Defending “To Kill a Mockingbird” against Watchman-ism.

At the Daily Beast, Allen Barra doesn’t like To Kill a Mocking Bird, and suggests, to my horror, that Go Set a Watchman will be better. Is such a thing possible?  (Note: I started this blog post after initial excerpts had been released, but before the book was out.)

Barra claims that in the years Watchman went unreleased, the world missed out on a rich and complex story, and instead got a “simplistic and soothing” one. Yes, a soothing story in which features an abused girl trying to seduce a black man; a lynch mob; two children who get in the way of the lynch mob, and appear to be in danger of violence; a mysterious man locked in his house; a rape trial in which an innocent man is sentenced to death; and the attempted murder of two children.

In Mockingbird, good characters have to figure out how to live ethically in a deeply flawed society. One can be like Atticus Finch. He largely conforms and compromises up to a point but is absolutely unyielding when he believes his integrity is at stake. He gets through life by seeing others’ point of view and seeing the good in everyone, but this makes him a bit naïve. On the other hand one can be uncompromising and cut oneself off from society altogether, like Boo Radley, the stark alternative to Atticus’s compromises. Jem, Scout, and Dill Harrison don’t appear to be destined to fully embrace either approach; they appear on their way to finding their own alternatives. Dolphus Raymond simply rejects white society and lives with a black woman, pretending to be the town drunk in order to avoid repercussions.

In Watchman, there is no such difficulty: exposure to a better society, a college in New York, simply redeems Scout from her flawed roots. It promises to be as rich and complex as the Archie Bunker show.

Barra’s claims Mockingbird eclipsed the work of other, better Southern writers (William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and so on) because politics fit the civil rights era, and that this politics creates a simplistic, good-versus-evil tale. Yet it is he who is reducing literature to politics, reading Mockingbird as a political tract rather than a story about life or even Southern society: (“At the end of the book, we know exactly what our instincts told us halfway through, that Atticus is a good man, that Tom Robinson, a cipher of a character on paper, is an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad.”) As we’ll see, his own objections to the book are largely political, based on the view that Mockingbird allows too much ambiguity. He might not think saintly Atticus is realistic, but he can’t have his bad guys evil enough.

Barra claims Atticus is “virtuously dull,” that his moral teachings “appeal to a child’s mentality.” But his objection is not that they are straightforwardly true, and therefore boring; his objection is that he disagrees with them. If Mockingbird isn’t defending the obviously, incontrovertibly true, then it isn’t so dull after all, is it?


Here’s Barra on Atticus’s morality: “’The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.’ To which a skeptical reader might reply: Okay, yes, that sounds noble when it refers to questions of racial equality. But Atticus doesn’t tell us how we should respond when someone’s conscience tells them (sic) that the Confederate battle flag should fly over the town square or that gay marriage is wrong on ‘religious grounds.’” How very topical and contemporary a concern! Until just a few years ago, it was a given that culture celebrated individual conscience, but this being 2015, individual conscience has taken on rather pejorative connotations and associations, and many, like Barra, hold it in great suspicion. It is a Hobbesian moment, full of worries about individual conscience disrupting the social order. Barra’s review is as much a product of our time as the TV series retelling the story of Thomas Moore and portraying the state as the good guy and the Catholic and his individual conscience as the villain.

So what to do with the person with a troublesome individual conscience? Well, you could at least try to leave him alone, so far as possible. But Barra’s question is really a misplaced one. The question Atticus faces is not to do with someone else whose conscience disagrees with you; the question is what to do about your own convictions when they run against society.

The morality Atticus teaches Scout is simple in the sense that a child can understand it, but there is no guarantee that a more complicated moral code is more correct than a simple one. Of course it is true that Atticus has to make his teachings understandable by a child; but Scout is a highly intelligent child, and he doesn’t talk down to her.   And anyway, social conformity is something every child can understand much more easily than individual conscience; Scout herself shows an instinctive understanding of it, whereas her individual conscience has to develop and mature.

Barra’s critique of Atticus continues. Atticus: “Why do reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up is something I can’t pretend to understand.” Barra has it all figured out: “What Atticus doesn’t seem to understand is that anyone who goes stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up isn’t a reasonable person in the first place.” Atticus: “If you can learn a reasonable trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…” Barra: “Oh, I don’t know about that. I think it’s fairly easy to understand the point of view of Dylann Roof. Nor do I particularly want to get along better with people like him.”

Well, that’s very easy to do when racism is so marginal that we can relegate it to the likes of Dylann Roof, a lunatic mass shooter and extreme social outlier. What if the mainstream of society, family members, most of your townspeople are devoted to entrenching white supremacy? Then one doesn’t have the privilege of simply refusing to deal with them, and even understand them; or of writing them off as generally unreasonable.  Unless one wants to go the Boo Radley route.

Barra: “At times, Finch’s sugar-coated myths are downright offensive, as when he tells Scout the “real” story of the Ku Klux Klan. ‘Way back around 1920, there was a Klan. But it was a political organization more than anything. Besides, they couldn’t find anyone to scare.’ He goes on to explain that Klansmen gathered one night at the home of Sam Levy, a Jewish friend of his, and ‘Sam made them so ashamed of themselves they went away.’ I wouldn’t have thought that anyone near or above the age of Scout could read this passage—as blatantly false a characterization of the KKK as D.W. Griffith’s in Birth of A Nation—and not feel that their intelligence had been insulted.”

I don’t have time to look it up, but I’m over 99% sure this is out of context, and Atticus was talking about the Klan in Maycomb, and how it was never really serious there. Atticus’s unwillingness to believe the worst of others sometimes leads him astray, (sometimes it doesn’t- he’s a complicated character) but no, Mockingbird is not Birth of A Nation.


I don’t know anything about any of the Southern authors Barra lists as being better than Harper Lee, but I have a vague idea of most of them as writers whose appeal is to intellectual types. One other book by a Southern writer comes obviously to mind as having mass appeal, that of course being Gone With the Wind. Its appeal of that book certainly doesn’t come from its alignment with enlightened politics, as Barra dismissively alleges about Mockingbird, but he isn’t any happier about it, because its politics are unenlightened. He’s a tough guy to please. “[Mockingbird] was proudly displayed in the living rooms of countless homes alongside Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, a paradox that has never been fully reconciled, or even recognized, by Southerners.”*

It’s almost as if there is more to literature than taking political sides! Both books are rooted in Southern culture and history, both tell important stories, both have real characters and are about real life. Watchman seems to be a political conversation, without any real setting. Again, it appears the Scout of Watchman has simply left the South and been redeemed, so there is no struggle and no real story.

* ”Life is full of paradoxes for fools.” – P.J. O’Rourke