Unless you’ve been living under a rock, by now you should know that Harper Lee’s prior-in-time sequel to “To Kill A Mockingbird” was published today. Perhaps the greatest surprise in “Go Set a Watchman” is that Atticus Finch, the icon, is now portrayed as a bigot.
In one of the more fascinating and surreal scenes, Atticus and Scout (here known as Jean Louise) have an extended conversation about the Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Tenth Amendment.
Her father leaned back in his chair. He said, “Jean Louise, you’ve been reading nothing but New York papers. I’ve no doubt all you see is wild threats and bombings and such. The Maycomb council’s not like the North Alabama and Tennessee kinds. Our council’s composed of and led by our own people. I bet you saw nearly every man in the county yesterday, and you knew nearly every man there.”
“Yes sir, I did. Every man from that snake Willoughby on down.”
“Each man there was probably there for a different reason,” said her father.
No war was ever fought for so many different reasons. Who said that? “Yeah, but they all met for one reason.”
“I can tell you the two reasons I was there. The Federal Government and the NAACP. Jean Louise, what was your first reaction to the Supreme Court decision?”
That was a safe question. She would answer him.
“I was furious,” she said.
She was. She had known it was coming, knew what it would be, had thought she was prepared for it, but when she bought a newspaper on the street corner and read it, she stopped at the first bar she came to and drank down a straight bourbon.
“Well sir, there they were, tellin’ us what to do again—”
Her father grinned. “You were merely reacting according to your kind,” he said. “When you started using your head, what did you think?”
“Nothing much, but it scared me. It seemed all backward— they were putting the cart way out in front of the horse.”
He was prodding her. Let him. They were on safe ground. “Well, in trying to satisfy one amendment, it looks like they rubbed out another one. The Tenth. It’s only a small amendment, only one sentence long, but it seemed to be the one that meant the most, somehow.”
“Did you think this out for yourself?”
“Why, yes sir. Atticus, I don’t know anything about the Constitution. . . .”
“You seem to be constitutionally sound so far. Proceed.”
Proceed with what? Tell him she couldn’t look him in the eye? He wanted her views on the Constitution, then he’d have ’em: “Well, it seemed that to meet the real needs of a small portion of the population, the Court set up something horrible that could— that could affect the vast majority of folks. Adversely, that is. Atticus, I don’t know anything about it— all we have is the Constitution between us and anything some smart fellow wants to start, and there went the Court just breezily canceling one whole amendment, it seemed to me. We have a system of checks and balances and things, but when it comes down to it we don’t have much check on the Court, so who’ll bell the cat? Oh dear, I’m soundin’ like the Actors Studio.”
“Nothing. I’m— I’m just trying to say that in trying to do right we’ve left ourselves open for something that could be truly dangerous to our set-up.” She ran her fingers through her hair. She looked at the rows of brown-and-black bound books, law reports, on the wall opposite. She looked at a faded picture of the Nine Old Men on the wall to the left of her. Is [JB: Owen?] Roberts dead? she wondered. She could not remember.
Her father’s voice was patient: “You were saying—?” “Yes sir. I was saying that I— I don’t know much about government and economics and all that, and I don’t want to know much, but I do know that the Federal Government to me, to one small citizen, is mostly dreary hallways and waiting around. The more we have, the longer we wait and the tireder we get. Those old mossbacks on the wall up there knew it— but now, instead of going about it through Congress and the state legislatures like we should, when we tried to do right we just made it easier for them to set up more hallways and more waiting—”
Her father sat up and laughed.
“I told you I didn’t know anything about it.”
“Sweet, you’re such a states’ rightist you make me a Roosevelt Liberal by comparison.”
Atticus said, “Now that I’ve adjusted my ear to feminine reasoning, I think we find ourselves believing the very same things.”
She had been half willing to sponge out what she had seen and heard, creep back to New York, and make him a memory. A memory of the three of them, Atticus, Jem, and her, when things were uncomplicated and people did not lie. But she would not have him compound the felony.
She could not let him add hypocrisy to it: “Atticus, if you believe all that, then why don’t you do right? I mean this, that no matter how hateful the Court was, there had to be a beginning—”
“You mean because the Court said it we must take it? No ma’am. I don’t see it that way. If you think I for one citizen am going to take it lying down, you’re quite wrong. As you say, Jean Louise, there’s only one thing higher than the Court in this country, and that’s the Constitution—”
“You are inconsistent,” said her father mildly.
“You slang the Supreme Court within an inch of its life, then you turn around and talk like the NAACP.”
“Good Lord, I didn’t get mad with the Court because of the Negroes. Negroes slapped the brief on the bench, all right, but that wasn’t what made me furious. I was ravin’ at what they were doing to the Tenth Amendment and all the fuzzy thinking. The Negroes were—”
Earlier in the book, Atticus refers to Brown this way:
“I mean about the Supreme Court’s bid for immortality.”
Wow! I need to digest Atticus talking about the 10th Amendment and federalism.
Also, this scene offers a flashback to a distorted version of the trial of Tom Robinson where he is (gasp!) acquitted because he proved the sex was consensual, and the defendant (who is not even named) had lost his arm in a sawmill accident:
Against Mr. O’Hanlon’s humming harangue, a memory was rising to dispute him: the courtroom shifted imperceptibly, in it she looked down on the same heads. When she looked across the room a jury sat in the box, Judge Taylor was on the bench, his pilot fish sat below in front of him writing steadily; her father was on his feet: he had risen from a table at which she could see the back of a kinky woolly head. . . . Atticus Finch rarely took a criminal case; he had no taste for criminal law. The only reason he took this one was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy go to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense. The boy had come to him by way of Calpurnia, told him his story, and had told him the truth. The truth was ugly. Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl. Atticus had two weighty advantages: although the white girl was fourteen years of age the defendant was not indicted for statutory rape, therefore Atticus could and did prove consent. Consent was easier to prove than under normal conditions— the defendant had only one arm. The other was chopped off in a sawmill accident. Atticus pursued the case to its conclusion with every spark of his ability and with an instinctive distaste so bitter only his knowledge that he could live peacefully with himself was able to wash it away. After the verdict, he walked out of the courtroom in the middle of the day, walked home, and took a steaming bath. He never counted what it cost him; he never looked back. He never knew two pairs of eyes like his own were watching him from the balcony.