Harper Lee and the hero’s journey

Harper Lee recently released Go Set a Watchman, a novel initially rejected by the publisher that would eventually publish To Kill a Mockingbird. Literary critics, cultural observers and anyone with an attachment to their eighth grade English class have taken a particular interest in Go Set a Watchman‘s portrayal of Atticus Finch, the attorney in To Kill a Mockingbird who launches a famous defense of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

In Go Set a Watchman, contra the commonly accepted interpretation  in To Kill a Mockingbird, Finch is portrayed as a racist, looking upon black people as if they were children not ready for the full equality of citizenship. He is even a member of the White Citizen’s Council, and opposes desegregation.

Many seem to be feeling dazed over the fact that Atticus Finch, or probably more accurately, Gregory Peck’s cinematic version of Atticus Finch, could be so much a part of the Southern racist mindset. Much will be said about the literary value of Go Set a Watchman, and much analysis will be given regarding the protagonist of both of Harper Lee’s novels in light of the new information that has now been made public. Instead of literary criticism, I would like to take a look at the literary dilemma of Go Set a Watchman in light of Harper Lee’s own journey. I see it as what Joseph Campbell has called, “the hero’s journey.”

The Traveler Comes Home

In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise (whom we knew previously as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird) is a young adult woman who has been living in New York City, and returns to her Southern hometown to be dismayed by the racism she sees in her beloved father. It has long been noted that the gentlemanly Southern lawyer, Atticus Finch, is based upon Harper Lee’s own father who was an influential lawyer in the small southern town of Monroeville, Alabama. In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise’s experience is too similar to the author’s own life not to wonder about the autobiographical nature of the writing. After all, Harper Lee had left Monroeville, Alabama to live and work in New York City.

Atticus Finch, via Wikimedia Commons

Atticus Finch, via Wikimedia Commons

Remember that this was the late 1950s, when the South was still under Jim Crow laws, fully segregated and resisting implementation of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education. The paternalistic view held by Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is characteristic of many educated whites of the time, and a view that might have been considered “forward thinking” by fellow Southerners. The problem is that Jean Louise has seen the world, and now sees her own town and its people in a different light.

I am a Southerner, born and raised in a small town in Alabama, and I can speak to the effects that travel can have upon one’s perception of things back home. I first went to the big city to go to college, and then I went, not to New York, but to the San Francisco Bay Area for three and a half years. My trek was in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and I can attest to the feelings of shock and dismay when revisiting one’s hometown with a renewed vision, seeing the racist attitudes on display. Those attitudes had always been there — they were part and parcel of my own upbringing — but I could not see them clearly until I spent some significant time away from the South.

A Hero’s Vision

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell outlines a common archetype in mythology, in which the hero makes a long journey to a distant land. He is changed in the process of that journey by the things he encounters (in mythology, it is often a magical realm of unsuspected challenge and/or danger). Eventually the hero returns home with a new vision and gives hope and courage to his people based upon the transformation that his journey has wrought within him. Psychologists tell us that these mythological archetypes are present in all of us, and that we each live out these various archetypes to some extent. I would submit that Harper Lee made that hero’s journey, and while her initial return home is reflected in Go Set a Watchman, her transformative work is seen in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Having made my own journey out and back home again, I can attest to the dismay in realizing that the people I revered and who nurtured and taught me so much could also exhibit racist tendencies. I cannot claim to be on a hero’s journey, but I think I understand some of the factors at play in its archetypal expression. I can see how Harper Lee would have been frustrated by of her friends back home, but since these are her loved ones, there is more than frustration. When our travels break us free from those regional bonds — lifting the blinders from our eyes, so to speak — our first impulse is to demand that that everyone else “see the light” just as we have. The problem is that they have not left home; they have not been on that long, transformative journey. The returning hero, as mythology points out, must then find some way to open the eyes of his people.

The Transformative Power of Story

Harper Lee found a way to open the eyes of her people, and was able to craft the transformative work that would enable all of us to see ourselves in a new light. In other words, she completed the hero’s journey when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. She found something redemptive in that racist Southern culture that would give us all hope that things can be better than they are now. When To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, most Southern whites were denying that there was a problem to be confronted — or rather that the problem was the very assertion of a problem. Resistance against civil rights was widespread throughout the South. Harper Lee, however, not only gave hope to the movement for racial equality, she also showed the white people in power that there was some decency within them; they did not have to be trapped in an evil racist system.  Not only was there hope for blacks to throw off the shackles of oppression, there was hope for whites to throw off their own shackles of bitter racism.

We were not there in 1960. Though we have made some progress, we are still not there in 2015. Thanks to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (which we now see came about by way of wrestling with the harsh realities of a racist culture in Go Set a Watchman), we have a transformative gift given to us by that hero with a thousand faces. Harper Lee took a hard, painful look at the racist South, and she found that element within our own culture that could save us from ourselves. That gift, it turns out, is universal – it is not just for the South. That saving grace in the midst of injustice and oppression that we see in To Kill a Mockingbird has resonated through the years all over the world.

Many have left the South and have been changed by the experience of living somewhere else – tracing the hero’s journey. Many left never to come back, but some returned. While others have come back home and tried to make a difference, only Harper Lee has returned to the South and given us something so astounding as To Kill a Mockingbird. Rather than mourn over the clay feet of a fictional character, or fret over the awkwardness of literary first drafts, I choose to be grateful for Harper Lee and the hero’s journey that she has shared with to world.

Charles Kinnaird
Charles Kinnaird is one of those English Majors who went on to find gainful employment in the varied fields of teaching, social services, and healthcare. He makes his home in the South with his family along with a menagerie of pets. His writing interests, as seen on his blog, Not Dark Yet (http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com), include politics, spirituality, social commentary, and striving toward the common good.

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