But a man who has lived by truth--and you have believed in what he has lived--he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing.
It wasn't intentional, but after Faulkner's The Unvanquished, set, as always, in Mississippi, I moved only just across the border to Harper Lee's Alabama. And to be sure, the Maycomb County of this novel is just as central for Lee as Yoknapatawpha County is for Faulkner. Both are fictional and yet real, slightly skewed images of the Deep South Faulkner and Lee knew, loved, and sometimes hated. (Or, in Lee's case, knows, loves, and apparently sometimes hate.) When Jean Louise, To Kill a Mockingbird's Scout all grown up, spies her father in a white supremacist Citizens' Council, the betrayal robs her of both an identity and a home:
The glaring sun pierced her eyes with pain, and she put her hands to her face. When she took them down slowly to adjust her eyes from dark to light, she saw Maycomb with no people in it, shimmering in the steaming afternoon.
She walked down the steps into the shade of a live oak. She put her arm out and leaned against the trunk. She looked at Maycomb, and her throat tightened: Maycomb was looking back at her.
At the book's beginning, Jean Louise is grappling with the much more banal question of whether she should return home from New York where she's been living, compelled by Atticus' failing health and the entreaties of her beau, Henry. Atticus' presence at the meeting reveals a much deeper, and more frightening question beneath this one: If Atticus is rotten, has always been rotten, who is Jean Louise, who has lived her life under his example? And is it true you can't go home again?
It's no secret that Go Set a Watchman was published under questionable circumstances. On whether the aging Harper Lee had full control over its release, I express no opinion. If she did, I wonder if she felt any sympathy toward the senescent Atticus. But, more to the point, I wonder how much of our suspicion is fueled by what seems to be a very foreign, almost unrecognizable Atticus Finch. One who says things like, "the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people." Randy urges us to reject this impostor.
Maybe that's right. But I think the alternative is more interesting, though scarier: What if the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman is really the same as the one of To Kill a Mockingbird? In Mockingbird, Atticus is devoted to general notions of justice and fair play, and proudly voices the essential equality of human beings. But so did many proponents of segregation, upstanding men whose moral codes, strict as they were, failed to account for segregation's fundamental inequality and indignity. In this book, too, Atticus takes a case on behalf of a black man: Zeebo, the son of his old housekeeper Calpurnia, arrested for vehicular manslaughter. Jean Louise accuses him:
"I remember that rape case you defended, but I missed the point. You love justice, all right. Abstract justice written down item by item on a brief--nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief. His cause interfered with your orderly mind, and you had to work order out of disorder."
Go Set a Watchman is not a good book. It's too heavy on dialogue, for one thing. Sometimes it threatens to be one, as in a heartwrenching scene where Jean Louise, met with stony silence by Calpurnia after Zeebo's arrest, demands of her: "Did you hate us?" But it presents us with a good and valuable question: Why do we feel so protective of Atticus Finch? When do our own sophist notions of justice serve to excuse white paternalism? When are we, in short, not as good as we hoped we would be?
Michiko Kakutani writes that the novel "seems to want to document the worst in Maycomb in terms of racial and class prejudice, the people’s enmity and hypocrisy and small-mindedness." Even with Bob Ewell in it, the Maycomb of Mockingbird is a kinder, gentler place. But Lee wants us to consider, what do we do when the places we have loved, and the people in them, are neither kind nor gentle? I am a Southerner and I do not consider this a frivolous question. The ending of Watchman suggests that, while Jean Louise must construct her own conscience as she sees fit (the Biblical watchman of the title), it still might be possible for her to love her father and her home, and to live within them. Watchman doesn't succeed as a novel, but it does succeed in presenting this problem in a serious way, without flattering our sense of self-satisfaction, like The Help. I think that makes it worth reading.