The bigotry in “Watchman” is drawn broadly. The locals speak not only racial slurs but slurs against Catholics and Jews. But it is not without meaning that all of the people quoted speaking this way are portrayed by Ms. Lee as fools—either ignorant and proud of it or unknowingly stupid and remediable.
I was unjust in my email to my friend when I called it a bad book, but it is a curious one. It shows the awkwardness, the stops and starts, of the young writer. The protagonist, Jean Louise, is the one we agree with: Segregation is evil and must stop. And yet as a character she is drawn unappealingly, always making long speeches and hurling accusations at those who love her and brought her up. Atticus, now in his 70s, holds views the reader will reject, yet he is patient, sincere—more human as a character than his daughter. Sometimes as I read I thought: What was Harper Lee up to?
At the end Jean Louise realizes that her anger in part arises from moral displacement. All her life her father had been a person of unquestioned rectitude, and her admiration was such that she never quite developed an independent conscience of her own. Faced with a quandary she’d ask “What would Atticus do?” Now in the America of the 1950s, she would no longer be able to outsource her sense of right and wrong. She would have to grow up. And so, the book implies, would America.
So is the old Atticus gone? Are we bereft of a national hero? No.