The Gift of Tolerance: Harper Lee Returns

Sophie Caldecott

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: Warner Books, 1960).

Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2015).

Earlier this year the literary world was rocked by the news that an old manuscript by Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, had been discovered and was going to be published in July. There has been much speculation about why the intensely private 89-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning author had been persuaded to publish a second novel so late in life. It seems that back in the 1950s Lee’s editor suggested that she should lift the childhood scenes from this manuscript and turn them into a stand-alone novel that eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird. The original manuscript (now published as Go Set a Watchman) reads as if it was left pretty much untouched by Lee’s current editors. Go Set a Watchman is set 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, and explores Jean Louise’s feelings as she comes back as an adult woman to visit her family and hometown. The title refers to Isaiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

The imminent release of Go Set a Watchman inspired me, as it did many others, to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, having last read it when I was at school. I devoured it in a few days, reliving the compelling story of racial injustice in the 1930s American South, falling in love anew with the novel’s endearing heroine, Scout (Jean Louise Finch) and marvelling at the elegance and wit of Lee’s masterful story telling. But most of all, I reached a new and deeper appreciation of Scout’s father Atticus, the gentle, deeply good man at the heart of the novel.

When the reviews of Go Set a Watchman started to pour in, I was shocked to hear that in the new novel, Atticus is revealed to have racist views. I almost didn’t want to read it in case it was true and ruined my image of one of the best father figures ever written. Many of my friends have had the same reaction, preferring to ignore the new release as some kind of fraud, an invalid part of the fictional world that Lee originally created. How could the hero we all grew up admiring, a man who was the embodiment of equality and justice, be racist? I’m glad that I didn’t let this deter me, because I truly believe that the reviews are way off the mark. The novel is about racism in the 1950s South, but that’s hardly all that it’s about. It’s also about how we interact with, and most importantly love, our fellow human beings, whatever their beliefs or attitudes. In an age when political and ideological divides are deepening every day, we need this message more than ever.

It’s a message that Pope Francis echoed in his address to the US Congress in September: “[We must guard against] the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.”

Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are about the same thing: learning to see everyone as human, equal in dignity. It’s about learning to live alongside, and to love in the deepest and most Christian sense, all our fellow men and women. Atticus embodies Christian charity throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, and this is what he is patiently, quietly teaching Scout as events unfold. He lets Mr Ewell spit in his face without retaliating, he patiently endures Mrs. Dubose’s insults month after month, showing unwavering kindness in the face of her tirade of abuse, telling his children when she dies that she was the bravest person he ever knew. “She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine, maybe… I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.” When he tells Scout that “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”, he is teaching her the importance of empathy. When she asks him if he’s a “nigger lover”, he calmly replies “I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody”. To Kill a Mockingbird ends with Atticus tucking Scout up in bed as she sleepily murmurs her new viewpoint on a neighbour she had feared: “Atticus, he was real nice”. And her father responds: “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

Atticus sees people as a whole, not defined by their opinions or prejudices but rather by their character and heart. There’s a redemption in this way of seeing the world: if someone is essentially good but blinkered, they can change their mind or be brought to think more deeply. If you assume that because someone holds a bad view they are a totally bad person, you have to throw the whole person away. Nothing they have ever done can be truly good, no part of them saved, loved, or respected. Atticus believes that humans are fundamentally equal in dignity, as he explains in the famous court room scene of To Kill a Mockingbird, even if they are not equal in other ways: “We know all men are not created equal in the sense that some people would have us believe―some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they are born with it, some men make more money than others […] But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal […] Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”

This version of Atticus hasn’t vanished into thin air in Go Set a Watchman. What we do discover is that he too is struggling to understand the bigger historical picture, to the point of considering the undeniably racist opinion that perhaps black people are intellectually less capable of development than white people.

Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life. They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of ’em voting than ever before. Then the NAACP stepped in with its fantastic demands and shoddy ideas of government - can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?

It is deeply shocking to modern readers that a man like Atticus would entertain this opinion even for a moment, the very man who fought the idea that a black man is less morally developed than a white man in To Kill a Mockingbird. But if you think about it, a good person can easily entertain an opinion which in the long run turns out to be baseless, whether scientifically or morally. Jean Louise’s problem (and the problem of the modern reader) is that she has idealised her father, making of him a moral compass, rather than a real person. What the novel demonstrates is that we need to keep respecting each other through our disagreements and evolving points of view. Atticus is still the one who shows us what it looks like to do this, as he patiently endures Jean Louise’s raging abuse.

“I’ve killed you, Scout. I had to.”
“Don’t give me any more double-talk! You’re a nice, sweet, old gentleman, and I’ll never believe a word you say to me again. I despise you and everything you stand for.”
“Well, I love you.”

This is in fact what sets Atticus apart from the bigotry that his brother describes at the end of the novel, when he reminds his niece that she herself is being driven by a partial perception.

Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience... Now you Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings--I'll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us.

n our ideologically driven times we are bound to encounter people who rage against us because they hold different opinions. Perhaps we’re the ones who do the raging. Whatever our beliefs or convictions, if we could respond as Atticus does, whether in the pursuit of justice or in the honest attempt to address real problems, there might be a little less destruction and a little more constructive discourse.

Sophie Caldecott is a freelance journalist, headline writer for Verily Magazine, and founder of A Better Place Journal.