Friday, July 17, 2015

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

It’s possible to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird—it’s set some fifteen years later, many of the same characters appear, others are mentioned, and there’s a continuity in characterization of people like Atticus Finch and Jean Louise (Scout).  There are a few inconsistencies in plot—the major one being that in Watchman the black man whom Atticus defended against the charge of raping a white woman is found innocent.  If Mockingbird is about a child’s education in the importance of standing up for principles, Watchman is about an adult child’s education in the imperfections of the father she idolized. 
It’s also possible to read Watchman as a failed first novel.  I’d like to know more about when and how it was written and its relationship to Mockingbird—it’s difficult to view it as a rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s too different from the 1960 novel.  If it was a rough draft, then Harper Lee almost entirely rewrote it.  As a first novel, it has many flaws—it lacks the dramatic tensions of Mockingbird, the polished prose, the developed characters, nostalgic narrative tone, the coherence, and the literary shape.  It is too discursive—there is too much lengthy lecturing and preaching by Uncle Jack and Atticus and Jean Louise (in this sense it reminded me both of Faulkner’s 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust, where the character Gavin Stevens preaches and lectures too often, and of Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream (1949), a nonfiction work marred by harangues).   There are moments of awkwardness.  Uncle Jack is simply unbelievable.  He comes across as a stereotyped, eccentric, old Southern homosexual, until we learn that he is supposed to have been secretly in love with Jean Louise’s mother—and Atticus is aware.  (There are too many melodramatic twists in the novel).  It’s also too formulaic—Jean Louise comes home, discovers her father’s racist views, is outraged and angry, and is then reconciled to him despite their disagreements.  The manner in which Uncle Jack helps her reach this conciliatory attitude strains one’s credulity.  It’s easy to imagine an editor reading this novel, recognizing its potential, and advising the writer to go home and start over.  It’s also easy to imagine that in the process of reconceiving the novel Harper Lee changed her mind about characters and events and political attitudes.  From this perspective, it’s not surprising that Atticus in Mockingbird is different from the Atticus of Watchman because they are, essentially, two different characters.
Both Watchman and Mockingbird are written as if their author is drawing bits and pieces of the story—events, characters, situations—from a larger narrative already in her head.  It’s entirely conceivable Lee had devised the story of the Finch family before she ever began writing it down—many events in the two novels were based closely on her own life to begin with. Watchman seems to assume that the reader has a certain familiarity with characters from 15 years before—with Jem and Dill and Tom Robinson, for example.  It seems to make a point of explaining the absence of Dill (who is in Europe)—there is really no reason to do this—Dill has no bearing on this story, except as a memory, but the narrator of Watchman seems compelled to explain his absence as if expecting the reader to want to know where he is.  (Of course, the reader who has not read Mockingbird will not recall him or care about his absence at all.)  Lee dispenses with Jem in equally facile, if more unhappy, fashion.  In Mockingbird we learn that Atticus’ wife, the mother of his children, has been dead for several years.  In Watchman we learn more about when she died and how Atticus found her body.  (This is gratuitous information—we didn’t need to know how she died—her absence is the crucial fact). 
Atticus’ racism in Watchman is that of a Southern moderate in the 1950s.  In principle he favors civil rights for blacks, at some point in the future, but not until they have “earned” them.  He sees African Americans as needing to “progress” further before they’re able to vote and take part in community affairs with whites.  He objects to the intrusion of the NAACP and the Supreme Court into the affairs of Southern life—he wants events to move forward in their own time.  He’s not a rabid racist in the sense of a Klansmen, but his views from our current perspective are racist enough.
Is there continuity between Mockingbird and Watchman?  Does what we learn in Watchman affect how we view the characters and events of Mockingbird, particularly how we view Atticus? It shouldn’t, but it probably will.  Readers ought to be able to consider these novels as two separate works—related but not closely connected.  Watchman does provide us with a context, a prefatory sort of explanation of the world and ideas that were abroad in the American South of the 1950s.  But it is a separate work from To Kill a Mockingbird. 
The best sections of this novel are, not surprisingly, perhaps, Jean Louise’s recollections of her childhood with Jem and Dill.  An especially humorous recollection concerns a scene where the children pretend to have a revival service.  Another involves a high school dance.  
I had an extremely powerful and emotional reaction to the scene in which Atticus and Jean Louise have their confrontation about his racial views and her reactions to them.  On the one hand I was reading this novel with Mockingbird (both novel and film—the latter more strongly) firmly in my head, and to read Atticus’ statements about race and civil rights was painful.  On the other hand, Jean Louise’s fury, her expressions of hatred and disgust for her father, her comparing him to Hitler, seemed to mark a total rupture of the close and warm relationship between father and daughter that we saw in Mockingbird.  And added to this is that the author handled these scenes clumsily.  They had the effect of bruising my relationship as a reader (and a Southerner) to the novel and film.  I felt the disappearance, the brutal murder, of something I had taken for granted for many years.

Of course, I wanted this novel to be much better than it is.  And it’s worth pointing out that despite its importance to many readers, Mockingbird itself isn’t really a great novel.  It’s a good one, and an important one, but not a great work of literature.  It’s important to hold figures like Atticus in your imagination, especially if you’re a Southerner who was born into and who lived through the latter half of the 20th century.  You want to believe that there were in the deep South a few good white men and women of force and integrity who stood up against the racism of the region.  Undoubtedly, there were.  I can name a number of them.  In Mockingbird Atticus is one such figure.  In Watchman the Atticus we meet is a man of principle but also a man of his place and time—that is, not a racial progressive, but a moderate.  The two figures are not necessarily contradictory—I can imagine a lawyer whose devotion to fairness, the law, and the Constitution, even though he supports segregation and holds white supremacist views, leads him to agree to represent a black man.  This is called principle, and it’s what Atticus in Mockingbird embodies. Even the Atticus of Watchman says that he’d make that same decision again.  Even racists can be principled.

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