“All men are not created equal,” Atticus Finch announces. He’s pacing in a court room, nobly addressing a jury that’s not inclined to give a lick about his point of view. In the eyes of his daughter, the narrator of the scene, he’s infallible.
She’s only 8 years old, so the meaning she, and we, extract is straightforward. Atticus’s speech -- a didactic thesis statement sitting at the center of To Kill a Mockingbird -- is meant to remind the jury, and the reader, that while some citizens are disadvantaged according to society’s rules, the legal system is a great, noble leveler.
This is the central illusion of Harper Lee’s classic, a book that, among its other merits, artfully brings to life the bumpy tire-roll of growing up, full as it is of adventure and trouble and rules and lessons. As adept as Lee is at crafting plausible and heart-warming conversations between kids whiling away their endless summers, the more adult issue of racial equality within the legal system is treated with a heavy hand. And, because her first draft of the book, the now-published Go Set a Watchman, is couched in an educated, young adult woman’s perspective, it’s mostly a clunky, simplified sermon about the many breeds of racism that’ve spawned in the South -- some microscopic yet deadly, others ancient and unchanging.
The book is not good. Jean Louise (that’s grown-up Scout) is not a fully conceived character; she responds to nearly everything that happens to her by flailing, vomiting (really), or pontificating on her still-childish mores. It’s no wonder it wasn’t deemed fit for publication when it was submitted. But releasing Go Set a Watchman isn’t just a greedy move on the part of publishers. The book provides us with information that’ll be valuable to the way To Kill a Mockingbird is conceived. Whereas the latter classic paints an idealized picture of Atticus Finch, the former draft shows us that he’s complex, and deeply flawed, just like the legal system he represents.
“There is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller,” Atticus concludes in his defense of Tom Robinson, an innocent man accused of raping a young white woman. The outcome of the case proves his words to be false. Robinson is determined guilty. In the world of To Kill a Mockingbird, this result isn’t framed as the fault of the law, but of the bigoted men on the jury -- the legal system promotes justice, but men fail to follow through. Atticus Finch, when seen through the admiring eyes of his young daughter, is a symbol of the ideals of the legal system -- not a man flawed like any other.
Atticus Finch [...] is complex, and deeply flawed, just like the legal system he represents.
These themes, and this truth, is stated more plainly in Go Set a Watchman, which is set in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Jean Louise Finch, now an artist living in New York City, returns to Maycomb via train. The conductor overshoots her stop, but rather than irritation, she displays comfort in knowing that some things never change.
But some things do, and the novel studies Scout’s acceptance of uncomfortable progress. Since the halcyon days of Mockingbird, the sleepy, idyllic town of her youth has been rattled by war, and its centuries-long hierarchies have been shaken by social change. NAACP lawyers have trickled into Alabama, defending black citizens who’ve in the past been spurned by racist juries. Maycomb’s black residents have gained a few modest economic freedoms.
Even the town’s most progressive white residents feel imposed upon by these advancements. While the compartmentalization of separate but equal made it easy for passively noble citizens to advocate for justice for all, a more complete version of equality meant a violent shake-up of a long-standing caste system that in many ways still exists today.
In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus is the most egregious and surprising offender -- he attends a Ku Klux Klan meeting and is a member of a Citizen’s Council angling to fight against desegregation. When his former housekeeper’s grandson gets wrapped up in a crime involving a white man, he jumps at the opportunity to “help,” hoping to keep NAACP-appointed lawyers out of the case. He asserts that said lawyers rig juries and that Maycomb residents would respond with violence if such a thing happened in their town. Rather than embracing the turmoil that could come with progress, he stands firm in his old ways, believing equality in the eyes of the law to be sufficient.
While separate but equal made it easy for passively noble citizens to advocate for justice for all, a more complete version of equality meant a violent shake-up of a long-standing caste system that in many ways still exists today.
New light is shed on his once-noble proclamation that “not all men are created equal." It would seem from this characterization of Atticus that his claim is more than a lament of society’s preference of some citizens more than others. It seems that he personally holds this belief, as well. When Jean Louise is first clued in to her father’s bigotry, she finds a racist pamphlet nestled among his reading materials. Writes Lee, “On its cover was a drawing of an anthropophagous Negro; above the drawing was printed The Black Plague.” Mortified, Jean Louise confronts her Aunt Alexandra about the writings, which were penned by a man with “several academic degrees after his name.” But, though bold in the face of such overt bigotry, she isn’t exempt from subtle racism, either.
While on a drive with her longtime beau, a car whizzes past Jean Louise. “Carload of Negroes,” Henry explains. “That’s the way they assert themselves these days [...] they’ve got enough money to buy used cars, and they get out on the highway like ninety-to-nothing. They’re a public menace.” She doesn’t object to this blatantly ignorant means of discussing culture-induced difference. It doesn't occur to her that driving fast is no less of a “menace” than drinking too much behind closed doors -- the vice of choice for Maycomb’s white residents. Rather, she sighs, “Golly, what if something happens?” Preferring the slow churn of a train ride, with its reliably flakey conductor, to the whirr of a fast-approaching other, she’s guilty of stodgy, self-centered discrimination for much of the novel.
It’s unclear whether Lee is condoning Jean Louise’s own culturally bigoted views. For this reason, and many others, Go Set a Watchman is a shaky narrative and a flawed book. But it’s a much-needed context for the idealistic world of To Kill a Mockingbird, which would have readers believe that social change is as simple as passing and abiding by laws.
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