That time Harper Lee put a mirror up and made us face our true selves

July 20th, 2015

A lot of ink has been spilled (or digitally typed, I suppose) about Harper Lee’s new (old) book, "Go Set a Watchman." Supposedly, this was the original book she submitted for publishing only to have it rejected and to be told that she should write more about the flashbacks Jean Louise has to her childhood that are sprinkled throughout the book.

Nonetheless, a lot has happened in the world of the Finch family and Maycomb, Alabama between the two novels. And a lot has changed in our world over the last 55 years since Harper Lee last graced us with her writing. What’s even harder to swallow, maybe, is that while much has changed, "Watchman" is a glaring reminder that much remains the same.

We join now adult Jean Louise Finch as she returns for her annual two-week visit home to Maycomb, Alabama from the big city of New York that she now calls home. In many ways comforted by the way things in Maycomb never seem to change. Even though the scenery is slowing becoming more modernized, “the same hearts beat in new houses” (p. 46). She even reacts negatively upon seeing the new-fangled neon signs and whitewashed walls lining the familiar streets. “Conservative resistance to change, that’s all,” (p. 46) she tells her childhood friend and adult love interest, Hank. Those words, “resistance to change,” would come back to haunt Jean Louise for the rest of the novel.

The most widely publicized (and criticized) revelation in this novel is that one of our nation’s most upright and beloved literary characters, Atticus Finch, has himself succumbed to the cultural pressures of “separate but equal” as Jean Louise finds him attending, of all things, a Citizen’s Council meeting where white leaders — people she grew up admiring — sit and listen to a man spew one of the most racist and hateful speeches in recent literary history. It’s there that Jean Louise discovers not only her father’s complacency, but his support, for such things as he introduces the speaker for the day. For Harper Lee to tell us Atticus Finch has a racist streak is just beyond comprehension. She might as well have said Mr. Rogers had a drug problem or Kermit the Frog ran around on Miss Piggy. It’s almost too much to bear.

And yet, in one bold and beautiful literary move, she makes Atticus (now aged) one of the most complex characters in literature. Here is a man who stands for justice and upholding the law, but he’s not comfortable with the Supreme Court overstepping their boundaries and the NAACP advocating to overturn certain societal norms. Here is a man we all grew up knowing for his courage and compassion, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” And now we’re told he believes white people are superior and that the purpose of living for black people is to “adapt to white ways” — which Atticus says they were doing fine, “traveling at a rate they could absorb” (p. 247). I’m sure there will be literary courses designed around a comparative study of these two books.

The main thrust of the novel is Jean Louise struggling to grow into her own person and exercise her own conscience separate from her father, Atticus, who had served as her moral compass her entire life. The themes of conscience and justice take center stage just like in "To Kill a Mockingbird." But the themes of progress and change show how the times have affected our characters and their development. I would spoil a chunk of the novel telling all you all of the twists, turns and changes Jean Louise goes through. Suffice it to say, "Go Set A Watchman" is a much more complex (albeit less balanced and seamless) novel than its beloved predecessor.

The biggest takeaway for me as a native Southerner is how complicated and horrific and perfect Harper Lee paints us all as a people who stridently hold to our beliefs even at the expense of listening to or getting to know someone who might be different. As Jean Louise’s eccentric uncle reminds her and the rest of us, “You’re a bigot… not a big one, just an ordinary turnip-sized bigot.” He asks Jean Louise, “What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out” (p. 267). We’re all bigots in some form or fashion.

As a white, male, native Southerner I don’t like being faced with the reality that I have a bigot streak in me. In fact, I don’t like it when people who aren’t from the South try to label all Southerners and Southern culture as bigoted. I don’t like it when Christians get labeled as bigots when they say intolerant things about other religions (hello there, Franklin Graham). And I don’t like it when straight people get labeled as bigots when they don’t give a full-throated endorsement of same-sex marriage. But here’s the thing: There’s a bigoted streak in the South. There’s a bigoted streak among Christians. There’s a bigoted streak among those who don’t support same-sex marriage. And there’s a bigoted streak among those who love to label anyone who doesn’t agree with their opinions as a bigot. There are conservative Republican bigots. And there are progressive Democrat bigots. We’re all bigots when you get right down to it.

The beautiful turn Harper Lee offers in this novel reminds me of the saying the great white Baptist preacher from Mississippi (and civil rights leader), Will D. Campbell once uttered when he was challenged to sum of the gospel in eight words or less: “We’re all bastards. But God loves us anyways.”

In her journey of self-discovery, Jean Louise Finch delves into the complicated places of her own conscience as she struggled with seeing her father and other loved ones as the flawed, equally complicated beings they are. She dares to listen even when it hurts and even when she could never bring herself to agree. Harper Lee’s 1955 novel rings as true today as it did in the days she first wrote it — we’re all a big, complicated mix of good and bad, righteous and bigoted, sinful and holy.

Needless to say, the Watchman has seen us and has told us who we are. The question is, once we discover and admit that truth, can we actually trust one another enough to listen and even love in spite of it all? 

Ben Gosden blogs at

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