To Kill A Watchman

We lost Harper Lee this week, author of the renown “To Kill A Mockingbird” and the troubling “Go Set A Watchman” more recently. I’m pretty sure I saw the movie version of “Mockingbird” before I ever read the novel. At least it is now impossible for me to separate the towering figure of Atticus Finch from Gregory Peck’s masterful portrayal in that film.

It is said that, because the novel was read by many high school students, the figure of Atticus Finch inspired a generation of lawyers and it would not surprise me if this was not so. Growing up in the South, I was wrestling with all the complexities of the civil rights movement in those same 1960s.

Struggling with my own racism and that of my family, I read everything James Baldwin ever wrote, trying to get inside the mind and heart of a Black American and to understand just what the systemic racism of our country had done to the soul of an entire people. I knew few white people in my immediate experience who rose to the level of heroism demonstrated by Atticus in that first novel, but reading it at least gave me the hope that such persons could exist.

Naturally, I was ecstatic when “Go Set A Watchman” was discovered and may have been among the first to order it. It was a devastating read. The compassionate hero of my youth was portrayed not as a compassionate spokesman for justice, but as not all that different from his racist community, worried about desegregation and the pace at which the civil rights movement was progressing in the 1950s.

Could these two books have been written by the same author? If they were, in what order did they appear? Perhaps “Watchman” was a kind of first attempt, infinitely improved upon by the later “Mockingbird.” The general understanding today, accepted by the New York Times in today’s tribute to Lee is that they were indeed both written by her and in the order we received them.

One explanation is that the author was indeed depicting the same man (based not all that loosely) upon her lawyer-father who in the 1930s could exhibit a kind of concern and lawyerly support for a Black man wrongly accused.  And, yet with the passage of years and the challenges of the rapidly changing world of the 1950s in race relations and the impending transformation of the South and many of the “values” it represented, he could revert to the incipient racism and white privilege of his culture and come off as a much diminished character because of it.

I believe that it is possible scenario, as painful as it is to consider. One can see some of the same ambivalence in Lyndon Johnson and even John F. Kennedy as they lived through some of the same period.

I wish “Go Set A Watchman” had never been published.

But then, I wish the world was perfect too.

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