Author Topic: Harper Lee, GO SET A WATCHMAN (2015)  (Read 114 times)

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Offline agate

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Harper Lee, GO SET A WATCHMAN (2015)
« on: January 13, 2016, 03:27:46 pm »
Harper Lee, GO SET A WATCHMAN (2015)

This controversial early version (completed in 1957) of To Kill a Mockingbird gives us Scout (here usually Jean Marie) at the age of 26, returning from her home in New York to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her family there--her father (the lawyer Atticus Finch), his sister and brother (her uncle Jack). Her brother Jem (Jeremy) is now dead, and Hank (Henry Clinton), is now a lawyer and like a son to Atticus. Hank is also determined to marry Jean Marie.

We get a view of life in a southern town in the 1950s, and Lee has captured its conversation and attitudes very competently. What she is trying to do here, though, is to use local color as a backdrop for the far more serious matter of the community's racism--viewed from Jean Marie's now-altered perspective.

Everything down home is fairly pleasant and straightforward-seeming until Jean Marie turns up at a "citizens' council" meeting where her father and Hank are in attendance, and, unbeknownst to them, she hears the speakers vehemently opposing integration and the Supreme Court.

It comes as a complete shock to Jean Marie to realize that those nearest and dearest to her are probably racists.

Even though she grew up in close proximity to these people, loving them, she must never have been aware of their views about race.

In setting up this situation Lee is flying in the face of all probability. I find it next to impossible to believe that a child growing up in a southern town in the 1940s-1950s would not have realized what her family's racial attitudes were, but that is by the way. For the purposes of the story, let's assume that this might have happened. Anything is possible.

Jean Marie's reaction is vehement. She rages at Atticus and her Uncle Jack and Hank. She resolves to leave, without marrying Hank--whom she realizes she didn't really love anyway.

Unfortunately, Uncle Jack takes center stage at about this point, and his pontifications in defense of the traditional southern-white attitudes can be irritating in the extreme.  Lee seems to want older people in this novel to be sages. Even if their fundamental attitudes are bigoted and racist, their "wisdom" will redeem them to the point where the thoroughly repelled Jean Marie is ready to soften up.

This is where Lee performs some sleight-of-hand that strikes me as unfair trickery.  Having established Atticus and Hank at the citizens' council meeting that was clearly aimed at perpetuating racial segregation, she later makes it appear as if Atticus doesn't "really"--in his heart of hearts-- believe in racism. Instead, we are asked to believe that he is so wise in the southern mores that--unlike Jean Marie in her youthful naivete--he feels he must go along with them in order to--what?  Understand his fellow man better? Help to lead his fellow citizens out of their bigotry and into a less harmfully provincial and exclusionary way of thinking?  It isn't clear.

What is clear is that Lee hasn't quite made up her mind about how this story should play out. On the one hand, Jean Marie herself is firmly opposed to racism. But is she to reject her entire history, her family, even the man she was going to marry?  Seeds of doubt about Hank have been planted early on, to be sure, but just what does Jean Marie have waiting for her in New York if she returns there, probably forever?

A novel written by a woman about a woman in the 1950s perhaps could not have ended with Jean Marie's walking away from hearth and home forever, but she comes very close to doing just that. In fact, if you look at the story without the mushiness  provided by Uncle Jack's lengthy and muddy speeches, that is what she is doing.

By now her rage has subsided and she is armed with the understanding her psychologizing uncle has poured into her ear, complete with a reference to Browning's  darkly despairing poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came."

The idea of a quest (as in the "Childe Roland" poem) by Jean Marie--a quest for the truth about herself and her background, even though it threatens to overwhelm her in its horror--runs through the story, which would have been a much better story without quite so much of Uncle Jack. Jean Marie could have reached her understanding by other means.

However, it isn't really fair to criticize a book in an early draft, a first attempt at a novel by a writer who went on to write a much better book. Go Set a Watchman is  interesting  for what it isn't but it also shows the Mockingbird characters, still very much themselves but in a different time.

I don't find it unbelievable that an Atticus Finch who fiercely defends an African-American at one time might also be the same Atticus Finch who goes along with southern ideas of white supremacy. We just didn't see that side of him in Mockingbird.  I do find it unbelievable that a young girl growing up in the south of that time would never have been exposed to the racial attitudes of both her father and her childhood friend.

It would be interesting to know if Go Set a Watchman has been edited at all since 1957.
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