A flawed At­ti­cus

The card­board hero be­comes a real per­son in Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watch­man’

The Washington Post Sunday - - OPINION SUNDAY - BY HOW­ELL RAINES The writer is a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive editor of the New York Times.

As a self-made mul­ti­mil­lion­aire with a solid literary rep­u­ta­tion, Harper Lee does not need our sym­pa­thy, but she de­serves a more re­flec­tive re­sponse to her de­ci­sion to give us a search­ing look at At­ti­cus Finch, the heroic South­ern lawyer de­picted in “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird.”

To put mat­ters bluntly, com­men­ta­tors and read­ers who have lamented her “spoil­ing” their im­age of At­ti­cus got things wrong on just about ev­ery level, in­clud­ing the im­por­tance of “Mock­ing­bird” and its late-bloom­ing pre­quel, “Go Set a Watch­man” as artis­tic, so­ci­o­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal texts.

A nar­row read­ing of “Watch­man,” wherein Lee por­trays the ag­ing At­ti­cus as a con­ven­tional, small-town racist, is not just un­fair, it ig­nores the key el­e­ments of the new­book and dis­torts our un­der­stand­ing of the ear­lier one, which has be­come a part of the world’s in­tel­lec­tual her­itage. Fur­ther, it un­justly lumps in Lee with Mar­garet Mitchell and “Gone With the Wind” as be­ing overly tol­er­ant of the evils of af­flu­ent South­ern big­ots. A thresh­old is­sue then be­comes plac­ing both Lee books in their proper place in the South­ern literary canon.

“Mock­ing­bird” (1960) is one of the mon­u­ments in the blos­som­ing of South­ern fic­tion­writ­ing in the 20th cen­tury, achiev­ing a suc­cess even greater than ear­lier master­works by more am­bi­tious writ­ers. As an artist, Lee does not climb to the level of Wil­liam Faulkner or Robert Penn-War­ren, but she has earned a spot on the same plat­form when it comes to de­fin­i­tive ren­der­ings of fic­tional archetypes. And fault­ing her for dam­ag­ing a plas­ter saint of her own mak­ing is as my­opic as fault­ing Faulkner’s “Ab­sa­lom, Ab­sa­lom” (1936) for over-em­pha­siz­ing the tor­mented psy­che of post-Con­fed­er­ate Mis­sis­sippi or War­ren’s “All the King’s Men” (1946) for high­light­ing Louisiana’s po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion in cre­at­ing Wil­lie Stark, the most com­plex dem­a­gogue in mod­ern fic­tion. Lee has earned ad­mis­sion to the Dixie Pan­theon by giv­ing us two views of up­per-class whites in a van­ish­ing world, set­ting “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird” dur­ing the lynch­ing epi­demic of the 1930s and this new book at the dawn of the civil rights move­ment in the mid-’50s.

The “Mock­ing­bird” At­ti­cus was the kind of mod­er­ate, ed­u­cated South­erner sym­pa­thetic to the New Deal’s pro­gres­sive racial at­ti­tudes. The sec­ond At­ti­cus is another South­ern “type”: the erst­while civic leader driven crazy by the 1954 Supreme Court de­ci­sion out­law­ing seg­re­gated public schools. History changes us as we move through it, just as Huck Finn came to see Ji­mas a hu­man be­ing while they drifted down the river. At­ti­cus changed, too, but in a less ad­mirable di­rec­tion. In “Watch­man,” the card­board hero be­comes a real per­son, fail­ing as a le­gion of oth­er­wise sen­si­ble South­ern politi­cians and preach­ers failed in the twin realms of law and re­li­gion as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his move­ment ex­posed South­ern racist vi­o­lence to a watch­ing world.

The ma­ture, worldly nar­ra­tor of “Watch­man,” Jean Louise Finch, is the grown-up ver­sion of “Mock­ing­bird’s” guile­less Scout. Us­ing the same char­ac­ters in both books, Lee of­fers two com­ing-of-age sto­ries: the child’s recog­ni­tion that evil ex­ists in the world and the adult’s recog­ni­tion that el­e­ments of that evil ex­ist in the peo­ple she loves. From a stylis­tic stand­point, “Mock­ing­bird” is a pol­ished gem. “Watch­man” is a lesser stone of rougher cut, but it de­served pub­li­ca­tion as it stood when Lee de­liv­ered the man­u­script to Lip­pin­cott in 1957.

Her editor, the late Tay Ho­hoff, rec­og­nized in­stantly upon read­ing “Watch­man” that Lee was “a true writer,” but she took a bold step in ask­ing that this work­man­like first novel be re­cast from the child’s point of view. Many an editor of that day would have sent the au­thor a small ad­vance and put out a ser­vice­able first novel by a promis­ing au­thor. Ho­hoff’s eye for Scout’s in­ner story, glimpsed in flash­backs in “Watch­man” but fully ex­plored when rewrit­ten as “Mock­ing­bird,” means we have a great book that sold 40 mil­lion copies world­wide and is taught to stu­dents in 70 coun­tries.

Lee’s de­ci­sion — and the weight of the ev­i­dence sug­gests it was her de­ci­sion, not just that of her will­ful at­tor­ney, Tonja Carter — means that we now have a good book to stand along­side the great “Mock­ing­bird.” More­over, the sec­ond book casts new­light on the growth process by which the writer pro­duced the more en­dur­ing work. From the stand­point of se­ri­ous schol­ar­ship, there are am­ple prece­dents for the de­ci­sion to pub­lish. The post­hu­mous ap­pear­ance of Ernest Hem­ing­way’s ap­pren­tice ver­sions of the Nick Adams sto­ries gave in­sight into how he de­vel­oped the most ar­rest­ing style of the Mod­ernist era. Here are sev­eral in­sights scholars may glean from “Go Set a Watch­man.”

First, it meets the Faulkne­r­ian stan­dard that the only fit sub­ject for a se­ri­ous nov­el­ist is “the prob­lem of the hu­man heart in con­flict with it­self.” What bet­ter de­scrip­tion could there be of an ide­al­is­tic old lawyer align­ing with the white-trash and whitecol­lar forces of the White Cit­i­zens Coun­cil?

Sec­ond, Lee has given us a so­ci­o­log­i­cal por­trait of a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in South­ern, and Amer­i­can, history. Chap­ter 8 of “Watch­man” is a tour-de-force of seg­re­ga­tion­ist or­a­tory as it re­ally sounded in the Black Belt, and Birm­ing­ham, in the af­ter­math of the 1954 Supreme Court de­ci­sion. In im­pres­sion­is­tic and steno­graphic pas­sages, we can hear the orig­i­nal ver­sion of the hate speech that by 1962 would make Ge­orge Wal­lace the very real dic­ta­tor of Alabama.

Crit­ics will fault the last chap­ters as melo­dra­matic and overly di­dac­tic, and they are, but to a pur­pose. In re­leas­ing them from the vault, Lee ful­fills the nov­el­ist’s deep­est obli­ga­tion, which is to ex­pand through imag­i­nary char­ac­ters our un­der­stand­ing of the mo­rals and man­ners of the real world. In “Go Set a Watch­man,” we see the adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch do some­thing ex­cru­ci­at­ing to her­self and her fa­ther, who is hon­est, be­wil­dered and ir­re­versibly South­ern as to his era and place. She strips At­ti­cus Finch, who on his best days was May­comb’s most ide­al­is­tic lawyer, of his “god­like” aura of per­fec­tion. Now, near­ing the end of her fas­ci­nat­ing life, Nelle Harper Lee has freed her read­ers to ex­tend to At­ti­cus the same bless­ing for the ser­vices of his bet­ter an­gels in “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird.”


Ac­tor Gre­gory Peck as at­tor­ney At­ti­cus Finch in the film adap­ta­tion of “To Kill aMock­ing­bird.”

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