Most of the discussion of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has focused on the scandalous revelations that the book makes Atticus Finch a racist. The fact that the book goes a good way towards endorsing his racism, though, seems to have gotten misplaced.
As most folks are probably aware at this point, Watchman is an early, rejected draft of the novel that became To Kill A Mockingbird, set when Scout (or Jean Louise) had grown up and moved to New York City. It can then be seen as a sequel, or in some ways a prequel, to the earlier novel. In any case, the two books are clumsily and sometimes startlingly intertwined.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is, famously, a righteous lawyer in Maycomb County, pleading for the life of Tom Robinson, a black man in a trumped-up rape case.
In Watchman, on the other hand, Atticus’ daughter, Jean Louise, comes back to her Southern home circa 1955 to find that her upstanding, righteous father is an ardent opponent of the NAACP and a member of the local, racist, citizen’s council. In his dry, honest voice of truth and righteousness, Atticus blandly informs Jean Louise that “the Negroes down here are in their infancy as a people” and warns direly of “another Reconstruction” with black people voting and holding office — an outcome he presents as obviously disastrous.
Again, Atticus as KKK supporter has come as a shock to many—though others have argued that it’s a salutary transformation. Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post, for example, argues that the book helps show that racists aren’t just monsters but can be good people, normal people—people like ourselves.
“If racism can belong to Atticus Finch — and if it became his property through the same processes that made him a hero — it can belong to anyone,” she argues.
Readers could once comfortably identify with Atticus as a white savior; now they’re forced to contemplate whether they weren’t identifying with an everyday racist all along.
There’s some power to that reading. But it rather skips over a major point, which is that the novel more than half agrees with Atticus’ racism and goes out of its way to portray Jean Louise’s incipient anti-racism as naïve and ill-considered. The book never challenges the idea that black people are childish or ill-prepared to rule.
On the contrary, Jean Louise tells Atticus, “We’ve agreed that [black people are] backward, that they’re illiterate, that they’re dirty and comical and shiftless and no good.”
She insists that she wants equal rights for blacks and that she sees black people as human and he does not. But Atticus isn’t convinced there’s that much difference between their positions, and the novel doesn’t seem to either.
Lee goes out of her way to assure Jean Louise, and the reader, that there are racists and then there are racists. Henry, Jean Louise’s sort-of-fiancé, assures her he doesn’t really believe black people are inferior; he’s from a lower caste family in town and can’t risk pushing against public opinion.
By the same token, Atticus, we’re told, once went to a klan meeting — but only so he’d know who the KKK members were if he ever needed to oppose their machinations. He goes to the citizen’s council meetings not because he hates black people but because he believes in states’ rights and is against federal interference. The novel’s lumbering, uninformed, sympathetic treatment of Civil War history doesn’t question Atticus’s stance here; it backs it up.
To see this as a demonstration that good people can be racists seems like wishful thinking. The book is not dedicated to showing that good people can be racists. It is dedicated to demonstrating that some who appear to be racists are actually good people.
Atticus and Henry are not actuated by prejudice in any real sense. Nor is Jean Louise supposed to be showing prejudice herself when she says she doesn’t want to marry a black man. Instead, her uncle, the book’s moral center, pooh-poohs the idea that white people and black people might want to marry each other. Interracial relationships, he insists, as Jean Louise nods along, are a bogeyman cooked up by white supremacists and the NAACP. (Thomas Jefferson, who raped a black child, is mentioned a few pages earlier as an icon of democratic thinking. The novel is not aware of the irony.)
“The Negroes were —‘Incidental to the issue in this war…to your own private war,’” Jean Louise thinks in self-reproach during her argument with Atticus. And she’s right; Jean Louise doesn’t really care about black people at all, and neither does the novel of which she’s a part.
Atticus’s sin is framed almost entirely in terms of betraying Jean Louise. We see almost nothing of how the citizen’s council affects black people; lynching is brought up only to be pooh-poohed. The family’s old servant, Calpurnia, is wheeled out briefly to show that race relations have gotten worse and black and white cannot speak to each other anymore, and to upset Jean Louise. But there is no sense of how Atticus’s and fiancé Henry’s understandable, not-really racism might cause concrete harm to anyone. Black people are important only insofar as Atticus’s attitude towards them makes Jean Louise respect him less. That’s it.
And the depressing part is, that’s not so different from how race is used in To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom Robinson’s story is mostly an excuse for Atticus to prove his virtue—and most importantly to show that he’s not like the white trash Ewells who "lived like animals.”
Racism for Lee in both these books isn’t a moral failing so much as a class marker; a way to distinguish the good whites from the bad whites, the trash from the upper crust.
“I’m proud of you,” Atticus tells Jean Louise at the end of the book.
Lee changed many things between Watchman and Mockingbird. But both novels believe firmly in white folks’ right to be proud of themselves, no matter how many black people they need to save, or ignore, or hate to do it.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.