Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

You must have lived it.  If a man says to you, "This is truth," and you believe him, and you discover what he says is not the truth, you are disappointed and and you make sure you will not be caught out by him again.

But a man who has lived by truth--and you have believed in what he has lived--he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing.

It wasn't intentional, but after Faulkner's The Unvanquished, set, as always, in Mississippi, I moved only just across the border to Harper Lee's Alabama.  And to be sure, the Maycomb County of this novel is just as central for Lee as Yoknapatawpha County is for Faulkner.  Both are fictional and yet real, slightly skewed images of the Deep South Faulkner and Lee knew, loved, and sometimes hated. (Or, in Lee's case, knows, loves, and apparently sometimes hate.)  When Jean Louise, To Kill a Mockingbird's Scout all grown up, spies her father in a white supremacist Citizens' Council, the betrayal robs her of both an identity and a home:

The glaring sun pierced her eyes with pain, and she put her hands to her face.  When she took them down slowly to adjust her eyes from dark to light, she saw Maycomb with no people in it, shimmering in the steaming afternoon.

She walked down the steps into the shade of a live oak.  She put her arm out and leaned against the trunk.  She looked at Maycomb, and her throat tightened: Maycomb was looking back at her.

At the book's beginning, Jean Louise is grappling with the much more banal question of whether she should return home from New York where she's been living, compelled by Atticus' failing health and the entreaties of her beau, Henry.  Atticus' presence at the meeting reveals a much deeper, and more frightening question beneath this one: If Atticus is rotten, has always been rotten, who is Jean Louise, who has lived her life under his example?  And is it true you can't go home again?

It's no secret that Go Set a Watchman was published under questionable circumstances.  On whether the aging Harper Lee had full control over its release, I express no opinion.  If she did, I wonder if she felt any sympathy toward the senescent Atticus.  But, more to the point, I wonder how much of our suspicion is fueled by what seems to be a very foreign, almost unrecognizable Atticus Finch.  One who says things like, "the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people."  Randy urges us to reject this impostor.

Maybe that's right.  But I think the alternative is more interesting, though scarier: What if the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman is really the same as the one of To Kill a Mockingbird?  In Mockingbird, Atticus is devoted to general notions of justice and fair play, and proudly voices the essential equality of human beings.  But so did many proponents of segregation, upstanding men whose moral codes, strict as they were, failed to account for segregation's fundamental inequality and indignity.  In this book, too, Atticus takes a case on behalf of a black man: Zeebo, the son of his old housekeeper Calpurnia, arrested for vehicular manslaughter.  Jean Louise accuses him:

"I remember that rape case you defended, but I missed the point.  You love justice, all right.  Abstract justice written down item by item on a brief--nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief.  His cause interfered with your orderly mind, and you had to work order out of disorder."

Go Set a Watchman is not a good book.  It's too heavy on dialogue, for one thing.  Sometimes it threatens to be one, as in a heartwrenching scene where Jean Louise, met with stony silence by Calpurnia after Zeebo's arrest, demands of her: "Did you hate us?"  But it presents us with a good and valuable question: Why do we feel so protective of Atticus Finch?  When do our own sophist notions of justice serve to excuse white paternalism?  When are we, in short, not as good as we hoped we would be?

Michiko Kakutani writes that the novel "seems to want to document the worst in Maycomb in terms of racial and class prejudice, the people’s enmity and hypocrisy and small-mindedness."  Even with Bob Ewell in it, the Maycomb of Mockingbird is a kinder, gentler place.  But Lee wants us to consider, what do we do when the places we have loved, and the people in them, are neither kind nor gentle?  I am a Southerner and I do not consider this a frivolous question.  The ending of Watchman suggests that, while Jean Louise must construct her own conscience as she sees fit (the Biblical watchman of the title), it still might be possible for her to love her father and her home, and to live within them.  Watchman doesn't succeed as a novel, but it does succeed in presenting this problem in a serious way, without flattering our sense of self-satisfaction, like The Help.  I think that makes it worth reading.


Randy said...

I like your summary that it doesn't succeed as a novel, but it succeeds in presenting a difficult problem. For me, the tragedy of this novel, is that if it was both a good novel and presented this problem, it would be another master piece. It's hard for me not to want this novel to be the novel it could be, as opposed to the novel it is. Instead, all I can see are its faults and suspicions over its publication.

In this regard, I wonder how future readers will treat this novel. The problem is important, but will (or do) other novels convey it successfully? Or, because this novel has already been widely read, will it become a common cultural reference point for people to discuss the the confusing feelings of disillusionment towards home/family? Towards questioning the status quo on racism? Maybe, because of the prominent place of Mockingbird-Atticus, readers will engage with Watchman-Atticus because the disillusionment narrative is only meaningful with a character we are as emotionally invested in as we are with Atticus.

UNRELATED: I want someone to do a twitter account for Jean Kylouise Ren.

Christopher said...

I'm not bothered by it not being a masterpiece. Most books aren't masterpieces. This one gave me a lot to think about, and, at the end of the day, that's more than many books do.

Your comments make me realize that if I hadn't read Mockingbird, the disillusionment aspect would fall completely flat. As unsuccessful as this is, how could it possibly have worked as a first novel?

How will future readers treat this novel? I think they'll be happy to forget this exists, honestly.

Brittany said...

It seems like we're all basically on the same page, but I want to throw in my 2 cents (again). This book only matters at all because To Kill a Mockingbird matters so much. Like Chris pointed out, the disillusionment aspect falls flat without already being familiar with Jean Louise, Calpurnia, and Atticus. I think that makes Randy's point - that it's hard not to focus on the novel's failings - especially meaningful.

I do think that The Great American Novel About the Disillusionment Resulting from a Trip To Your Home Town is a category just yearning to be filled, which makes this novel's failures stand out even more than they do on their own. As a culture we idealize Scout's childhood in a way that is impossible - no family is quite as perfect and uncomplicated as the Finches. We were ready to see the dismantling of that ideal, and there was so much potential for it to be really good, and really satisfying, and really meaningful. I'm thinking the literature version of Garden State.

Obligatory Zach Braff Quote: "It's like you feel homesick for a place that doesn't even exist. Maybe it's like this rite of passage, you know. You won't ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it's like a cycle or something. I don't know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that's all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place."