by Rev. Irene Monroe
The literary world rejoiced when news disclosed that reclusive author Harper Lee was soon to release her second book Go Set A Watchman, after 55 years since the 1960 publication of To Kill A Mockingbird.
As one of the most lauded novels in American history—and arguably as popular as the Christian Bible—Harper Lee’s Southern Gothic and coming-of-age story introduces the world to the beloved fictional character of Atticus Finch. Finch—the father of six-year-old precocious Scout, the novel’s narrator—is a widower and small-town Alabama attorney who becomes our nation’s moral conscience and standard-bearer of justice and integrity.
Against the background of Jim Crow’s old South Atticus Finch’s tireless defense of Tom Robinson—an African American man falsely accused but unfortunately found guilty of raping a white women—catapulted him as one of the most celebrated heroic figures in American film and literature. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus as the greatest movie hero of all time. So honored is Atticus Finch that he’s a model for many of today’s lawyers and popular baby name for males.
When Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird states to Scout, “Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand,” as a thoughtful and measured response decrying racial prejudice, no one would imagine Lee’s second novel Go Set A Watchman to reveal the blight of racial strife in Atticus as an aging, angry bigot and separatist. And news of Atticus taking a 180-degree turn has sent shockwaves across the Internet.
Go Set A Watchmen is set 20 years after Lee’s 1930s Depression era first novel. Atticus, now 72, worries he can potentially reside in a world unimaginable with the 1954 landmark U. S. Supreme Court,Brown v. Board of Education, decision to desegregate public schools and facilitates “with all deliberate speed.”
“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Atticus asks Scout in Go Set A Watchman. Scout’s now twenty-six years old, uses her birth name, Jean Louise, and lives in New York City as a writer. Atticus warns his daughter during her recent summer trip home that “if the Negro vote edged out the white, you’d have Negroes in every county office,” suggesting a Negro mayor of Maycomb.
For those who prefer Scout’s hagiographic depiction of her father, then Jean Louise’s Atticus you don’t want to know: “We’re outnumbered here [in Maycomb].” … “ Our Negro population is backward.”… “made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways,”…”Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”
Atticus is a eugenicist who reads racist tracts like The Black Plague; attends Maycomb County White Citizens’ Council in order to organize and resist federal government edicts to desegregate; views the NAACP as opportunists and troublemakers; joined America’s most horrific domestic terrorists group, the Klu Klux Klan, in his youth; and I surmise would resist the removal of the Confederate battle flag from Alabama’s State House.
Jean Louise finds inner strength and wisdom to love Atticus in spite of his contradictions, hypocrisy. and bigotry, especially given the racial tenor of his day.
While many critics are questioning the veracity of Lee’s authorship of her second book, both books reveal our cultural dis-ease with race, particularly the reality and limits of Atticus’s old-style Southern liberalism—paternalistic while upholding the fallacious doctrine of “separate and equal” to keep blacks in their place.
Lee’s new portrait of Atticus will undoubtedly reopen discussion about race and Atticus’s hero status inMockingbird that Boston Globe writer Hillel Italie aptly points out “has been admired more by whites than by blacks” due to the literary troupe of the “white savior.”
The literary troupe of the “white savior,”—as also depicted in Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel The Help—makes the assumptions that African Americans are not agents in their liberation struggles and it erases as well as insults a civil rights movement already afoot.
The title Go Set a Watchman is taken from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 21, verse 6, which reads: “This is what the Lord says to me: ‘Go, set a watchman; let him report what he sees.” The phrase means to go out into the world and set a moral compass by “speaking truth to power.”
And in so doing, perhaps now with an accurate portrait of Atticus Finch we can begin to have an honest discussion on race.