Still a Work in Progress:
Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman
Fredrick Barton

The late Civil Rights activist and author Will D. Campbell, the only white man to participate in Martin Luther King Jr.’s founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), liked to tell about how white people, particularly prosperous white people, reacted to his message of racial equality and inclusiveness. In the late 1940s, when he was at Yale Divinity School, but still interacting with the people in his home region of rural Mississippi, and in the early 1950s, when he pastored a Baptist church in small-town Taylor, Louisiana, Campbell’s white associates and parishioners found his attitudes about race “endearing” and “charming.” They found it “cute” that Campbell cared so much about “darkies.” By the mid-1950s and throughout the 1960s, however, that patronizing but unthreatening reaction was replaced with one of menace. In 1956, Campbell was hounded out of his job as Director of Religious Life at the University of Mississippi for the affront of playing interracial ping pong in the student union. By the end of the 1950s, he was on the hit list of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and warned that if he ever set foot in Mississippi again, he would not leave the state alive.

Watchman CoverWhat accounted for this change? How was it that white people could find Campbell’s racial advocacy gently amusing in 1952 and a lynching offense only a few years later? The answer is the Brown v. Board of Education decision handed down by the United States Supreme Court on May 17, 1954. This landmark ruling reversed the legal premise, established by the court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, that racial segregation of public facilities was legal as long as the facilities were equal. In Brown, the court held that separate facilities were “inherently unequal.” Brown dealt with racially-segregated public schools in Topeka, Kansas, but the ruling’s sweeping implications for the continuation of American apartheid in its ubiquitous manifestations throughout the South were obvious to everyone on either side of the issue. Segregation would not disappear overnight, but it legally could no longer endure.

And hence the violent change in white attitudes. In the 1940s and early 1950s, segregation enjoyed established legal standing, and whites did not feel threatened by a powerless integrationist like Will Campbell. But after the decision in Brown, the forces in favor of racial equality had the law on their side, and even formerly “moderate” whites were infuriated. Will Campbell was just one target of the brutal mindset that overtook those elements of society devoted to the principle of white racial supremacy and privilege. Most of the victims of the violence that would rage over the next two decades were black: from Emmett Till to Medgar Evers to Martin Luther King Jr., but some were white too. Will Campbell managed to avoid injury, but Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered in 1964 while trying to register black Mississippi voters. Viola Liuzzo was murdered in 1965 while providing airport shuttle service to Selma voting rights marchers. Journalist Nicholas von Hoffman captured the atmosphere that seized the South after Brown. “There was a special molecule in the air:” he wrote, “…fear. Everyone watched, and everyone was watched.”

Reflecting on the divide that ripped time in two in the mid-1950s is the key to grasping, in significant part, what Harper Lee was wrestling with in her two published novels: the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, released in 1960, and Go Set a Watchman, written before Mockingbird but not published until the summer of 2015.


The release of Go Set a Watchman, fifty-five years after its companion novel, has been greeted by confusion and a cacophony of denunciation and hostile suspicion. New York Times columnist Joe Nocera decried Watchman’s publication as a “fraud” and sees it as a move of crass commercialism by Rupert Murdock and his HarperCollins Publishing Company. Certain mysteries do continue. Lee’s acclaim was so great after To Kill a Mockingbird that her public clamored for a follow-up book, but she refused to deliver it and long denied that she ever would, despite having Go Set a Watchman in her desk drawer. Lee is now eighty-nine and residing in assisted living after suffering a stroke. As a result of her age and physical condition, many have questioned whether she made the decision to publish Watchman willingly or under duress from her aggressive attorney, Tonja Carter, who has given conflicting statements since coming forth with the manuscript she claims, variously, to have discovered in 2011 or 2014. Close friends, however, like fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner Diane McWhorter, defend Lee’s soundness of mind and assert her approval of the recent decision to publish Watchman at long last.

Adding to the brouhaha over the publication of Go Set a Watchman is the startling discovery that Atticus Finch, almost a sainted figure in the 1930s setting of To Kill a Mockingbird, is depicted in the 1950s setting of Watchman as an unapologetic bigot, a one-time member of the Ku Klux Klan, and the current chairman of his town’s White Citizens’ Council, an ugly, fiercely racist, segregationist organization that has justly been typified as the Klan without the robes. The prepublication revelation that the Atticus we meet in the current book is not the Atticus we have loved for over a half century has led many fans of To Kill a Mockingbird to announce that they won’t read the new release. But figures close to the author, including Diane McWhorter, have commented that the book released this summer may contain the statements on race that Harper Lee wanted to make all along.


Whether or not Lee will ever comment on her long reluctance to bring Watchman into print remains to be seen (I doubt she will). Nonetheless, we know that Watchman was the first of the two books completed and was submitted for publication to editor Tay Hohoff at J. P. Lippincott in 1957. Hohoff did not reject the book out of hand, but neither did she accept it. Instead, obviously interested in the story’s narrative materials, Hohoff asked Lee to engage in a radical rewrite. Watchman is set in the 1950s and is told in the third person from the point of view of Jean Louise Finch, a twenty-six-year-old woman living in New York who has returned to her tiny Maycomb, Alabama, hometown to spend her vacation with her seventy-two-year-old lawyer father Atticus. The novel details how the adult daughter comes to realize and confront some distressing qualities about a father she always has idolized. The closeness of the parent/child relationship is established in flashbacks to when Jean Louise, nicknamed Scout, is a child in the 1930s. Hohoff challenged Lee to set the entire novel in Scout’s childhood, and the author labored over that project for two years, in the end producing To Kill a Mockingbird, which emerged as an entirely different book. Whatever its merits and failures, Go Set a Watchman cannot be appropriately characterized as To Kill a Mockingbird’s first draft.

For those who haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, or haven’t read it in a long while, the novel is narrated by the schoolchild Scout Finch from ages six to nine, circa 1933–1935. (The Oscar-winning 1962 movie directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Gregory Peck is so largely faithful to the novel that the film’s slight variations here and there don’t really warrant analysis or require specific comment.) Much of the story endeavors to depict life for a small-town Southern girl in the midst of the Great Depression. She goes to school, but she hates it. She goes to church faithfully, but without a lot of enthusiasm. And she plays with her friends, mostly her older brother Jem, and during summer vacations with Dill Harris, a boy who regularly visits his aunt who lives next door to the Finches. The central event that we have long most vividly associated with Mockingbird, Atticus’s defense of the black laborer Tom Robinson for the alleged rape of a white woman named Mayella Ewell, is not introduced until page eighty-three of my 309-page paperback.

From the beginning, Scout is close to her widowed father. Every night she curls up in his lap and he reads to her, in the process teaching her to read before she starts school. Scout loves Atticus, but at the novel’s outset she doesn’t regard him as a remarkable figure. She sees him as old and physically weak. That attitude changes radically across the years, first when Atticus reveals that he is a crack marksman willing to place himself in harm’s way to shoot down a rabid dog, and subsequently in a series of events arising out of Tom Robinson’s arrest and trial. Before court is convened, Atticus faces down a lynch mob (with Scout’s spunky assistance). And in the courtroom, Atticus proves himself a master legal tactician, proving Tom’s innocence beyond any conceivable doubt. Tom is nonetheless convicted by an all-white, all-male jury, as Atticus has warned his children will happen. But in standing up to the forces of prejudice, Atticus reveals himself a titan of human rectitude and decency. And when, at the trial’s end, all the black people in the courtroom balcony rise to honor his exit, the novel delivers its emotional roundhouse: “Stand up,” the genial black Reverend Sykes tells Scout. “Your father’s passing.”

Very much of what To Kill a Mockingbird wants to impart emerges from lessons Atticus teaches to his children. He banishes the word “nigger” from his children’s vocabulary and accepts the accusation that he’s a “nigger lover,” because, “I do my best to love everybody.” He states his defense of Tom as a matter of conscience, and explains, “I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.” He counsels Scout and Jem that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”

But though the book achieves this portrait, its core purpose is not the beatification of Atticus Finch. Rather, it seeks to paint a picture of Southern life in the Great Depression in all its complexity. It gives careful attention to two types of impoverished white people as represented by the proud, unstinting Cunninghams and the conniving, violent Ewells: Mayella who falsely accuses Tom, and her vile father Bob who has raped his own daughter and testifies against an innocent man for that crime.

Also, with very deft strokes, the author depicts black life at the time. Scout and Jem’s de facto mother is Calpurnia, a loving, strict, and wise caregiver. Calpurnia has enough education to guide Scout in speaking with proper grammar and pronunciation, but she earns her living as a cook and housekeeper. The black church in which Calpurnia worships is too poor to afford hymnals (which many of its parishioners would not be able to read), and so the music director has to speak the lyrics before the congregation sings them. And with tellingly incisive accuracy and profound impact, Lee establishes what it was like to be a black man in the 1930s South. At trial when Atticus asks Tom why he ran away from Bob Ewell, Tom explains, “If you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared too.” In the end, Tom seals his doom before the jury when he admits that he knew Mayella was being abused by her father and he helped her occasionally because he felt sorry for her. What unforgivably uppity effrontery! A black man who would dare feel sorry for a white woman. To make sure that we see the extent of the indictment of the Ewells and the ills they perpetrate on their neighbors, Lee pointedly associates them with the abiding emblem of the whitewashed South. Bob Ewell’s full name is Robert E. Lee Ewell.


Though the two novels do not overlap narratively, they do share a number of elements in addition to characters and themes. When Lee was creating Mockingbird, she even cannibalized certain language word for word from Watchman, including an introductory passage about Scout’s Aunt Alexandra and a description of Maycomb. Scout’s feistiness as a child is rendered similarly in both books, although in different scenes, and the amused pleasure Atticus finds in his daughter appears in the texts of both. Similarly, Aunt Alexandra’s high-handed superiority is depicted in both books. Each contains a scene of socializing women taking tea and holding forth on issues of the day. In Mockingbird, the occasion is a meeting of the Women’s Missionary Society, where the self-righteous ladies celebrate culture-destroying Christian proselytizers as benevolent agents bringing “help” to black Africans, all the while sneering at the people of color who labor in their own houses. In Watchman, the adult Jean Louise joins Alexandra at a gathering of comparably-minded women, some of whom are Scout’s own former high school classmates. The women sip their drinks and express such vicious desires as that for the entertainment of a “good nigger trial.” One woman ridicules her maid for a simple instance of misunderstanding, taking the occasion to disparage her employee’s lack of intelligence. When the conversation turns to recent actions by the NAACP, one woman explains that “The niggers up north who are running things are trying to do it like Gandhi did it. And you know what that is? Communism.” Of course, these were the years in which US Senator Joe McCarthy claimed to have a list of 205 known Communists working in the State Department.


One conclusion with which I suspect all who read both of these books will agree is that To Kill a Mockingbird is by far the better crafted book. Lee’s control of point of view in the 1960 volume is a prime example. Watchman, in contrast, is far messier in its point of view. Mostly, the narrative employs third person, limited to Scout’s point of view. But not always. Sometimes it wanders into first and even second person. Sometimes, if only briefly, it slides into another character’s point of view. And some scenes tell us, clumsily, explicitly, what Scout cannot see and cannot know. Another example concerns material selection and inclusion. To Kill a Mockingbird ends when Scout is still a child. But if the story had demanded that Scout be followed into her early teens, I doubt Lee would have included scenes we get in Go Set a Watchman that concern Scout’s first menstruation, her disastrous decision to stuff her adolescent bra with falsies, and her unconvincing ignorance about pregnancy. These are pretty standard ­coming-of-age scenes and appear repeatedly in various renditions in teen-oriented movies, but they are not relevant to the through story of Jean Louise’s having her eyes opened to her revered father’s true nature.

Of course, I hasten to observe that some of the complaints, like those above, that I have about Go Set a Watchman might have been addressed had Lee’s current literary team not decided to publish the book without a fresh edit. This book has the novelty of being the book that Tay Hohoff turned down, but Hohoff’s long-ago rejection alone should have suggested a skilled editorial hand on the book as something to be published. Mockingbird was edited; Watchman should have been too. That would have helped with clunky dialogue, which never appears in Mockingbird. It would have eliminated an entire chapter mysteriously devoted to the choice of hymns at the Maycomb Methodist Church. And a firm edit would have insisted on some clarity that the current version needlessly lacks. We do not, for instance, know precisely when we are. Atticus and Scout discuss an important Supreme Court case that has altered (Atticus would say gravely damaged) race relations throughout the South. This case would almost certainly have to be Brown vs. Board of Education, and that would place Jean Louise’s vacation at home some time during or after the summer of 1954. Such dating would at least account for Atticus’s being the chairman of a Citizens’ Council that wasn’t founded until July of 1954, after the Brown ruling in May. But the case is never named. And those readers with a memory of Scout’s being nine years old in 1935 and noting that she is twenty-six in Watchman will place the action in 1952, two aggravating years before Brown was adjudicated. An editor with even limited discretion could just have made Watchman’s Jean Louise twenty-eight or twenty-nine.

Moreover, a sympathetic edit could have addressed the persistence here of other nettling inconsistencies between the two texts. Many concern the trial of Tom Robinson, which is minor enough in Watchman that its mention could almost be eliminated. Tom is referred to Atticus by Judge Taylor in Mockingbird, but by the maid Calpurnia in Watchman. And Tom is found guilty in Mockingbird but acquitted in Watchman. And at least one “uncorrected” discrepancy seems distressingly unwise. In Mockingbird, Tom is accused of raping a grown woman, and he is entirely innocent, though found guilty. In Watchman, Tom is accused of raping a fourteen-year-old girl, and he is found not guilty because Atticus is able to prove (and this seems highly unlikely to me) that the sex was consensual. As the text itself points out, had Tom been charged with statutory rape, he would have been found guilty. The best we can say about these details in Watchman is that they give us insight into the degree to which Lee rethought matters as she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.


But my editorial concerns aside, I want to emphasize that I think Diane McWhorter is correct to suspect that the overall consideration of issues in Go Set a Watchman may have been more relevant to the world of 1960 than those in Mockingbird. In addition, I think those issues remain more pertinent to the world of 2015. I don’t think we can settle any debate about whether the wise, philosophical Atticus of 1935 could have evolved into the ugly racist of the mid-1950s. (Interestingly, Harper Lee biographer Charles J. Shields has argued that her father Amasa Coleman Lee made the journey in the opposite direction, from moderate segregationist in the 1930s to pro-integration by the time Mockingbird was released.) But there were, sadly and certainly, a lot more small-town Southern white lawyers like the Atticus of the 1950s than there were self-branded “nigger lover” white lawyers in the 1930s South. In short, the gentle Atticus of Mockingbird is an inspirational ideal; the angry Atticus of Watchman is a portrait of the real white men who ruled the South through the 1950s and beyond.

It is wonderful to want to believe that there were benevolent white figures in the South of 1935 when, in addition to the injustice they met before all-white juries, eighteen black men were murdered by lynch mobs. Certainly not all whites were monsters; not all approved of the lynchman’s noose. My maternal grandfather, who was nearly forty in 1935, was not a man who would have condoned violence, and in his own way, he treated his black Louisiana neighbors and customers (he owned a jewelry store) with a modicum of decency. But he was an out-and-out bigot and a fierce defender of white supremacy and racial segregation throughout his entire life. My grandfather seems a far more accurate example of a “benevolent” white Southerner of the era than such paternalistic liberals as Atticus, Sheriff Tate, and Judge Taylor, as depicted and saluted in To Kill a Mockingbird. About the last of these, one must note that Judge Taylor does not exhibit the courage that the real Alabama Judge James Edwin Horton showed in 1934 when he set aside a guilty verdict and death penalty by an all-white jury in the infamous rape case against the Scottsboro Boys. I have always wondered if Horton was Harper Lee’s model, not for Judge Taylor, but for the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird.

In short, Go Set a Watchman is a truer portrait of Southern intransigence on race than is Mockingbird. Watchman uses Jean Louise’s long simmering romance with a former schoolmate, Henry Clinton, who is now Atticus’s young law partner, as an apt metaphor for the position in which Jean Louise finds herself in her twenties. Henry has worked hard, and he has pulled himself up out of poverty. Jean Louise admires and cares for him. Henry is tied to Maycomb. He wants to marry Jean Louise, and he wants her to make a life with him where the two of them grew up. But for Jean Louise to choose Henry, to choose again her Southern hometown, is to turn a blind eye to the cruel attitudes all her loved ones hold and continue to hold so fiercely. For just as she discovers with her father, she learns that Henry holds reprehensible views. It is Henry who reveals that Atticus once joined the Ku Klux Klan, explaining, “A long time ago, the Klan was respectable, like the Masons. Almost every man of any promise was a member.” Balderdash, of course. The very raison d’être of the Klan was to intimidate black people through the threat of violence. Jean Louise summarizes her frustration at being both attracted to and repelled by her home, as represented by Henry, when she complains sarcastically to Atticus for not raising her as a “nice dim-witted Southern lady, a mealy-mouthed magnolia type, who bats her eyelashes and lives for nothing but her lil’ ole husband.”

Discouragingly, Jean Louise’s entire family, her Uncle Jack and her Aunt Alexandra, in addition to Atticus, are arrogant racists and inflexible segregationists. They see their rights and deserved privileges in the aftermath of the decision in the unnamed Brown case as being torn away from them by undeserving, ungrateful, and ignorant black people. Alexandra complains that the black citizens of Maycomb possess “a veneer of civilization so thin that a bunch of uppity Yankee Negroes can shatter a hundred years of progress.” One can only imagine the puzzled question on the lips of her black neighbors: “What hundred years of progress?” Jack defends the South’s starting the Civil War as a people just trying to protect their identity as separate from that of the North. This is clumsy code for defending the institution of slavery by calling it a “way of life.” Certain Southern loyalists to this day deny that the Civil War even involved a fight over slavery. Jack claims merely to believe in small government (an argument still raging in our own time), but he is a doctor so rich that he retired before middle age, so when he engages in a long rant about Social Security, we tend to notice the complaint line that the law gives the have-nots “more than their due,” while “the haves are restricted from getting more.” Another episode that echoes into our time.

But Watchman’s Atticus is the real bigot, and how he evolved from the father in Mockingbird who believed in “equal rights for all; special privileges for none” the text of the current novel does not explore. But by the mid-1950s, Atticus chides Jean Louise’s idealism by sneering, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in... civilization? You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship?” Atticus sees his town and region as standing on the doorstep of doom. Black people cannot be allowed to vote because “When they vote, they vote in blocs,” and thus the day was coming when you’d have “Negroes in every office.” Black people cannot be allowed equal rights because then, Atticus taunts his daughter, the South would have “Negroes by the carloads in our schools and churches and theaters.”

Atticus is so obsessed by the specter of apocalypse in racial equality that he stoops to defending the corrupt political operation of his own beloved hometown. Maycomb, the novel tells us early on, is run by a typical Southern Big Man, a fixer with the power of a mob godfather. Maycomb’s ruler is William Willoughby, and he controls everyone’s vote and every public office in the county. Nothing happens in Maycomb without William Willoughby’s permission. But in denouncing the prospect of black people at the ballot box Atticus says, “Willoughby’s a crook, we know that, but do you know of any Negro who knows as much as Willoughby? The Negroes are still in their childhood as a people.”

Jean Louise is horrified by all that Atticus reveals to her. She argues back with him, speaking, presumably, of her childhood, “You neglected to tell me that we were naturally better than the Negroes, that they were able to go so far but so far only.” She reminds her father of his more appealing habits: “I’ve never in my life seen you give that insolent, back-of-the-hand treatment half the white people down here give Negroes just when they’re talking to them.” And she chides him in anguish in the middle of his fury over abridged states’ rights and his racist rant about black inferiority and their lack of ability to embrace the mantel of full citizenship: “Has anybody, in all the wrangling and high words about what kind of government we should have, thought about helping the Negroes?”

But Atticus will surrender no ground, and Jean Louise finally attacks him: “You’re a coward,” she says, “as well as a snob and a tyrant.” A while later, in the same vein, she says, “I’ll never believe a word you say to me again. I despise you and everything you stand for.” Important as this rejection of her father’s disgusting ideas is, as elsewhere in Go Set a Watchman (yet again my yearning for the assistance of a sympathetic editor), I found the exchange too bald, too “on the nose” as we say in creative writing classes, and therefore not quite believable. Jean Louise has spent a lifetime loving and admiring her father. She is furious with him. Her whole idea of him has been seriously undermined. But she doesn’t despise him, and her acidly saying so in such a direct fashion inadequately captures the certain anguish her character must feel. Nonetheless, and in counterpoint, the surprising rapprochement the novel executes in its final pages seems unearned and not a little disconcerting.

I should register some other concerns as well. When Atticus and Jean Louise discuss the unnamed Supreme Court decision that seems central to everyone involved, Jean Louise attacks it for violating the Tenth Amendment, that last of our Bill of Rights that reserves unspecified powers not granted to the federal government “to the States respectively or to the people.” She argues, in sum, that she approves of the decision, presumably to end legal segregation, but doesn’t think the Supreme Court should have been the body to do it. I am sure people made just this argument. I don’t believe that one of them was Jean Louise Finch. Elsewhere in discussion with Atticus, Jean Louise seems to give credence to the idea that the activists of the NAACP were just a bunch of troublemakers who were, to invoke a popular premise of the time, just “stirring up” otherwise content Southern black people. The novel itself can be read to agree, and that is a problem from this vantage point for sure. Had the brave soldiers of the NAACP, Martin Luther King Jr.’s SCLC, the Congress of Racial Equality, and other civil rights organizations not kept pushing for the rights enunciated in Brown, those rights might not yet have come to exist in the daily life of our nation.

As any of us who follow the news is well aware, we remain in 2015 a racially-divided nation. Black men occupy our prisons in far greater numbers than their proportion in the population. The shooting of unarmed black people by white law officers is an outrage we can’t seem to end. How tragic that Tom Robinson’s words about the fear he feels because of the color of his skin still speak so clearly to the condition people of color often characterize as “driving while black.” Meanwhile, the recent murder of black people in their Charleston, South Carolina, house of worship, an atrocity so common in the era of Go Set a Watchman, is emblematic of a disease of heart and mind that is not yet cured. We can point to positive developments, of course. I was born before Brown vs. Board of Education, before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus, before black people could dine in most restaurants in the South or use the “white” restroom or water fountain in any public building, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally enforced citizenship rights for black people granted in the Fourteenth Amendment and denied for a century thereafter, before the election of a black man as our nation’s president. And I have lived to see Atticus’s fear that black people would vote only on the basis of color proven wrong, for I live in New Orleans, a black majority city that has twice in a row elected a white mayor.

But as a democratic people, we remain a work in progress, and the elections of President Obama and Mayor Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans do not mean the battle for equal justice is won or that racial tensions have ceased to exist. And in this regard, as contrasted with To Kill a Mockingbird, the world depicted in Go Set a Watchman is a better reflection of the distance we have yet to travel.


Fredrick Barton is Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of the volume of essays Rowing to Sweden and the novels The El Cholo Feeling Passes, Courting Pandemonium, Black and White on the Rocks and A House Divided. His most recent novel, In the Wake of the Flagship, is a black comedy about an unlikely college president trying to save his beleaguered institution in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane.

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