- The Sexual Politics of Massive Resistance
Atticus Finch. We should have killed that idol long ago. We didn’t.
After an advance review of Go Set a Watchman (2015) appeared in The New York Times, many fans of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) were shocked to learn that Harper Lee’s newly published novel depicts Atticus as a racist. Despite the popular outcry that Atticus’s racism elicited from twenty-first-century fans, Mockingbird has always been more racially problematic than many readers seem to think, and southern literature scholars have long had reservations about its depictions of white liberalism. Unfortunately, these reservations haven’t worked their way into print. Although there’s plenty of scholarship on To Kill a Mockingbird, most of it isn’t suspicious of the novel’s approving depiction of the white savior complex. Criticism of Lee’s portrayal of Atticus in that book has often come from unlikely sources, including Malcolm Gladwell and law professor Monroe H. Freeman.1 Lee’s first novel also isn’t [End Page 705] taught much at the college level. Professors assume that students have already read it in middle or high school or believe that the novel doesn’t hold up to close reading and class discussion; its themes seem to be readily identifiable and easily understood. Perhaps we too have been somewhat lulled into acceptance of Lee’s nostalgic depiction of southern paternalism and noblesse oblige, but I suspect that there are at least three other contributing factors as to why Lee’s novel isn’t taught much at the college level or closely scrutinized by literary critics: like Gone with the Wind (another important but infrequently taught novel), Mockingbird was written by a woman, it’s southern, and it has sold tremendously well for over fifty years. Whatever the case may be, Mockingbird remains an extremely popular, frequently misread book, and we, as literary critics, haven’t helped matters. Watchman is our wake-up call: it’s time to rethink our assumptions about it and about Harper Lee’s place in American culture.
The first thing we need to reconsider is Atticus’s centrality to discussions of Lee’s work. To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t his story. Go Set a Watchman isn’t either. Rather, Atticus’s daughter, Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, is the protagonist of both novels. I find her racism, and her capitulation to white southern massive resistance to integration in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954, to be more troubling—and more interesting—than Atticus’s. Although the topic of race has dominated discussions of Watchman, much of the novel focuses on the strictures of white southern womanhood and compulsory heterosexuality. Go Set a Watchman begins in 1955 as Jean Louise returns to Maycomb for her annual visit. An aspiring artist, she has been living in New York City for five years, working pink-collar jobs and taking painting classes at night. Jean Louise chafes under the pressure of stultifying gender roles: to wear gloves and a hat when she leaves the house; to marry a horribly conventional suitor named Henry; to move back to Maycomb to become her ailing father’s live-in caretaker; and [End Page 706] most of all, to represent the Finch family by adopting the norms of southern ladyhood. Narrated in third person, Watchman closely follows Jean Louise’s experiences as she navigates the mutually constitutive relations between southern femininity, middle-class professionalism, white privilege, and segregation. In so doing, she must not only confront her father’s racism but reconsider her own position in Maycomb and her assumptions about southern culture. Unfortunately, Jean Louise—and Harper Lee—isn’t up to the task. The novel is, in large part, about the patriarchal nature of white supremacy, and therein lie both its strengths and its weaknesses. Its exploration of sexism, classism, and racism in the Jim Crow South alternates between astute and clumsy. Watchman is, in some ways, a product of its time—that is, circa 1957, when it was apparently first...