Go Set A Watchman (Lee)

I want to leave aside, for the moment, the biography of this book – how it was found, when, by whom, who approved its publication, etc.. I will return to it, though, since I believe that while biography is not destiny, it is still relevant.

I should say straight off that I am a huge fan of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve read it and taught it numerous times. I’ve seen the movie a half dozen times, and I’ve even seen the stage version at least twice. I’ve read Charles J. Shields’ Mockingbird, Marja Mills’ The Mockingbird Next Door, and Loretta Ellsworth’s In Search of Mockingbird.

Over the years, I have come to recognize some of the flaws of the novel – in structure (the shifts in time are sometimes less than graceful), in content (anyone who has ever taught it knows there are certain sections we’d like to cut), and in Lee’s treatment of race issues. Is Atticus too much of a white knight? Is Calpurnia – who has an absolutely powerful scene in this book – too underdeveloped? Is Tom Robinson too one-dimensional? Still, the book holds me. Recently, my daughter asked when she could read it.

As I was reading it, I saw someone comment that he was reluctant to read  because he saw Watchman as a sketch on the way to the wholeness of Mockingbird. I think there’s a lot of truth in both parts of his statement. The book often seemed like one of those studies you see in a museum next to the main attraction. Lee often seems in a hurry to get from one conversation to the next. And there are, unlike Mockingbird, relatively few characters of substance. Perhaps it was from re-reading it too often, but over the years, I began to be more and more interested in some of the minor characters in Mockingbird, like Dolphus Raymond and Mr. Underwood. Perhaps because it’s not fully fleshed out, Watchman is centered on a just few characters. Some names of others are familiar – Cunningham, for example – but most are there as props.

I have tried my best to avoid reviews of the novel since its publication, but it’s been difficult to avoid one – bigot. I am hesitant about labels like that one; I’m just never sure what they mean. There’s a discussion of the meaning in this book as well. Is a bigot someone who holds fast to her (and I mean her) beliefs and has no room for others? Or is a bigot someone who holds views on racial issues that we now find deplorable? Is Jean Louise (and she’s mostly Jean Louise here) one kind and her father, the other? And how much does my own bias influence my reading of this?

But there is no doubt that Atticus says and does things that are difficult for Jean Louise and the reader to understand. And he and another character claim a kind of contextual necessity. Jean Louise has run off to New York. They have chosen to remain in Maycomb. Can this excuse or temper our reaction to their choices? That’s why I put the word ‘now’ in bold above. How much does historical and geographical context matter? But there are some very personal reasons Atticus makes himself more fully known to his daughter, and I accepted one quite readily. She needs to separate herself from him. It is not enough to move to New York; she must develop her own views of the world. Atticus, once her watchman, no longer wants the job. He has gotten old. Aunt Alexandra now lives with him. She sometimes has to button his shirts. Sometimes, he spills his drink. This is not the Atticus (or Gregory Peck) we want. “There are,” Lee and Atticus are telling us, I think, “no more angels in America.” It’s time we stop thinking of Atticus as one.

The other reason – put forth by her Uncle Jack (who commits a despicable act of violence that passes with relatively little comment or reaction) – is that Atticus is somehow amoral in that his highest calling is the law – race issues or ethics or morality be damned? Again, perhaps because this notion is not developed, it remains unconvincing.

Though I am generally not fond of the review that boasts that a novel set in another time resonates with today’s world (it always seems like hyperbole and like its covering for a book’s deficiency), there are some exchanges here that absolutely reminded me much of the recent dialogue around the Confederate flag that until recently hung outside the state house in South Carolina about what the South means, the role of the Federal Government, and the NAACP. Lee tentatively introduces a thread of, in my mind, redemption for Atticus. There are a few suggestions that his actions reflect a kind of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ mentality, but Atticus’ own words largely overwhelm that notion (and our hopes).

Lee’s writings, especially her descriptions of place, often have a great deal of beauty. I would even argue that there’s not enough of that here. What does the South mean to Jean Louise? Will she stay?

As for the circumstances of the book’s publication that I alluded to in the beginning, though we know a great deal, I’m fairly certain we will never know the truth. We are at a point where we would even be skeptical if the words came from Lee herself.

Am I glad I read the book? Yes. It is, like that sketch on the wall next to the painting, a chance to see an author developing her style and her ideas. Does it tarnish my view of To Kill a Mockingbird in general and Atticus, in particular? I think my views, like the character of Atticus, needed some tarnishing. After this book, I think we are both more fully human. And that’s what literature is for, isn’t it?

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One Reply to “Go Set A Watchman (Lee)”

  1. As an expat son of Dixie, I find that it is easier to love the South from a distance. As I read Watchman my heart beat with remembered joys of small town Southern life, but also quailed at the brutal toll that race took on many of my friends and family. I remembered sitting in church next to my mama and hearing her friend rail against an audacious black woman who had acted uppity on a Nashville street corner, and this just before the opening hymn. As a child whose school teacher daddy always went out of his way to treat everybody with kindness, I watched my mama’s friend’s blood vessels grow so large with rage on her forehead I thought they must surely burst. Watchman brought back The South of my youth, which I prefer to recall through rose coloured specs seen through a jug of sweet iced tea. There was some good, and there was rather a lot of bad disguised as good. Atticus seems to have these disparities coiled in his wise and generous heart. The fight between Jean Louise and Atticus was very painful to read. I could only remember those Mockingbird scenes when their love was so strong and protective, and here it was laid bare, hewn apart. So I return to my love of a distant South, its Confederate monuments on the Courthouse square, its family restaurants serving catfish and grits, its five and dimes on Main Street, its multiplicity of churches on leafy avenues, and wonder if I, too, like Jean Louise have fled to a land where race, sexual orientation, politics, philosophy doesn’t matter so much as it did in the days of my youth.

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