Saturday, July 18, 2015
Hope ("Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee)
By now, the backstory is established. Supposedly written before To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman was discovered in a safety deposit box by the author's lawyer and, with Lee's approval, published. Almost sixty years after its pages were first pulled from the grip of a typewriter, the novel's very existence defies easy classification: it's a prequel in some respects, as it was written first, though it takes place 20 years after the events in Mockingbird, thereby making it a quasi-sequel. It also shares enough with its successor that we might reasonably call it a first draft. After all, the stories of the Cunningham family's garbled name, the settlement of Maycomb County, Miss Maudie's penchant for baking small cakes for the children, all reappear in these new pages like vibrant, porch-side hits of nostalgia, and without warning the scenes--whether drawn from old ink, borne from our imagination, or lifted from the transcendent film adaptation--play before our eyes unwillingly but not unwelcomely. To read this book seems, at first, like recalling friends you'd always kept in the back of your mind but never made a point of remembering fully.
But the world of Go Set a Watchman is a few degrees different than the one of To Kill a Mockingbird. For starters, Scout is now Jean Louise--a woman in her twenties who has returned to Maycomb for two weeks; she graduated from a Georgia women's college at her father's insistence and now lives in New York City, though she toys with the idea of coming home for good. Dill fought in the war in Europe and stayed--always the wanderer, according to Jean Louise. Jem is dead, having collapsed from the same heart condition that claimed his mother so many years ago, and his sister now remembers him with the same mixture of fondness, admiration, and irritation that punctuated their relationship when they were children and recreating elaborate adventures on the front lawn. Calpurnia fled the Finch family and grew old, and when Scout visits her, their relationship has hardened. Beyond them, most of the characters from Mockingbird go unmentioned, with few exceptions: Uncle Jack, Aunt Alexandra, Mr. Underwood, and Atticus. And it is the last of these characters--Atticus Finch, the undeniable hero of Lee's original--who has caused readers the most consternation over Go Set a Watchman. He is 72 years old now, retired from the state legislature, and racked with a host of medical problems--near blindness, rheumatoid arthritis, and the fragility that comes with age.
He also espouses many of the racist attitudes of the day, which Jean Louise discovers when she finds a pamphlet tucked among his bookshelves--a publication she promptly drops into the trash, to her aunt's abject horror. She then follows Atticus and her fiancee, Henry Clinton, to a meeting of the Maycomb Citizens' Council, where Maycomb's finest men listen to speeches about the grave "nigger" threat that is threatening their country. The realization that her father--"the one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted"--is as weak-willed and small-minded as the "white trash" that populates Maycomb makes Jean Louise physically ill. For much of the book, she struggles to understand how the man who raised her, a man who never once acted superior than anyone else and taught her to do the same, could have also held such repugnant beliefs, and the chapters leading to the novel's close trace her journey across Maycomb--an Odysseus in search of a home that is right beneath her feet but also now thousands of miles away. When she finally confronts her father in his office, she denounces him for raising her with a false ideal of him, pushes back on his belief that black people are "backward" and lack refinement and education, and calls him a killer of souls akin to Hitler.
Reconciling ourselves with this new version of Atticus Finch is difficult, and for many reasons. For more than five decades, Atticus has stood as the pinnacle of what it means to be a strong, intelligent, morally upright individual--the prime example of a "good human being." He is a good father to his two children, a respected member of his community, and one of the few people in Maycomb to treat everyone equally, both in person and under the law. Even when facing down the most corrosive elements of the world around him, a lynch mob, it's his integrity and generosity that save not only his life but also Tom Robinson's, when the men standing before him are reminded of the good he does, regardless of their status. In other words, Atticus Finch has existed in our culture across multiple generations as the kind of person we should all aspire to be.
What's more, this depiction of Atticus--of the entire country, both within Maycomb County and beyond its borders--was written during the Eisenhower Administration but published in the age of Barack Obama without any revisions...a context that makes appreciating Lee's novel with any objectivity difficult, if not impossible. Jean Louise's confrontation with Atticus, for example, is downright pathetic by modern standards, including her comparisons to Hitler. But one wonders what the reaction would have been had it been read by audiences in the 1960s, when the passion behind Scout's words would have been seen as much more relevant and revelatory. (In Mockingbird, Scout highlights the hypocrisy between those who denounce Hitler's policies against Jews while also using them against African-Americans, though she does so with the limited understanding of a child; in Watchman, the comparisons are unburdened by adolescent nuance, as they're shouted across Atticus' small office with all of the straightforwardness and intensity of someone angry at the world.) We chastise Scout for backing down so easily, for immediately regretting everything she says and does, all the while forgetting that she's doing so sixty years in the past.
Unfortunately, the time that has passed since Lee wrote Watchman has dulled its potential importance. Nowhere near as well-written as To Kill a Mockingbird, Watchman tries to understand the changing country through the mind of a twenty-something woman pulled between opposite environments--from rural Maycomb County to bustling New York City and back again. Lee does not succeed, though she doesn't exactly fail, either. Scout's arguments with those around her are not as satisfying as they should be, considering they are being waged by someone we've all come to associate as strong-willed and open-minded. The Scout who would have gladly pummeled a foe with her fists, despite her father's commands to the contrary, stands by weakly as one neighbor and family member after another presents their views to her without objection. She becomes a creature of tough, steadfast thought but pitiful inaction, and even her knock-down diatribes are batted down by Atticus and Uncle Jack as though made of smoke. And when, in the novel's penultimate chapter, Uncle Jack reappears to try and make Scout understand, Scout seems to give in almost immediately, as though the disgust she feels is no match for the desperate hunger she has for her father's affection.
However, the novel at least grants us access to Jean Louise's thoughts as they appear stream-of-consciously rather than in retrospect so many years later, which shows us a different side to our treasured tomboy. She is furious, amorous, confused, impulsive, self-conscious, brash, nostalgic, often at the same time or within the same few paragraphs. As she nears her final confrontation, her thoughts become increasingly disheveled, and when she storms out of her father's office, she is an emotional train-wreck--a surprising amount of depth that Lee's first book couldn't offer us, and much of Scout's inner turmoil holds up quite well, especially as we in this country continue to wrestle with many of the same social and political demons. The anger Scout feels seems refreshingly current, even as the rest of the book struggles to find consistency.
But again, I'm trying to understand a book through 21st-century eyes--a book that is older than my parents and was never meant to have its first publication this many years after being written.
In preparation for its release, the author herself--now approaching 90, living in a nursing home, and severely impaired--made no changes or revisions to the manuscript, meaning what we have is what Harper Lee wrote, unencumbered and unedited. Six decades have passed since the world first read about Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson--six decades that have also witnessed the supposed end of Jim Crow, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the unanimous Loving v. Virginia decision, the commercialization of black culture, the elevation of black men and women to positions of influence and power, and the election of America's first black president. Unfortunately, those six decades have also seen a rise in the numbers of black men who face incarceration, a more subtle form of segregation in schools and neighborhoods, political isolation through gerrymandering, the appropriation of black culture, a rise in the deaths of unarmed black citizens by police, and the Supreme Court's gutting of the very same Civil Rights Act. Those who look at the progress made during those six decades will surely look at Watchman as a kind of artifact or gauge--a tool to measure just how much has changed, or how much remains to be changed. Others will hold the novel up as proof of something they already believe--that Lee is a racist, that Atticus was never out for anyone other than himself, that there is little hope where race and equality are concerned. After all, if someone like Atticus Finch--a man based on Harper Lee's own father--could be corrupted by fear and the propaganda of bigots, then so could anyone. And perhaps these people are right. But perhaps there is another way of looking at Go Set a Watchman.
In reading the novel, we become Jean Louise. In denouncing her father for his racist beliefs, she is forced to become her own person, as Uncle Jack says. She must detach herself from the golden idol that is Atticus Finch and embrace a new identity, rather than remaining "Atticus Finch's daughter" for the rest of her life. Which means we must leave Atticus behind, as well. For sixty years, Atticus has stood as our standard-bearer, the ideal citizen. But that began sixty years ago--the country has indeed changed since then, and it has changed for the better. Yes, we continue to struggle as a nation with issues of racism and equality, but the issues and the severity of those issues have changed, just as the people at the heart of those issues have changed--just as Atticus has changed. And just as we become Scout, Harper Lee becomes our Atticus, speaking to us from a life of wisdom and telling us that we have to let go, too, that the idol we've treasured for so many decades is tired and from an era that has passed us by. When Uncle Jack speaks to Scout, he pleads for her to understand that her father can only be her hero for so long before she surpasses him, which she's already done. She becomes better than Atticus, only because Atticus has grown old and tired, and because he raised her well. He brought her up to stand out, speak her mind, and still be accepted by those who would otherwise look down on her...in much the same way Atticus pushed back against the prejudices of the day while still being accepted by Maycomb. (Uncle Jack's closing plea to his niece, that she should stay in Maycomb because the town needs people like her, is perhaps the novel's single best moment.)
In Jean Louise's own words, Atticus never viewed another person as lesser than himself, regardless of their skin color. He never devalued someone, spoke negatively of them, treated them as inferior, or told his children to do the same. But when he tells Jean Louise that integration is wrong because African-Americans are uneducated, and that this will cause social chaos, he's not accepting the reality that racist policies made it this way--that black people are forced to live in a system that deprives them of the chance for a strong education, then uses the effects of that deprivation as "proof" of inferiority. Instead, he places the blame on their shoulders, believing it's part of their genetic makeup or their culture. In doing so, he alleviates white people of their responsibility, even as he stands as one of the few white people in the entire town who did right. He believes in demagoguery and fear-mongering rather than logic or common sense, hides behind arguments about state's rights and American individuality, and promotes himself as someone who believes in each legislature making their own decisions on the matter rather than changing at the whim of the Supreme Court or the NAACP. These are arguments that seem hauntingly familiar six decades later, as defenders of the Confederate flag and opponents of same-sex marriage use the very same language to defend their own tired, outdated points of view.
None of what Harper Lee offers us about Atticus Finch appeared in Mockingbird, despite Watchman having been written first and Mockingbird focusing exclusively on Atticus' heroic qualities, a reality that is downright astonishing. In fact, there came a point near the end of the novel where I began to wonder if Lee and her representatives had been lying to us about the timeline. Perhaps, I thought, Lee had written Watchman at a later date, maybe in the last two or three decades, as a response to the ways in which Atticus Finch had been so thoroughly lionized and embraced by our culture. Perhaps she was unsettled by our reliance on him as our national compass, our collective conscience, our idol, in much the same way Scout looks to Atticus as her own compass and idol. Maybe Lee felt it was time for us to see Atticus as a man with the same kinds of imperfections we all share--an idol whose metal was scuffed and scarred and dull.
Atticus Finch served a purpose beyond the page, and he did so more than any of us might realize, even now. He was a North Star when the road ahead was bumpy and unclear, or when we found ourselves having to cut our own way through the wilderness. He taught us that clear morals and strong ideas are just as powerful as a bullet in a gun: he stood in the center of town and faced down a rabid dog, just as stood in the center of a courtroom and faced down an entire town gone mad with bigotry. He taught his daughter empathy in the best way he knew how, and in doing so he taught us the same lesson. He understood the power of the written word, even when those in the schools thought otherwise, and he knew that being a good parent often meant letting your children figure something out for themselves. He believed in hard work but also valued play; he believed in time together as a family while also the freedom and independence of childhood. He helped his neighbors, even when they spit in his face or threatened to hang him from a tree. For sixty years, he has been--was--the embodiment of good parenting, of responsible citizenship, of wholesomeness.
In all honesty, I wish the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman had stayed lost, so we could keep Atticus Finch just a little longer. And, in a way, we still can--we can keep reading Mockingbird, talking about it with our children and students, and treasuring what we'd always treasured about the book and its characters. But the time has come for us to find another Atticus Finch, someone who stands for the same values but does so in a way that allows our own children the opportunity to grow with him over time instead of simply inheriting him. Our country faces new and pressing issues, ones that would have been foreign to someone living in Depression-era Alabama, and each deserves its own literary hero. The goodbyes won't be easy, and they won't be final for a long time, which is good. Perhaps more people will come to the same conclusion, will set Watchman on their shelves and look at it from time to time, not as a sequel or first draft, but as a book all its own, connected to Mockingbird through little more than a few shared names. We'd like to do that, because we could remain young, dirt-stained children running through the grass, taking small gifts from the knotholes in trees, and waiting for our Atticus to appear around the corner so we can walk alongside him and welcome him home. Unfortunately for us, there comes a point when every child has to grow up.