Harper Lee passed away this morning at the age of 89. While it’s sad to see her go, her passing is a reminder that the author of To Kill a Mockingbird lived long enough to see the election and re-election of our nation’s first black president, a heartening data point to enter into the ledger of history. A shadow was cast over Lee’s final year due to the publication of Go Set a Watchman, a “sequel” of sorts to Mockingbird in which the idealist hero Atticus finch has become sour, embittered and, sadly, racist. Last August, Magin LaSov Gregg offered a unique take on the novel and the controversy surrounding it. We’re happy to share it again today.
I almost didn’t read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman because of what the reviews said about Atticus, who transforms from an ACLU-ish lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird to a Klan meeting attender in Watchman. But when I read to the very end of page 278, it wasn’t the proto-Tea Party Atticus that irritated me. What bothered me was that early reviews of Watchman allowed Jean Louise to be eclipsed by her father, as if Atticus were the whole point of this story.
I don’t disagree that Watchman is an inferior literary work. How can it not be? It’s possibly a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was among a handful of books that re-defined female possibility for me when I was growing up poor, white, and in perpetual fear of losing my mother to an illness that eventually killed her. Scout Finch showed me what it meant to be brave and to thrive in absence of a mother. In my sometimes-bleak girlhood, Scout was both who I wanted to be and who I wanted to become: independent and able to transcend the limitations that life handed me.
In Mockingbird, Scout bucks the boundaries of her Southern world, where there are no Sheryl Sandbergs or Amy Schumers or Roxane Gays telling her to speak truth, to lean in until she’s almost falling down, that nothing but prejudice stands in her way. Her “feminine influence” comes from Aunt Alexandra, “the last of her kind… born in the objective case.” The consequences of this “objective case” reveal themselves in Watchman, as readers see Aunt Alexandra abandoned by her oddly aloof husband and unable to take action for the sake of appearances and “boarding school manners.”
The Jean Louise of Watchman dismantles this sham life and claims her own life, apart from the confining roles of daughter, sister, and wife. By the end of the book, Jean Louise is moving more cautiously through the world, but moving forward nonetheless, with grace and intelligence and, yes, enduring pain. This is the price of becoming an adult, free from the false notions of childhood. The world is more honest, less rose-colored, and rife with hatred and malcontent.
I certainly acknowledge the problems of race representation in Mockingbird and Watchman, but I’m as compelled by this Jean Louise as I was by Scout because they both seize their own life. Jean Louise is the moral triumph of Watchman, the budding seed of Scout Finch, railing against constructs of racism and sexism that characterize her world.
Unlike contemporary Americans who blithely tweet #AllLivesMatter , missing the point of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Jean Louise has no trouble understanding why Calpurnia might have hated her, even as she cared for the Finch children in absence of their mother; that this simmering hatred speaks to the emotional complexity of what it means to be systematically oppressed, silenced, and rendered invisible by a culture of white supremacy. Even in the pivotal confrontation between Jean Louise and Calpurnia, the former caretaker shakes her head in response to Jean Louise’s question, “Did you hate us?” When she is called out to speak truth, Calpurnia cannot. Unlike the privileged Jean Louise, Calpurnia is figuratively muzzled. This moment of Watchman gave me goosebumps precisely because Jean Louise gets it. She feels the pain of Calpurnia’s oppression and her own complicity. She recognizes oppression because she has lived her own version of it.
Jean Louise must let go of her idealized vision of Atticus, as we all must. He is a racist; she confronts and challenges the racist conditions of her upbringing. He is Southern; she transplants to New York. He married and fathered children; she remains unmarried and childless. Yet at the end of Watchman, Jean Louise doesn’t flee to her progressive enclave of New York. She goes home with her disappointing father, as so many grown children have had to learn how to do.
Is it too far a stretch to imagine that she, like many of Watchman’s readers, wish things could be different? That she longs for Atticus to be the unfathomably morally upright Alabama lawyer of Mockingbird, a character who has always struck me as an implausible conceit? She embraces, rather than rejects, the complexity of her own inescapable heritage. She becomes conscious of what her history means and has meant. She takes the wheel and drives, leaving Atticus to sit, humbled and hunched, in her shadow.
– Magin LaSov Gregg is an Assistant Professor of English at Frederick Community College. Her writing has appeared most recently in The Washington Post. She holds an MFA from Goucher College.