As Kyle Smith reminds us in his recent review of Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird, white liberals would like to airbrush away Harper Lee’s second (really first) novel, Go Set a Watchman, written in 1957 but published in 2015. The reason is Atticus, who in Watchman offends current liberal myth. Clues to Atticus’s true identity lie with another character that liberals would wish away too, if they could. In both books, Thomas Jefferson gets a workout.
In Mockingbird, we meet Jefferson at the climactic trial of Tom Robinson. Now, if you are one of those people shy to confess that you didn’t read the book, can’t afford the play, and only saw the movie, be aware that you missed something. A key part of Atticus’s closing argument to the jury did not make it into Horton Foote’s screenplay and so was not immortalized by Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning performance. In the book, Atticus lectures the jury on the nature of equality, and for the highest authority he turns to Jefferson:
“Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the executive branch [Eleanor Roosevelt] are fond of hurling at us. There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious—because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe—some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.”
Only in a court of law, Atticus sums up, must men not equal by nature be treated as if they were. He loses the case. (In Watchman, we get a retrospective reference to the Robinson trial back in the 1930s, but in that version Atticus wins an acquittal—an outcome that would have made Mockingbird a different book.)
We meet Jefferson again at the climax of Watchman. Lee set Watchman in the mid-1950s—the present, when she wrote—as opposed to the gauzy 1930s of Mockingbird. She was a good observer of the world around her. The term “gradualism” then described the position of many white southerners resigned to the inevitability of civil rights but who worried about the pace, that things might not go gently. Atticus was a gradualist, and when Jean Louise (grown-up Scout) discovers her father attending a white citizens’ council meeting for reasons she does not at first understand, she is thrown into crisis. The story peaks with an epic confrontation in Atticus’s law office, where he sneers at “the Supreme Court’s bid for immortality” in the recent Brown v. Board of Education case (1954). Despite having lived in New York City for four years, Jean Louise isn’t terribly keen on the Brown decision either, and when her father asks why, she responds with a constitutional argument. She doesn’t like the South being told what to do by some judges in Washington who in the name of advancing one amendment (the Fourteenth) were tromping on another (the Tenth). Lawyer Atticus is not unimpressed, but when she pushes him on the issue of social equality, he speaks less like a progressive crusader than a man of his own time. They spar over the naacp, for which Atticus has no good word, and once again he turns to Jefferson:
“Jean Louise,” he said, “let me tell you something right now, as plainly as I can put it. I am old-fashioned, but this I believe with all my heart. I’m sort of a Jeffersonian Democrat. Do you know what that is?”
“Huh, I thought you voted for Eisenhower. I thought Jefferson was one of the great souls of the Democratic Party or something.”
“Go back to school,” her father said. “All the Democratic Party has to do with Jefferson these days is put his picture up at banquets. Jefferson believed full citizenship was a privilege to be earned by each man, that it was not something given lightly nor to be taken lightly. A man couldn’t vote simply because he was a man, in Jefferson’s eyes. He had to be a responsible man. A vote was, to Jefferson, a precious privilege a man attained for himself in a—live-and-let-live economy.”
“Atticus, you are rewriting history.”
“No I’m not. It might benefit you to go back and have a look at what some of our founding fathers really believed, instead of relying so much on what people these days tell you they believed.”
“You might be a Jeffersonian, but you’re no Democrat.”
“Neither was Jefferson.”
In Watchman,Atticus has a brother, Scout’s Uncle Jack, a classic southern eccentric who lives with his cat and has a grin “like a friendly weasel.” Scout visits Uncle Jack before her showdown with Atticus. Uncle Jack worries that a political philosophy is being pressed on the South that the South is not ready for, and he fears a replay of the post–Civil War years: “I hope to God it’ll be a comparatively bloodless Reconstruction this time.” His fears are not, however, racial at heart. What really worries him is Maycomb’s “new class,” made up of whites: the same boys and girls Scout went to school with, he says, have moved from farms to factories and become “the apples of the Federal Government’s eye. It lends them money to build their houses, it gives them a free education for serving in its armies, it provides for their old age and assures them of several weeks’ support if they lose their jobs.” Scout snaps:
“Uncle Jack, you’re a cynical old man.”
“Cynical, hell. I’m a healthy old man with a constitutional mistrust of paternalism and government in large doses. Your father’s the same.”
Uncle Jack rolls on about how America is still the only country “in this tired world” where “a man can go as far as his brains will take him or he can go to hell if he wants to, but it won’t be that way much longer.”
“That’s a cloudy statement,” Jean Louise comes back at him.
“Indeed it is,” responds the old man. “It leaves us with so much freedom.”
With Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote a book about childhood and about race that her countrymen in 1960 were ready to read (and watch), and they’ve never stopped. Watchman touched no such string in 2015. Mockingbird quickly won the Pulitzer. Watchman, as quickly, became an outcast. This is a loss, for it takes just a smidgen of historical imagination to see in Watchman something absent from the therapeutic moralism that we cheered for as children in Mockingbird and that remains so vital to white liberals today.
It is a simple point. Good people in the past sometimes held ideas unsettling to us, but that they managed to live with well enough. This particular distinction rendered in Watchman is anathema today: Atticus the gradualist—yes, the segregationist. But this was not to him the same thing as a vicious white supremacist. And he wanted to know the names of such supremacists, should the time come when, to be faithful to his creed of “equal rights for all, special privileges for none,” he would have to go up against them. Attending the citizens’ council, he could see their faces with the sheets off. Scout is incredulous at why a white supremacist should be allowed to spew the verbal filth that characterized such meetings. The gradualist Atticus, whose understanding of free speech is equally incomprehensible today, replies: “Because he wanted to.”
This is not the Atticus of Hollywood and now Broadway fame, taught to millions of school children and peddled in public library summer reading programs. This Atticus is a 1950s white southerner, born to a certain world and trying to live decently within it. He had time neither for the Klan nor the naacp. He believed in equal protection before the law, and he harbored a “constitutional mistrust of paternalism and government in large doses.” He voted for Ike and he quoted Jefferson, whose nowadays anguished-over character flaws he was content to let pass. Could it be that Saint Atticus saw in tangled-up old Tom something of himself?