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 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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10 Responses to “Harper Lee and the hero’s journey”

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  3. I would agree concerning GSaW, and it’s release was not without controversy as to whether Ms. Lee actually wanted it published (which is why I am still not sure I want to buy it). My point here, however was with Harper Lee’s own journey rather than the literary character of Atticus Finch

  4. Fred King says:

    I’ve only read GSaW once, and I need to read it a few more times before it sinks in. However, I’m reminded of Harry Golden’s* remarks when Stanley Kubrick’s film Lolita bombed in North Carolina–nobody could understand what all the fuss was about. Atticus a member of a citizen’s council? Not really surprising. He was born around the 1880s and was a member of the Quality**. Everything that was bred into his bones was being questioned. Even in the 1960s in North Florida*** there was a tendency for liberal whites to look down on black folk as people to be helped, not as true equals. Atticus believed in justice, which is why he got Tom Robinson acquitted. But I don’t think it ever occurred to him to believe in equality. (Did Calpurnia ever use the front door? I bet not.) Do I think less of him for it? No. He may have been patronizing, but not cruel. He defended Tom, not lynched him. He’d wait in line behind a black customer, not assume white privilege by going ahead of him. By his lights, he was a decent person, taking care of his people–a kind of noblesse oblige, and that always looking down upon someone, however kindly.

    In the early 1980s, I rented a basement apartment from a 65-ish white woman in rural Georgia. She told me once “I don’t have nothing but love in my heart for the nigras.**** But I wouldn’t want to eat with them, or have them as guests in my house, or anything like that.” That’s Atticus, but with his overlay of courtesy she didn’t have.

    For a wonderful recollection of the symbiotic relationship between blacks and whites in the rural south between the wars, and an exploration of terminology, see Ferrol Sams’ Run With the Horsemen. It also has some of the funniest passages I’ve ever read.


    What I don’t understand is how Jean Louise could be so breathtakingly oblivious of her environment while she was growing up. Didn’t she see the separate facilities for white and colored? Didn’t she notice the absence of black faces in her classrooms? True, fish aren’t aware of water, and it was probably so natural to her that she didn’t notice it at the time, but wouldn’t living in New York have been a major revelation? I don’t get the feeling it was. Maybe the story of her pregnancy was in there to show what little she knew (as Cal said), but could she really be that color blind? (And why was the baptism story in there???)

    It’s a good book, though not a great book. It hasn’t changed my opinion of TKaM–I need to find my copy and reread it, then read GSaW again.

    *Jewish writer, essayist, 1902-1981, editor and publisher of the Carolina Israelite
    **Southern caste system–white: quality, common, trash; black
    ***North Florida is part of the south; South Florida is part of the north. Only people who have lived there can understand this
    ****I can’t fault her for the use of “nigra,” which is vastly different from that other term I’m too liberal to type. It was the proper term for her time and upbringing. Read Ferrol Sams.

  5. trinu says:

    Go Set a Watchman is a first draft; there’s no need for such reconciliation. A theme of To Kill a Mockingbird was that otherwise decent people (like the Cunninghams) could be virulent racists, but it also went to portray Atticus as not being one of them. In fact there is reason to believe that the publicist, greedy for the royalties published Watchman without Lee’s consent, after a stroke conveniently left her incapable of voicing any objection.

  6. judybrowni says:

    I had the opposite experience.

    I grew up in small town becoming suburb New Jersey, somewhat ethnically mixed, but not racially.

    Lower middle class, and working class, white people.

    Then, when I was ten years old in 1960, my father’s work took us to Tennessee for the summer.

    I was a precocious child, already following the Civil Rights movement on TV, and reading black activist writers of the period, like James Baldwin.

    But nothing prepared me for the cold water shock and horror of Colored and White bathrooms and water fountains.

    And the threat of fire bombing the white Catholic church my mother brought us to.

    After the first Mass, my mother complimented one of the local church ladies on the pretty, white chapel.

    I’ll never forget her reply, “We like it — our last three got burned down.”

    Although I was already sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement, that was my first experience with bigotry that could threaten my lfe, and the lives of my family.

    A watershed moment, at age 10.

    It would be another half dozen years before black kids would be enrolled in my high school — and the girl of the family would be elected Queen of the Prom.

    And another couple before I’d live in a dorm with black students.

    And another couple before I’d have a friend who dated someone black.

  7. slavdude says:

    One correction: title is Go Set a Watchman, but otherwise good info here. I just got my dead-tree copy and can’t wait to read it.

  8. Todd Hancock says:

    I think your argument is moot considering GSaW was never meant for publication. It is the first draft of what would later be retitled To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch did not transform, because Harper Lee scrapped the character and created a new one to better reflect her own father, the model of Atticus. This is reflected by Michiko Kakutani, Jonathan Mahler, and her editor Hohoff. Atticus Finch was never a racist, the same as Darth Vader never killed Luke’s father because the characters changed in development. GSaW is exploitative of an old woman. We already read the story in TKaM. GSaW was a discarded first draft.

  9. Bose says:

    In mainstream TV interviews on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and colleagues were asked precisely whether they were pressing for too much progress, too soon, and whether Black Americans were prepared for the responsibility of full citizenship.

    So, “looking upon black people as if they were children not ready for the full equality of citizenship” was hardly an extreme fringe or unspeakable perspective.

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