Culture and Conflict in Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

It’s been days since I read Go Set A Watchman and I can’t stop thinking about it. In some ways, the novel is excruciating. The story takes place twenty years after To Kill A Mockingbird. Beloved characters have aged, or died, and the house that Jean Louise (Scout) Finch grew up in has become an ice cream parlour, but those characters that remain are true to themselves. Dr Finch is still batty and wise, Jean Louise remains feisty, Aunt Alexandria is still as inflexible as her own corsets, and Calpurnia remains a code-switching, disappointed mother. The central struggle in this novel revolves around the breaking of idols; both familial and cultural. The myth of The Father must give way to the truth of the father (in culture and flesh) if the child is ever to grow into something independent and new.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, we viewed the world of Macomb through the eyes six-year-old Scout. Six year olds are not known for their ability to see reality clearly. Atticus was raised from the status of a very good man whose goodness is limited by the constraints of his culture and the faulty philosophy upon which it is built, to an infallible god of morality. As an audience, we wanted to maintain the shrine of the god. Gods know what the future will hold. Gods are just. Gods might allow their children to be hurt, but never too badly. I’ve heard many people describe Atticus, as he appears in To Kill A Mockingbird, as the father of their heart, or the father that they wish they had. Some ideal, infallible fatherly creation. Fathers fall. Gods, in theory, do not. Atticus Finch, being limited by culture, was never a god.

Many people are objecting to Go Set A Watchman without reading it. These objections are based on the argument that Atticus has ‘been made into’ a racist. Well, I have news for you. The character was always a racist, but since we were seeing him through the eyes of a child who loved him, that effect was softened. In To Kill A Mockingbird Scout says:

“Cecil Jacobs asked me one time if Atticus was a Radical. When I asked Atticus, Atticus was so amused I was rather annoyed, but he said he wasn’t laughing at me. He said, ‘You tell Cecil I’m about as radical as Cotton Tom Heflin.’”

Cotton Tom Heflin was a conservative senator and known white supremacist. In the first book, Atticus Finch was not defending his black client because he was a civil rights activist. He defended his client because he thought that his white accuser was a liar. He believed that rape was only rape if it was physically forced and his client had one mangled arm. If this sounds far-fetched, consider that a lot of the backbone of old Southern gentility came (comes) from the idea that only white men have the capacity to become spiritually and intellectually ‘grown up’. Women and black people, no matter their age, need to be perpetually under the white man’s ‘protection’. White women need to be disciplined into their role, but then largely indulged — as ‘good’ black people were (are) also indulged. ‘Good’ by their definition; content, or at least silent, and totally obedient to their ‘place’. It’s much, much worse for black people though, since they weren’t (aren’t) considered ‘precious’. So a white woman who says she was raped was like a lonely child ‘making up stories’ and a black man who was accused of rape was ‘incorrigible’ and ‘needed’ to be shot. Or hung. This is the poison culture that both novels point out. Though I would actually say that Go Set A Watchman does it better.

When confronted with doubt, people who lack self-awareness resort to fanaticism. We’re seeing this now in modern American culture. People who are happy to cherry-pick Bible verses in order to wear mixed-fibre clothes or eat cheeseburgers are railing against homosexual marriage, not because God is against it, but because it disrupts the hierarchies upon which they justify the inequalities of their lives. White people in the South fought against integration because they knew, on some level, that if they questioned that they would have to question everything they valued about their culture.

Without spoiling the plot, I will say that there is a confrontation between the adult, learning-not-to-be-racist Scout and her unapologetic father. Listening to Atticus make his segregationist argument was very much like a conversation that I had with a loved-one the last time I was in Florida. I love this person very much. He’s a very good man. But he reasons culturally, he reasons and thinks within the context of a certain way of being which I’ll get to in a minute. The way that Atticus reasons is endemic, is still endemic, in the white Southern mind. Goodness doesn’t really come into it until you are removed from that context and see another way of being. A man can be good within the boundaries of his culture and still be trapped in the parts of that culture that are incredibly negative. The truths we take for granted are often cultural, and defined by a context that we who inhabit it are unaware of. I took a lot for granted before I left and got enough distance to see clearly. In the case of Atticus (and a lot of Southerners) it’s a version of the mediaeval great chain of being; white men are at the top (closest to God) and everyone else dangles at different levels below them. A woman can only be as good, he argues, as it is possible for a lesser creature to be. A black person can only be as good, he continues, as it is in their nature to be. White men, being purer, get to set the boundaries of what those natures are and they often decree that a black person, or a woman, cannot function above the moral level of male white children. It is important to say, here, that what makes these beliefs cultural is the fact that they are absorbed so far beyond questioning that they are nearly unconscious.

I don’t need to tell you that this mindset is generally only held by white Southerners. Toni Morrison and Cynthia Bond can help to fill out the other side of the story. Though it is worth mentioning that when a white person writes about racism they get a hell of a lot more attention than the people who live it.

According to this white Southern worldview, there are categories of people, types of people who conform to their type, and their respective goodness has an upper limit defined by their genetic status. This is why things like interracial marriage, feminism, and LGBT people are so threatening, so hated. By their blurring of boundaries they upset the perceived, accepted order of the universe. If the culture is to remain standing, that order has to be permanent. The fact that we really are each as perfectible and ‘good’ as each other proves that it is not. If this was the novel she originally meant to publish (one which demolishes the godhead of her father, rather than establishing) it is fantastic. Atticus Finch is much better as a good, flawed, human being than he ever was as a god. Some chapters are so accurately southern that it’s making me queasy. Gender roles, manners, an emphasis on the importance of doing the expected thing, being judged by your family (and the reverse), and the in-ground, emphatic aversion to change that springs from every supremely hierarchal culture. Now that I’m through it, I don’t have any problem believing that Lee would, at the end of her life, want to release the book that she originally wrote. I’d want to myself. Especially if it turns out to be true that her original editor had her re-write the book because no one would buy it if there wasn’t a totally ‘good’ white man standing at its centre.

In the last week, I’ve gone from being dubious about the publication of Go Set A Watchman to being deeply impressed by the quality of writing in it, and now I’m convinced that although it should be read as a companion piece for To Kill A Mockingbird, it is a necessary book. One that reflects the backbone of Southern culture in an accurate way, and more importantly, through the adult Scout, shows exactly what is needed to break out of it. I want to hand it to all of my English and Yankee American friends and say, ‘Take. Read this. It’s what the South is.’


2 thoughts on “Culture and Conflict in Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

  1. Pingback: Culture and Conflict in Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman | Carolyn O' Connell

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