Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

book cover Atticus Finch as racist. There it is. Tough to swallow, isn’t it? Atticus Finch, the embodiment of decency, brought to life in To Kill a Mockingbird, widely considered one of the greatest novels in American literature, magnificently brought to cinematic life by Gregory Peck in the film, defender of the powerless, dispenser of wisdom, a hero to generations of readers and movie-goers, spouting opinions that do or should make most folks cringe. Here are a few samples:

…You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward’ don’t you?

…If the scales were tipped over, what would you have? The county won’t keep a full board of registrars, because if the Negro vote edged out the white you’d have Negroes in every county office—

…I’d like my state to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP, which knows next to nothing about its business and cares less.

…do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?

So what are we to make of this?

First, let’s step back from the this version versus that one controversy and consider the book on its own. Jean Louise Finch (JLF) is returning to her home town for the fifth time since moving from Maycomb, Alabama to New York City. She sees the place where she grew up more clearly this time than she ever had before. She professes, based on her experience of having been brought up with exposure to all sorts, and having never been overtly taught to be a racist, to be someone who is color blind. That makes her unique in Maycomb, as everyone else has been very much aware of color all their lives. What comes as the biggest shock for JLF is seeing that her sainted father, a man everybody loves, and other people she cares for, despite their positive qualities, hold views that are shocking. JLF struggles to come to terms with this realization. The crux of the story is how she deals with this. While she is already physically an adult, Jean Louise must cope with coming-of-age truths. She realizes that when it comes to her appreciation for the people of Maycomb, dad included, she has been, as Jem describes in Mockingbird, “a caterpillar wrapped in a cocoon.” The watchman of the title is taken from a biblical quotation, (Isaiah 21:6), and refers to conscience. JLF tries to reconcile her conscience with what she now sees, and realizes had been present all along. She is anguished by her internal conflict. With amazing memories of her childhood in this town, it is a huge part of who she is. In facing the possibility of rejecting her father and the place in which she became the person she is, she is faced with rejecting a part of herself and that is the core conflict of the story.

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Harper Lee – from Smithsonian.com

Set in a time when Brown vs the Board of Education had recently and unalterably changed the legal and social landscape, many in the South perceived changes mandated by that decision as nothing less than another war of northern aggression. One of the biggest strengths of the book is how it communicates the locals’ feelings about and arguments against Civil Rights, and particularly the activities of the NAACP. There is real insight here into the local psyche, from a true local. Another strength of the book is the clear voice of JLF, Scout as a kid, particularly in her recollections of a glowing childhood. The voice of Scout will take you by the hand and lead you through. It is the same voice that appears in Mockingbird, warm, familiar and welcome. I enjoyed JLF’s relationship with her uncle Jack, a character absent from Mockingbird. Jack offers a perspective that is definitely homegrown, but is also decorated with the baubles and gewgaws of an advanced education and unusual interests. The affection between JLF and Jack is palpable. Her interaction with Henry, a friend since childhood, was kludgy. There are moments of real connection between the JLF and the young man who wants to marry her, but so much of their conversation is peppered with excessive use of “honey” and “sweet” that it was distracting from the content of the interaction. It felt forced. The scenes in which JLF confronts Atticus are powerful and even upsetting, but she lays into him without even asking what was up. I do recognize that many people, and particularly the young, jump to conclusions, but I wondered whether Scout, who is portrayed as a pretty bright person, would really be so close minded as to form an opinion, particularly so strong an opinion, based on unexamined evidence.

There is also some wonderful, and playful use of language, although the content reflects some of the very not 2015-politically-correct zeitgeist of the era. There are also beautiful passages that reflect the attachment Harper Lee, through her avatar, feels to her native soil.

The political views on display are appalling, paternalistic, racist, sexist, homophobic, and do reflect the attitudes of the time and place depicted, I expect. But it galls to have characters portray their dark views as accepted wisdom and have far too much of that accepted by a character who should know better.

In short, as a stand-alone there is much to like here, including some strong characters, a wonderful feel for place and a willingness to take on serious and controversial subject matter, but there are plenty of flaws as well. Go Set a Watchman is no classic.

Of course Go Set a Watchman would not have become the literary event of 2015 had it not shared DNA with a novel widely regarded as one of the best American novels ever written, To Kill a Mockingbird. And just in case you are newly arrived on our planet, perhaps are recently thawed out from an extended cryogenic holiday, or have just come to after a nasty crack on the head in 1960, Mockingbird recounts, through the eyes of the grown-up Scout, a time when she was six years old and her father, Atticus Finch, was called on to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. It offers a view of a golden childhood and a principled father taking on the bigotry of a deep South town in service of justice and decency. If you have not yet read it, go, scoot, scram, take a hike, go find a copy, and come back when you are done.

Ok, read it? Good. There has certainly been a lively reaction to Go Set a Watchman. Would that reaction have been different if there had never been a Mockingbird baseline against which to compare this version of Atticus? That is something we can never know. But it is helpful to think of To Kill a Mockingbird as the second and final version of Nelle Harper Lee’s (Yes, Harper is her middle name) seminal novel. Go Set a Watchman was Mockingbird 1.0. Harper Lee sold her book to the publisher JB Lippincott in 1957. But it was deemed not ready for prime time. I do not know the specifics of what editorial direction Lee was given by her editor, Tay Hohoff, other than to focus on the time of Jean Louise’s childhood. Racism is taken on very powerfully in 1.0. There is less telling and more showing in Mockingbird. The childhood recollections here, while wonderful, do not occupy as much of the stage as they do in version 2.0, but you can certainly see how an editor might laser in on those as strengths to magnify when trying to improve the book. And if one is then going to re-set the primary stage to the time of Scout’s childhood, it makes sense to make Atticus more purely heroic. In fact Mockingbird was intended to have been titled Atticus.

There is danger, of course, that this original depiction of Atticus will forever tarnish the gleaming ideal of a man we admire so from Mockingbird. Why splash racist graffiti over a cherished icon? Actually the racist element was there from the start, in this 1.0 version. It is instructive to see how Atticus evolved in the writer’s molding from the crusty first version to the graceful, fine character that illuminates Lee’s ultimate masterpiece.

There is no need to overstate Atticus’s racism in Watchman. In reviews and commentary some elements have been taken out of context and misrepresented. The KKK thing, for example. Atticus states that his purpose in joining was to find out who was behind the masks, not to further the organization’s agenda. Another item pertains to a racist screed handed out by a lunatic and found by JLF in her father’s home. Atticus agrees that the author is a nut, and that he had been granted the right to speak at the town council, as any other nut might have. Atticus does not subscribe to the views in the pamphlet. He subscribes to enough, though, to cause all who know where his character ends up in version 2.0, to take a large step back. You can get a taste of that in the quotes at the top of this review. It continues on, with nastiness about the NAACP, legalistic hogwash about SCOTUS violating the 10th Amendment, a general sense of feeling under assault by outside forces, and a paternalistic notion that all would be just fine if those northern rabble-rousers would just let Negro advancement proceed at a more measured pace. This is crucial, I believe, to one of the strengths of Watchman. While the views held by the residents of Maycomb, as represented by Atticus, Henry and others, may not receive a universal welcome in 2015, I believe they do fairly represent the beliefs of most educated southern whites during this era. The book might have been instructive to northerners, had it been released in its original form, as to the nature of the strident opposition the civil rights movement faced. As such, Watchman offers a valuable guide to a time and place, where even folks most at the time would consider pretty decent, like Atticus, maintained views that, while they remain widespread among some segments of our population today, are now generally seen as abhorrent.

There are other interesting elements that come from a consideration of the novels set side by side. What remains? What is lost? The courthouse where Scout watches Atticus heroically defend Tom Robinson in Mockingbird is a real place in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s birthplace. In Watchman it is a scene of horror as Jean Louise sees a racist propound his views in a public forum in which her father and friend are principal players. Calpurnia, the Finch housekeeper in Mockingbird plays a major role in Watchman as well. In one particularly chilling scene, Jean Louise, who had seen Cal as a nurturing force her entire life, now wonders if Cal ever really cared for her or, instead, saw her only through a racial lens. Dill, her avatar for childhood pal Truman Capote, is present in both novels, but Boo Radley was added in Mockingbird. Henry is gone from Mockingbird. JLF’s brother, Jem, a major character in Mockingbird, is much less of a presence in Watchman.

Go Set a Watchman may occupy a place in the shadow of what was to come, but it does offer insight into the author, her take on the world in the late 1950s, and into her characters. As a blood relation to one of the greatest books in American literature, it is most definitely worth reading.

Published – 7/14/15
Review – 7/24/15

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Harpercollins has made a FaceBook page for GSaW

Robert McCrum’s review in The Guardian is quite informative – Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee review – a literary curiosity

A Charles Leerhsen article in the June 2010 Smithsonian is also worth a look – Harper Lee’s Novel Achievement

A nice bit of extra intel on Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor in this article by Emma Cueto on Bustle.com, Harper Lee’s First Editor, Tay Hohoff, Had A Lot To Do With Creating ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, So Here’s What You Should Know About Her
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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

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