I don’t think it would be too much to claim that the publication this summer of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been the literary event of the year, but it isn’t the novel’s literary value that makes it so significant. Rather, Lee’s new (old) novel is a cultural signifier of profound importance, and it is as such that I wish to approach it here as a topic for semiotic analysis.
Of course I am writing this after much of the dust has already settled on the matter. It has been widely explained that Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird but is actually an earlier draft. And it is quite well known that the Atticus Finch who appears in Watchman is hardly the saintly hero of Mockingbird. In fact, he is someone who is a far more likely representation of mid-twentieth-century small-town southern (white) opinion, especially on racial matters, than is the Atticus that we have come to know and love so well—a nod to realism that might have been applauded by historically-minded reviewers. But that, of course, hasn’t been the dominant response at all. Instead, the reaction has been one of more or less shocked betrayal. Gregory Peck, Peck’s own son has intimated, may just be rolling in his grave.
The question for cultural semiotics, however, is not why Lee changed the character of Atticus Finch so much between drafts (though this is a fascinating question for literary history, possibly involving the emergence of another Maxwell Perkins); the cultural semiotic question is, why is the change so important? Why have so many readers been so shaken?
In answering such questions I can refer back to a blog I wrote here a few years ago in which I noted that, lovely and heartwarming as To Kill a Mockingbird is, there is an uncomfortable hitch in it which lies in the way that the novel basically shifted the responsibility for southern bigotry away from the upper and middle classes onto the shoulders of the lower classes, the “white trash” to which such clans as the Ewells belong. Living the life of a modest middle-class lawyer (who is actually descended from an old plantation family), Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch joins his middle-class neighbors and colleagues (the town Sheriff, the local Judge) in resisting the lynch mob mentality of people who are clearly identified as “red neck” troublemakers. While it is true that Atticus Finch’s sister, who still lives on the family plantation at Finch’s landing (but who does not appear in the movie), is also no paragon of racial tolerance, it is the patently evil Bob Ewell that readers are going to remember as the face of southern bigotry.
Thus, Atticus Finch performed a service for white middle-class Americans when he first appeared in the midst of the turmoil of the Civil Rights era. While images of identifiably middle-class southerners could be seen on TV screaming in the faces of black school children being escorted by federal marshals onto the grounds of newly desegregated school campuses, the upright figure of Atticus Finch, who was a southerner to boot, stood as a reassuring symbol of a fundamental human decency. No nobler man has appeared in American fiction, and when that man is portrayed by Gregory Peck, one of Hollywood’s most magnificent specimens of manhood and character, you have the makings of a really profound cultural icon with extraordinary powers of healing.
But now, at a time of intense racial uneasiness, the prospect of Atticus Finch falling off his pedestal threatens to undo all that. I suspect, however, that America really can’t afford to lose the good Atticus, and so will protect him from his earlier avatar through the simple device of isolating him within the confines of the work of art called To Kill a Mockingbird, leaving the Atticus of that rather inferior work of art called Go Set a Watchman to literary historians, set aside as an aesthetic curiosity but not taken as a credible threat to a fictive man that Americans continue to need to be real.