English instructor examines contrasts in new Harper Lee novel

By University Communications
August 30, 2015
Peter Olson

Photo: Peter Olson

When "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published in 1960, it quickly became a classic piece of American literature, earning a Pulitzer Prize, serving as the basis of an Oscar-winning film adaptation and eventually selling 40 million copies.

More than a half-century later, readers suddenly have another book by the author, Harper Lee, with "Go Set a Watchman."

The new novel, No. 1 in late August on the New York Times best-seller list, was released by HarperCollins in mid-July and has garnered much interest by reviewers largely because of the portrayal of Atticus Finch, the moral center of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

In "Go Set a Watchman," Finch exhibits a less idealistic portrayal of social justice in small-town Alabama than he does in its precursor, said Peter Olson, an English literature instructor at University of Wisconsin-Stout and a former resident of Alabama where the novels are set.

Olson believes readers who loved "To Kill a Mockingbird" are in for a bit of a shock when they read "Go Set a Watchman.""The contrast between the two books is pronounced. In 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Finch symbolizes the possibility of equal justice under the law in the Jim Crow South of the 1930s, whereas in 'Go Set a Watchman,' Finch represents the interests of segregation and white supremacy at the height of Jim Crow's resistance to civil rights," Olson said.

"If the courts in Mockingbird are the basic instruments of American democracy, in Watchman the courts become a threat to the stability of the Southern 'way of life.' By disclosing Atticus Finch's duplicity, Harper Lee reveals a double standard for justice under the regime of Jim Crow," Olson said.

Lee shows in Watchman that Maycomb, Ala., the fictional setting for the novels, is structured on inequality and that as it becomes engulfed in the conflicts over voting and civil rights the "citizens councils" react by objecting to NAACP and federal intervention, Olson said."

Lee's initial idea, it seems, is to capture the effect of civil rights on Maycomb as an emblematic Alabama town and its consequences for an ethnically stratified society suddenly aware of its own biases and the impending loss of dominance by accepting the implications of democracy."

Olson previously taught at the University of North Alabama, as well as the University of Memphis and Mississippi State. He lived in Sheffield, Ala., for a decade, "a town not altogether unlike Monroeville, Alabama," Lee's hometown.

The English and philosophy department at UW-Stout is part of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.


Following is a question-and-answer with Olson about "Go Set a Watchman":

Q: Because of the success of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the 55 years that have elapsed since its publication, much fanfare has surrounded the release of "Go Set a Watchman." Will Harper Lee fans be disappointed in the newly published book?

A: The release of "Go Set a Watchman" has generated debates about its quality as a novel and its history as a text. In what is purportedly the first draft of Mockingbird, Watchman went under revision on the advice of Lee's editor at Lippincott. 

The revision, which became Mockingbird, invoked Southern nostalgia and local color to suggest insights into the hypocritical ideologies of Jim Crow and rigid Southern social-class structures. The dignified gentility and emblematic superiority represented by the Finch family contrasts starkly with the predicament of disenfranchised rural blacks checkmated by the Jim Crow "invisible empire" ruled by parasitic courthouse cronyism, which maintains its electoral stranglehold through its connections to state funds.

These facets are more blatant in the draft that is Watchman, where Atticus himself becomes emblematic of the most onerous qualities of white supremacy. The disappointment that some commentators express deals with the "fallen" image of Atticus in Watchman.

Critics of Watchman have pointed to the choppy flow of the narrative and an overabundance of stereotyped commonplaces, typical of Southern literature, clichés about the culture of race, white supremacy and southern culture.

Other critics have argued that despite these complaints the book offers a number of important insights into Lee's initial ideas, her creative process and an abundance of cultural observations that help document the high point of the Jim Crow South.

Of course, Watchman's nostalgic worldview is far too pastoral to imagine the cresting violence of Selma, the Freedom Summer and the Freedom Riders, events that pushed LBJ to enact civil rights and voting rights laws that essentially transformed Dixiecrats into the modern Republican Party.

Q: There's been some controversy over whether "Go Set a Watchman" is in effect a sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird." What is the nature of the controversy and why is it significant?

A: Most critics agree that the writing of "Go Set a Watchman" predates "To Kill a Mockingbird" by a few years, although its narrative takes place 20 years later in plot time. It is interesting to note that Lee's original conception of the narrative situates its characters in the post-Brown vs. Board of Education state of civil rights in the South.

Hence, she realized, when revising the draft of Watchman as it morphed retrograde into Mockingbird'sDepression-era context, that the reverse chronology allowed Atticus Finch's character to become more benevolent because his context traveled further into the nostalgic —and less immediately threatened —past.

Finch's strident racial paternalism that emerges results from the threat to Jim Crow of the late 1950s, the time when both novels were actually written.

Some commentators have suggested that Watchman involves a publishing agenda that bespeaks some opportunism on the part of the book's editors, given that Harper Lee, who is a stroke victim, apparently had little input.

The significance of the controversy over Watchman seems to center on its relative merit in Lee's corpus of writing. In effect, the extraordinary status of Mockingbird as an example of southern literature and of American justice can now be measured through Watchman as a more fluid text.

Q: You lived in Alabama and have studied and taught southern literature. How well does "Go Set a Watchman" capture the period in which it's set, the late 1950s?

A: Sheffield, Ala., where I lived for a decade, lies on the Tennessee River adjacent to Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia and Florence, Ala. These "Quad Cities" can be found on a map in the northwest corner of the state.

Harper Lee's narrator mentions the "peculiar" character of this part of the state. In "To Kill a Mockingbird," she writes, famously, that Scout's teacher, a Miss Caroline from Winston County, a county that seceded from the Confederacy, is incapable of recognizing the permanent underclass of the poor white status of her schoolmate Walter Cunningham.

This peculiarity attests to the unique socioeconomic circumstances of the Black Belt, a geological band bisecting the state through Selma. The Black Belt, incidentally, is the only region in Alabama to vote for President Obama during the 2012 election. Those who know Alabama politics know that North Alabama is heavily gerrymandered and solidly Christian conservative in ideology. North Alabama was the site of the last Civil War battles and scars remain.

During the Depression, North Alabama became increasingly industrialized in contrast to the agrarian southern part of the state where Monroeville is situated.

The nostalgia for Deep South front porches, live oaks and magnolias, honeysuckle vines and sweet tea emanates from the plantation south of Harper Lee's Maycomb County. Like Maycomb, though, the Shoals area has its rigid social hierarchies and inheritances that stem from antebellum white society.

There are vast reaches of agricultural land that were once worked by black slaves. White and black housing is still fairly segregated, although due to the very issues that crop up in "Go Set a Watchman," public education is integrated, and one occasionally sees, even as the boundaries remain pretty fixed, integrated relationships. As a document testifying to the turning point in social relations in the South, "Go Set a Watchman" may become a primary resource.

Q; What does the title "Go Set a Watchman" mean in relation to the plot?

A: The phrase "Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth" appears during a scene at Maycomb's Methodist Church. The minister, a Mr. Stone, has liberal tendencies and Yankee sympathies. Moreover, Lee's narrator witnesses Atticus berate the music director Herbert Jemson for modernizing southern hymns.

Atticus sees a revised hymn repertoire as analogous to the Supreme Court's revision (or attempted demolition) of Jim Crow, apparently as the sort of equal opportunity he rejects. In the final pages of the book, Jean Louise (Scout) hears her Uncle Jack state that "every man's watchman is his conscience." Ironically, the context for this reference to conscience is an appeal to heritage and the tradition of white privilege.

The title line first occurs midway in the text, a few pages prior to the critical scene when Jean Louise, hidden in a balcony, witnesses Atticus in conversation at a white citizen's council meeting. Harper Lee sets up the ensuing crisis by juxtaposing Jean Louise's attendance at a conservative Methodist church service with her subsequent discovery of a racist pamphlet among Atticus's things. The moment is a turning point in the plot that leads ultimately to Jean Louise's troubling self-examination.

Readers of Mockingbird remember Scout hid in that very balcony when Atticus defended the black defendant Tom Robinson. The juxtaposition of the two incidents —Atticus's defense of Tom Robinson and his participation in a white citizen's council meeting —sets up a transference of conscience from one form of justice (equal justice) to another (first amendment rights for the values held by the KKK).

The scene entails a crisis for Jean Louise as her declaration of justice undergoes a reversal from revulsion to acceptance of Atticus' worldview. In that span of narrative we realize how contextual the notion of a "watchman" as conscience seems to be. In it we see the very paradox of Southern individualism.

Q: How is "Go Set a Watchman," which takes place more than a half-century ago, relevant today?

A: In a prescient moment of publication coincidence, Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" appeared on bookstore shelves the very day that Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me" portentously arrived, signaling that the year of Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston marks a political turning point that will impact American society and politics in the long term.

It is evident that the Kennedy-era sentiments of the Atticus Finch of "To Kill a Mockingbird" gloss over Coates' point that American exceptionalism has an original sin, and because of that the Atticus Finch of the 1930s serves only to inoculate the problem represented by the Finch of the late 1950s.

Coates is blunt: "Race is the child of racism, not the father." This is the point that Harper Lee makes in "Go Set a Watchman." Still, she makes the point more tenderly, and Jean Louise says to her father: "You're a nice, sweet, old gentleman, and I'll never believe a word you say to me again."