The Three Sins of Harper Lee

Warning: This post contains spoilers. Go read the book. Now.

Many people owe a debt to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. My wife and I owe several. I began life as a high-school English teacher remembering Mockingbird as the first book to really light up under the eye. Walter Cunningham’s playground attack on innocent-children-dressed-as-seasonal-vegetables gave me my first jolt of effective gothic horror. I never wore a zucchini suit again without regularly checking my blind spots.

My wife became a lawyer after a twenty-year mental apprenticeship to Atticus Finch (and some hundreds of episodes of Law & Order). Atticus Finch has turned so many children into lawyers that he ought be either thanked (or tried) for it.

Together, my wife and I bestowed names of both author and character from Mockingbird upon two of our children, including one child called Finley Gillies Atticus Crosweller – a name so baroquely Southern-rococo-excessive that Harper Lee might laugh in approval.

Point is, we adore To Kill a Mockingbird. When Anna Funder wrote in the Herald that she feared Harper Lee might suffer damage from a second book, I thought she was being over-cautious. I could not see how Lee could hit a bum note. Mockingbird was so musical, so playful, so well-judged in tone that I couldn’t see her putting a foot wrong. After reading Go Set a Watchmen I am still not sure she has put a foot wrong, but she has certainly put them all over the good furniture.

Go Set a Watchmen commits a number of offenses against contemporary mores. You would think it could be forgiven for this, since it is not contemporary. But Watchman hits notes so weird and strange that dogs would struggle to hear them. They set to make more than one human howl.

So what are the three sins of Harper Lee? One is literary (this one is a real sin), one is historical (this one is a real eye-opener), and the last is philosophical (this one is for our good).

The Literary Sin: ‘Her uncle was out of character’

Go Set a Watchman begins extraordinarily well. It seems impossible to think that the book was written before Mockingbird, for it picks up in tone right where the subsequent book leaves off (bends the mind, doesn’t it?). Reading Lee’s prose again I was struck by the economy of line. Or rather, the mixed economy of line. Long, loping sentences are laid out by sharp, witty jabs.

Home was Maycomb County, a gerrymander some seventy miles long and spreading thirty miles at its widest point, a wilderness dotted with tiny settlements the largest of which was Maycomb, the county seat.

The landscape rolls by languidly. Then you are rocked in your seat:

If you did not want much, there was plenty.


Lee’s love of small-town landscape are here again too. The making of Maycomb really bellows to Mockingbird, but even without its influence I would happily stop for a sandwich.

Astute observations of social and cultural mores remain. The harrowing of Anglican and Methodist hymnody in chapter 7 is perfectly tuned (unlike most hymnody), and worth the price of admission alone.

So where is the literary sin? It is that Lee abandons her characters.

At first, they are painted so precisely. Atticus’ famous fob-watch is augmented by a wristwatch – to compensate for the times when his now arthritic hands cannot access his vest-pocket. He still speaks silence like soliloquies. Scout has become an adult Jean-Louise, but if her fire might be thought to have sensibly gone out by adulthood, no-one told the woman shovelling the coal. Lee keeps her steaming all the way into station. A character I don’t remember from Mockingbird, Dr. Jack Finch, is introduced. He is Atticus’ brother, Jean-Louise’s uncle, and is critical to the story. He is well-drawn at first – a small-town doctor, who has spent at least as much time cultivating an eccentric love for obscure Victorian literature as he has on dressing small-town wounds.

And then here’s where it all goes wrong. Page 226. Here the novel loses its way. From here on out it is all talk. The novel gives way not merely to dialogue but to a thinly-masked Socratic dialogue. Characters disappear. Eccentricities begin to go unnoticed. Jean-Louise’s finely-balanced wit is gone. Atticus speaks in platitudes. Admittedly, he has done so before, but damn it, they used to work! It’s all ideas, ideas, ideas!

In novels the best ideas are character-full. But Socratic dialogues work by putting one difficult idea into a false drama of multiple, thin characters. It does not matter that they are characters – their job is not to be real people but to simply throw an idea back and forth until the idea is brought to a satisfactory resolution. From page 226 the difficult idea is thrown back and forth to the point where it achieves a resolution wholly unsatisfactory.

Late in proceedings Jean-Louise says ‘For the second time in her memory, her uncle was out of character.’ By this point, he really is. He has literally run out of it. What is left of him is less character, than position.

I would read this book again and again for its first half. The first two-hundred pages are as good as any in Mockingbird. I settled into it with delight. I just didn’t expect Socrates to sit down at counter in Maycomb and gab for so long.

More fool me, given Lee’s hero is Attic by name. I guess we had it coming? Nonetheless, it jars badly.

A Historical Sin: Being Historical

This is a real eye-opener. The central idea of Watchman is a historical analysis of the process of segregation and integration that will make even a contemporary Dubois blanche. I shook as I read.

Barack Obama introduced the 50th Anniversary screening of To Kill a Mockingbird with these words:

It still speaks to us, and it still tells us something about who we are as a people, and the common values we all share. (Barack Obama, April 5th, 2012)

But Watchman does not speak of this at all. Watchman highlights exactly the unshared values that threaten the unity of the people.

The central philosophical idea of the book is how to put up with people who believe things that make us want to vomit, and not merely put up with them, but love them.  More on this in a moment, for it sounds almost fine until you hear the historical particular.

In detail, the idea is whether we can tolerate racists. Jean-Louise finds Atticus sharing a platform at a citizen’s council with a seriously crazed racist segregationist, Grady O’Hanlon. Atticus introduces the man to the council and passes no comment upon a tirade of racist vitriol. We see our greek-named literary god falling before our eyes. It is awful to behold. Jean-Louise speaks for us when she says to Atticus, ‘Yes sir, I’m upset about something. That citizen’s council in’ you’re doing. I think it’s disgusting and I’ll tell you that right now.’ (page 238)

To our shock, the Socratic dialogue of Watchmen – the difficult idea – does not resolve in Jean-Louise’s favour, but in Atticus’ and Hank’s and Uncle Jack’s. It resolves in favour of a go-slow path out of segregation. There is even a patronising little vignette at the last where Jean-Louise, who has been bumping into things all over Maycomb in her out-of-placeness, ducks into a car and for the first time doesn’t bump her head. Point? She has learnt ‘accommodation’. She leaves enough give-room.

This turns all our readings of Mockingbird on their head, and our worship of Atticus.

C.S.Lewis once said that it is good to read old books,

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. (‘On the reading of old books’, Introduction to an edition of On the Incarnation)

C.S.Lewis is right. The very strangeness of Watchman’s worldview means it is impossible to accept it as simply as we did Mockingbird. We read Mockingbird as of-our-culture. Watchman gives us no illusions. Maycomb is foreign country to us.

This is a real eye-opener.

A Philosophical Sin: Tolerance beyond toleration

But where Watchman becomes important, for all its literary inconsistency and historical awkwardness, is its entirely contemporary investigation of the philosophy/theology of tolerance. It is a really good point, made in the worst possible way. The questions stands, ‘How do you live in the presence of people you violently disagree with?’. Jean-Louise imagines living in Maycomb among her opponents and says,

‘What on earth could I do? I couldn’t fight them….’

Uncle Jack outlines the matter at hand to Jean-Louise like this:

‘I don’t mean by fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends…teh time your friends need you is when they’re wrong., Jean-Louise. They don’t need you when you’re right…’

Uncle Jack has a point. What do you do with people you violently disagree with?

Resort to violence? Certainly not of any personal kind. Of course, where the law is against an opponent the violence of a forced removal from society is entirely consistent with our polity. But in this case the law was not against the racists. What do you do?

Most readers of Watchman who have found the courthouse racism beyond bearing have not had to face the question. They have had the luxury of being able to resign their racist enemies back to Lee’s 1950’s.

Uncle Jack had an answer. He resolutely calls his opponents his ‘friends’, and works, lives and socialises among them. It is not a platitude. He is seeking change without belligerently knocking over people. It is at least an answer.

Let’s push things forward. If homophobia is the new racism (as I am often told), what will people do if they conclude that someone is homophobic? How could they live with them? Let’s define homophobic here not as an utterly beyond-the-pale vilifier of gays, but as plain ‘can’t quite agree with all of contemporary sexual political doctrine’.

It is still quite lawful to not fall into line on all matters of sexual-political doctrine (the law could hardly keep up with its’ doctrinal changes anyway) – but again, if this is the ‘new racism’ what are people to do? Uncle Jack says, “So watch ya going to do now, Jean-Louise? Watch ya going to do with the mildly offensive conscience-driven homophobe?”.

At least he has a non-coercive answer to this, and it is because he was reading not only from the book of Jim Crow, but also from the book of Matthew and it’s ‘love for enemies’. His answer is confused, but at least he has one. I am not sure the critic’s of the book have one at all.

Where there is no answer to that question, the question of free conscience, there will be force. And that is why the final sin of Watchman is entirely for our good.

But Lee has broken too many commandments, and no good can come of it.