Do Go Set a Watchman

22 Jul

download (1)Just call her the Donald Trump of contemporary literature.  Seems Harper Lee may be the only writer out there with the courage (insert any other applicable noun of choice) to see it and say it like it is.  (Apologies to Lee, of course.)

That’s what she did in 1961 with the publication of her inimitable To Kill a Mockingbird; it may be what she just did (reluctantly or not) with the publication of her Go Set a Watchman, the second novel set in Maycomb, Alabama, with Jean Louise Finch—Scout—as narrator,  twenty years or so later.


It really is too soon to talk about this latest novel, as thinly disguised autobiography as her first one, but first gut reactions are a place to start.  The initial sound bites have not been reticent, so more thoughtful minds may be called upon to prevail if anyone is to give the novel its due and its chance with the American reader.

Whether or not Lee approved of the rush to publication (“rush” being relative in this case:  she presumably wrote it in the 1950s) or whether she was manipulated by advisors once her late body guard sister Alice was out of the picture (supposedly the 90-year-old author isn’t quite in control of her faculties these days) is the subject of another debate.  Whether this second book is as good (“good” always being relative) as her first is still another.  No one will argue the insurmountable task of meeting or surpassing To Kill a Mockingbird’s popularity—not gonna happen.  Ever.  Period.  End of story.

Partly, that is, because it was the first to introduce us to the immortal characters Scout and Jem, Boo Radley and Dill and, of course, Atticus Finch, characters we all wanted to believe existed, to emulate, to say and do the things that needed saying and doing at that time and place in our history.  Lee couldn’t have chosen a better publication date if she’d tried, putting Tom Robinson (and all of us) on trial on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.  And she couldn’t have a chosen a better defender of an innocent black man than Atticus, even if his gargantuan attorney skills still couldn’t get his client justice then.

It’s no wonder the book has been required reading in schools from Alabama to Alaska and beyond—it’s one book whose entire makeup (plot, characters, theme, symbols, setting) meets the “Must Read” standard, even if there are sustainable arguments that a good editor could have streamlined the story, deleting a lot of the Lee’s rambling style without losing any of its charm or vitality.

And it’s no surprise, either, that it’s been on censorship lists for an equal length of time; both sides of the racial divide have been offended or defended it with equal vigor. That’s how dialogue gets opened; dialogue is how things get resolved.  And this is one dialogue every American needs to have at one time or another. To call To Kill a Mockingbird the Great American Novel is without hyperbole, though it may not have topped the 100 list assembled by the ALA at the turn of the last century.  It’s kind of like the popular vote vs. the Electoral College sometimes.  TKAM is without argument “first in the hearts of its countrymen.”

I would be remiss in ignoring the role the award-winning film adaptation played in the novel’s popularity and significance.  Even Lee herself, who refused script responsibilities, acknowledges the importance of screenwriter Horton Foote and his signature perspective that endeared everyone to the memorable characters Lee had created. (Personal note: I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Foote primarily for this reason.)  I don’t recall who cast the 1962 film directed by Robert Mulligan, but can anyone imagine anyone but Gregory Peck or Mary Badham (or any other members of the incredible cast) in these roles?  Lee’s Atticus and Scout are as iconic American figures as those etched into Mt. Rushmore, thanks in particular to Peck’s and Badham’s portrayals. This was one marriage made in Hollywood that should last the test of time.

All that preamble just to open the discussion on Go Set a Watchman.  First, anyone who hasn’t read the first novel needs to take care of that omission before doing anything else.  I tell everyone, all the time, if they haven’t read it, to stop everything and find a copy. Then, one must read the new novel before passing judgment—no quoting reporters or critics or whoever may feel qualified to comment.  Not only is that lazy, poor scholarship, it’s just useless and wrong.  Read it. Think about it. Then respond if so led.

Having met all the above prerequisites I delineated, I will attempt to do just that right now, reserving the right to return to this topic at any later time with additional observations, even if contradictory.  Time can only tell.

Most importantly, the narrator’s voice—Jean Louise “Scout” Finch—is the same, except this time, all grown up at age 26, the vocabulary finally fits the speaker.  (Lee’s Scout of TKAM always spoke from a lexicon far beyond her age, only justified by the manner in which her lawyer father had taught her to read.)  The same feisty personality and quirky persona emerge from the pages, so true to life one feels she is listening to Harper Lee herself and not the thinly masked spokesperson she created to hide behind years ago.  Jem is already dead, astonishingly, and Dill is off somewhere in Europe; Boo Radley isn’t mentioned and other favorite minor characters are barely identified, no longer necessary to the immediate plot.  Jean Louise (as she is now more commonly called), back to Maycomb for a visit from New York City where she has been living, has a bonafide boyfriend, one Henry (Hank) Clinton, who, if he were mentioned as the lifetime friend he has become in the first book, I don’t recall. Clearly Lee’s disposition not to marry guides her protagonist’s decision to turn down his persistent proposals, one of the few actions that occur in the couple of days the narrator shares with the reader.

That short space of time and the lack of any “real” action immediately relegate the latter novel to second place when compared to TKAM’s time span of several years, with multiple sub-plots intertwining beneath the primary spotlight on the Robinson trial. That Lee can depend on her readers to be familiar with her heretofore established setting and characters justifies to some degree the sparseness of the second book, and although she succumbs to some flashbacks to the original story, it is to her credit that she has kept such repetitiveness to a minimum.  (The probability that Watchman was written prior to Mockingbird is immaterial, as the reader’s access to the stories is the only logical consideration here.)

What does happen, though, is as significant to the older protagonist and her readers as were the famous themes derived from the plotline of the first published book.  That these messages are, perhaps, more apropos for today’s audience than even Lee’s initial lessons (so fitting for the 60s) is what makes the timing of publication so canny.  It also allows Go Set a Watchman to take its rightful place beside its famous predecessor as an equally significant contribution to contemporary American literature.

So what happens?  Jean Louise eavesdrops on her saintly Atticus as he attends a local council meeting in which the problem of segregation is being addressed. What makes this surreptitious knowledge so remarkable is that it convinces Scout of her father’s prejudice, a revelation that shocks both her and the reader, having come to believe Atticus Finch is the one white man in the South who is color-blind.  Jumping to angry conclusions of her racist, hypocrite of a father, she eventually confronts Atticus, dragging him down from the marble pedestal on which she placed him long ago and tearing him into bits of human flesh and blood.  He allows her tirade, while trying to reason with her, telling her “plain truths” so she can “see things as they are, as well as they should be” (243).

Reminding Jean Louise of the compatibility Maycomb’s races were accustomed to, he points out the unrest the NAACP is causing, stirring up resentments where there were none, and insisting on immediate advancements the Negro people as a whole are not yet properly prepared to take on.  When she tries to counter that the African-Americans are entitled to these promises, Atticus is astute in informing her of the NAACP’s primary objective:  “The NAACP doesn’t care whether a Negro man owns or rents his land,” he says, “how well he can farm, or whether or not he tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet—oh no, all the NAACP cares about is that man’s vote” (247).

Insert your favorite race-baiter in the public eye today for “NAACP,” and the relevance for today’s society is obvious.  And for those today still fighting over the Confederacy and its flag, Lee (writing in 1950) is clairvoyant in following the trail of bread crumbs  back to the Civil War.  When Scout engages her Uncle Jack in the debate, he cites a similar hastiness on the parts of the abolitionists whose insistence on immediate emancipation pushed a precarious situation prematurely over the brink into utter disaster, a chaos the South had been trying to clean up ever since, all the while forcing their Southern brothers to bear full responsibility for the sin of slavery.

For those who maintain the Civil War was fought over States’ Rights, Lee’s voice is their own, as even Scout comes to admit her reluctance at accepting anything when forced to do so.  Reminds me of a t-shirt I’ve seen recently on sale depicting a Confederate flag with the slogan:  “Just because you said I couldn’t.”  That’s basic human nature: no one wants to be forced to do anything, even if it’s the right thing to do; and no one wants to be told what the right thing is by those who don’t really have a dog in the fight.  The arrogance of the uninvolved and unaffected telling those in the pool how to swim from the safety of the shore is insult to injury.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Lee intimates, especially when such arrogant ignorance results in such damage.

If for no other reason, everyone needs to consider things from the other person’s viewpoint, or, as Lee put it in her first book, “climb in their skin and walk around.”  And if for no other reason than that, one needs to read her second book to hear all sides of the argument.  Maybe then, armed with more information, we can all bring something to the table and respect each other enough to have a conversation that leads to compromise and healing.

The saddest scene in Go Set a Watchman occurs when Jean Louise goes to visit Calpurnia, the elderly black woman who practically raised the motherless Scout.  Jean Louise hardly recognizes her old friend when she realizes Cal barely recognizes her, either, compounded by the interference caused by the current racial unrest.  The confrontation is rescued—barely—when a heartbroken Scout demands if Cal hated them—the white Finch family—and the old woman at last shakes her head “no.”  If situations were left to individuals to personally deal with whatever inequity exists, without the demanding outside interference of, well, outsiders, perhaps the least amount of destruction would take place.  It’s certainly worth trying.  Nothing else seems to be working very well.

I was determined to dislike Lee’s second book, suspecting her reluctance to publish and threaten her literary status as Queen of American literature.  Fortunately, I allowed reason and evidence to dissolve my preconceptions.  I hope other readers will do the same.

–Rebecca Luttrell Briley, Ph.D.



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