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16 July 2015

Why Go Set a Watchman is a much better novel than To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee's newly released novel may not win another Pulitzer, but it's far more honest and mature about the complexity of racism in the South.

By Helen Laville

Go Set a Watchman turns out to be a hot mess of a book. The flashes of lyrical genius and ability to evoke the intensity of childhood play that come to fruition in To Kill a Mockingbird are in evidence, but so too are rather obscure discussions on constitutional law and the tenth amendment, an irritatingly pert main character, and a dull love interest. It’s nowhere near the novel Mockingbird is. It is much better than that.

In the days running up to Watchman’s release, Mockingbird fans – for there can be no other description, mere “readers” or “admirers” won’t suffice – set aside difficult ethical discussions of whether the 89-year-old Harper Lee was capable of really consenting to the publication of what many believed amounted to a rough first draft of her work.

Instead fans took to twitter with their wishlist of what they hoped for in the sequel. Some hoped Scout and Dill would be married. Some hoped Jem and Scout spent Christmases together, filling Maycomb County with the happy chatter of their adorable precocious children. Some hoped Boo Radley was out and about, perhaps working in telesales. Curiously though, no one seemed to be hoping that Atticus was a fully paid-up member of the White Citizen’s Council, bending his arthritis-addled hands to the fight against integration, and explaining to Scout: “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people”.

Funny that no one saw that coming. Really, they should have. Because outside the white liberal fantasy that is To Kill a Mockingbird, the reality, the historical record shows us that (spoiler alert!) the vast majority of white Southerners were racist and didn’t want to sit next to black people in the theatre.

We did know that the so-called white trash Southerners, the KKK members, the Bob Ewells, the ignorant poor, didn’t want to sit next to black people. Mockingbird taught us that. What Watchman tells us, and tells us rather powerfully, is that racism is not confined to people who are so clearly not like us.

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Some commentators on Watchman have suggested Atticus becomes racist as he gets older, as if some kind of dramatic ideological transformation has taken place in his worldview since Mockingbird.  It’s nonsense. He was racist in Mockingbird, but just politer about it. He thinks everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, and everyone should be able to access justice. He doesn’t want Tom Robinson to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit. He thinks Tom Robinson is a good man. But he doesn’t want to sit next to him in a theatre.

Racism is not, and never has been, a yes/no question. Many white Southerners who risked considerable personal danger to challenge some forms of racial injustice were perfectly comfortable with other forms. The Committee on Interracial Co-operation, founded in 1919 in Atlanta in response to a wave of racial violence across the South, wanted to improve communication between white and black people in the South. But they didn’t want to end segregation. The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, founded in 1930, sought to protect people like Tom Robinson from the horrors of the lynch mob. But they didn’t want to end segregation.

Politeness in the South has always masked the kinder, gentler racism practised by middle-class whites. Shocked by the Supreme Court’s determination to force Southern states to abandon segregation, men like Atticus Finch – the “men of substance and character, responsible men, good men”, the men Jean Louise sees at the White Citizen’s Council  stop being polite.

The mistake made by so many fans of Mockingbird was to assume that a passion for justice and the rule of law went alongside a commitment to racial equality, and a determination to overcome prejudice. Sometimes, it didn’t. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton has said that Watchman, “reflects the reality of finding out that a lot of those we thought were on our side harboured some different personal feelings”.

This is what makes Watchman better than Mockingbird. It’s not better written, I doubt it’s going to win another Pulitzer, and since its release the list of actors queueing up to play Atticus in Mockingbird 2 got a lot shorter. But Watchman is a lot more honest. It doesn’t feed white America the comforting version of civil rights history where the bad guys are easily identifiable ignorant hicks, the good guys are heroic and noble white men with impeccable manners, and the black people are all subservient, respectful and endlessly patient.

Mockingbird is a child’s book, told by a child. Watchman is for grown-ups. It asks serious questions about what racism is. And it comes at a time when American desperately needs a grown-up conversation about race.