Critic's Notebook: Is Harper Lee’s 'Go Set a Watchman' a Cliche of Writing About the South?

The bigoted Atticus and the disullisioned Scout of Harper Lee's hotly awaited new novel are versions of stock characters in mid-century literature about the American South.
Courtesy of HarperCollins

No one should be surprised by the news that Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, becomes a bigot that opposes the civil rights movement in the author's upcoming Go Set a Watchman. Fans of the beloved original, which civil rights legend and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young called “an act of humanity,” saying “here are people who rise above their prejudices and even above the law," will be infuriated. 

But the story of an adult Southerner who has moved to the North (in Scout’s case to New York City) and then is disillusioned by the racism and backwards thinking she sees on a return visit home — epitomized, in this case, by her father, Atticus — was a staple of mid-century southern literature. Indeed, Watchman (or at least what we can glean from the already released first chapter, as well as early reviews) reads like a cliché of 1950s writing.

Southern literature is indeed riddled with expatriates who love their native land, leave it for school or some other reason and then are disillusioned on their return as they see its original sin — racism — clearly for the first time.

It is no surprise that the great Mississippi writer Willie Morris titled his memoir North to Home.

Or take William Faulkner, who lived in Toronto for a period and moved out to California in the 1930s to write screenplays, and who played with this theme in the classic Absalom, Absalom. In one famous scene, Quentin, a young southerner at Harvard, tries to reconcile his love of his native region with a growing understanding of its racism and inequality.

"Tell about the South," said Shreve McCannon. "What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they?…Tell me one more thing. Why do you hate the South?"

"I don't hate it," Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; "I don't hate it," he said. "I don't hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don't. I don't! I don't hate it! I don't hate it!"

(Spoiler alert: Quentin can't come to terms with the gap between Southern myth and reality, so he jumps off a bridge).

Other examples include James Agee, who wrote Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, about rural poverty; Robert Penn Warren, whose All the King’s Men is the classic tale of southern demagoguery; and historian C. Vann Woodward, who left his native Arkansas for Yale University, where he wrote a devastating account of southern racism and inequality in The Strange Career of Jim Crow (a book whose influence was so great that Martin Luther King Jr. called it “the bible of the civil rights movement”). And the list goes on.

The real surprise of Watchman isn’t that Atticus — and the story in general — appears to embody and reflect major clichés of mid-century writing about the South; it is that Lee managed to transcend those very clichés in Mockingbird, writing a morally powerful and original novel with universal appeal.