Whether Lee intended it to be published or not, her novel sends a message America needs to hearby Diane Roberts / August 11, 2015 / Leave a comment
This is an updated version of a review originally published on July 16th, 2015
Harper Lee has broken our hearts. For more than half a century, Atticus Finch has been everyone’s hero, a white man who puts his reputation, even his life, on the line, defending a black man and facing down a lynch mob in the Jim Crow south. The Atticus we’ve always known valiantly tries to prove Tom Robinson never raped Mayella Ewell, angering the good white people of Maycomb, Alabama, risking everything to uphold the rule of law. He fails; Tom Robinson is killed. Still we love him for fighting the good fight.
But the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s mysteriously recovered, newly published, novel, is not the legal Galahad of To Kill a Mockingbird, not a crusader for the downtrodden, not Atticus as we picture him: Gregory Peck, stern and beautiful in that immaculate linen suit as he speaks out against hatred and prejudice. This Atticus is a racist.
In Go Set a Watchman, Scout Finch (these days known by her baptismal name Jean Louise) is now 26 years old and living in New York City. Home for a visit, she begins to realise that her adored father, a man she sees as an exemplar of all that is good and decent, actually believes in white supremacy. He likens “Negroes” to children and calls them “backward,” unfit to “share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship.” He joins the local White Citizens’ Council to suppress the burgeoning civil rights movement. He despises the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) for giving black people ideas above their station: “The NAACP doesn’t care whether a Negro man owns or rents his land, how well he can farm, or whether or not he tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet—oh, no, all the NAACP cares about is that man’s vote.” A vote Atticus Finch doesn’t think “Negroes” are entitled to.