—is, himself, a racist.

Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel “Go Set a Watchman” (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Or asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
In “Mockingbird,” a book once described by Oprah Winfrey as “our national novel,” Atticus praised American courts as “the great levelers,” dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” In “Watchman,” set in the 1950s in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he denounces the Supreme Court, says he wants his home state “to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP” and describes N.A.A.C.P.-paid lawyers as “standing around like buzzards.”

Go Set a Watchman was the manuscript that Lee’s publishers sent back to her in 1957, asking her to focus on Scout’s young life instead. Lee spent two years revising it. And as Kakutani writes, it’s fascinating to think about Lee writing Atticus towards redemption—not in forward motion, but in reverse.

“How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father?” Kakutani asks. Yeah—that’s a good question. Was Mockingbird a revision via prequel, a story that would have rendered its predecessor null and void?

It’s impossible to imagine Mockingbird’s Atticus, so thoroughly inhabited by Lee in all of his goodness, turning into a man who’d ever attend a KKK rally—who would ever come to insinuate that, as Kakutani writes, “the Civil Rights Movement roiled things up, making people who ‘used to trust each other’ now ‘watch each other like hawks.’” But it doesn’t matter, because Go Set a Watchman is coming out second. It’s the future, like it or not, that awaits these characters; it’s the one that Lee wrote, even if she didn’t—at least for a long time—want us to know about it.

Scout, in this book, goes by Jean Louise. She’s 26. From Kakutani:

Scout is shocked to find, during her trip home, that her beloved father — who taught her everything she knows about fairness and compassion — has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion. How could the saintly Atticus — described in early sections of the book in much the same terms as he is in “Mockingbird” — suddenly emerge as a bigot?

A half-century of young people, particularly the girls among us, have grown up identifying with Scout—her toughness, her curiosity, her independence, her instinct to let certain things alone. Now, it seems like we’ll share her nauseated bafflement, knowing that something you thought was irreproachable could fall victim to forces that will stay unknown.

This post was updated to reflect the bleak fact that Tom’s life was not actually saved!

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via HarperCollins

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