Editor’s note: spoilers ahead.
I don’t remember how old I was when I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time. But I do know that I loved it — which is why I was thrilled in February at the news that another manuscript penned by Harper Lee, previously unknown to the larger public, existed and would be published this summer.
For lovers of the original story, the next few months could not pass quickly enough. But that anticipation turned to anxiety last week as reports trickled out that Go Set a Watchman reunites them with an Atticus Finch who is not the idealistic Southern gentleman of their youth, but rather a segregationist once involved with the Ku Klux Klan.
For many, this revelation has been nothing short of a betrayal.
At one point in the new novel, an annoyed Jean Louise Finch tells beau Hank Clinton: “I just don’t like my world disturbed without some warning.” This week, countless fans of the previous book could relate.
All this outcry reveals how desperately many white readers have needed Atticus Finch — a fictional character — to be real. They idolized Finch, a white lawyer who pushes back on several pillars of white society in his struggle to secure justice for a black man. Of course, Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson — a black man accused of raping a young white woman in small-town Alabama in the 1930s — was an attempt to address a single injustice, not to topple Jim Crow. Yet in the half-century since Mockingbird was first published, society has given this character an outsize victory, holding Finch forth as a counterweight to very real nemeses like Alabama Gov. George Wallace, and Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson as a balm for all black people’s problems.
“We can feel good about ourselves because of this fictional character who stood up,” says Diane McWhorter, a white Alabama native who wrote Carry Me Home, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of civil rights icon Fred Shuttlesworth. “We don’t have to put anything on the line.”
As a child, I related immediately to Mockingbird‘s narrator, Scout; my brother and I were as inseparable and fiercely protective of each other as she and her brother, Jem. Indeed, much of Maycomb County was familiar to me. I had neighbors like Miss Maudie and Miss Rachel, and summer friends like Dill. Lee’s Southern prose sounded like everyone I knew as a child. Part of me still thinks I might name a daughter Harper Lee.
Today, what also rings true and familiar to me is Mockingbird‘s portrayal of good, well-meaning white folks who did not hesitate to secure their way of life and comfort at the expense and discomfort of nonwhite folks.
In defending Robinson, this is also what Finch was attempting to do — to dispense with this trial so that the town could restore the natural order of things. But this is lost in the eyes of many white readers. They, like the white citizens of Maycomb, are left with the sense that they are let off the hook by the progressive lawyer.
Go Set a Watchman offers no such comfort. Here, we have a new hero: Jean Louise Finch, now a 26-year-old white woman removed from a small-town mentality but still in love with the good that can exist in a bad place. She represents many very real white Southerners — those who have, and continue to struggle with loving, white relatives who use the N-word and resent the coming of a more equal society.
Not long after returning to Maycomb for a visit from New York City, where she now lives, Jean Louise finds a pamphlet for the town citizens’ council (read: the Klan) in her father’s living room. Horrified, she realizes her father and the man she is considering marrying have gone to a council meeting. She secretly attends and sees two of the people she cares most about rubbing elbows with white supremacists in the same courthouse where Atticus Finch defended Robinson.
In an instant, she sees the worst in the best person she has ever known, and is devastated.
As she tries to make sense of the scene, Jean Louise discovers that her loved ones — her father’s sister and brother among them — and childhood acquaintances are all against the “uppity blacks” and their NAACP (an acronym spat with disdain by her family and neighbors) who dare to put themselves on equal footing with the town’s whites. The rest of the novel plays out as one long heartbreak; if Atticus Finch doesn’t turn out to be a staunch racist, at the least he believes the civil rights movement is moving too fast, and that white city fathers like himself were best equipped to decide the fate and rate of progress for their black neighbors.
Truths can be hard, and truths about race in this country are often the hardest — especially when the revelations are about those we love. If racism is helped along not only by cross-burners in sheets, but those whom you have loved and emulated, it feels like too much to bear. The urge to look away is powerful.
But to do so would be to reject the gift Lee has given all of us with the release of Watchman. The book’s title comes from the Bible’s Isaiah, Chapter 21, which reads:
“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. … And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.”
If Mockingbird projects a South that can be read in terms of black and white, Watchman shows us the gray complexity that is the real Dixie. In this powerful newly published story about the Finch family, Lee presents a wider window into the white Southern heart, and tells us it is finally time for us all to shatter the false gods of the past and be free.
Errin Whack is an award-winning journalist focused on the nexus of race and politics. Originally from Atlanta, she is based in Washington, D.C.