Friday, July 17, 2015

Go Set A Watchman - Harper Lee (Novel)

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is my favorite book. That is as good a place as any to begin discussing “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee’s second (though written first) published novel. Who can argue the greatness of “Mockingbird?” It must find its spot in any discussion of great, classic American, or worldwide, literature.

I would also mention at this point that I have read no reviews or commentaries on the new book, though I am aware of the uproar it has caused regarding Atticus Finch. I read “Watchman” and have processed my thoughts with as small an outside influence as I could manage.

If “To Kill a Mockingbird” did not exist, “Go Set a Watchman” would be easier to take measure of. It would be deemed an exceedingly good, but not great, book, though it tends to go off into the realm of political and social commentary polemic at times, especially in the latter stages of the story. Of course, Harper Lee was writing on the heels of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that shook the southern world in ways it has still not come to terms with. The story sometimes strays into abstract concepts, too, becoming a challenge to follow and fully grasp.

Leading up to the release of “Watchman” there was considerable discussion as to whether or not Harper Lee wanted this story told to the public. I will delve into this in more detail shortly, but for now, I offer the thought that I find it odd that a writer of Lee’s quality would be comfortable with the minor inconsistencies between “Mockingbird” and “Watchman;” examples being the historical founding of Maycomb and some aspects of Alexandra Finch, Atticus’s sister. More troublesome are substantial conflicts between the two books that are wholly irreconcilable such as in the Tom Robinson rape trial’s verdict and Henry Clinton’s role as “oldest friend” from Scout Finch’s childhood.

There are also instances of sloppy editing. The Ms. Tuffet/Mr. Muffet confusion and one clear line where “I” is used for first person in a manner that was not Scout’s internal dialogue were two cases that stood out.

Some of what makes “Watchman” better than I believe most people will credit it for are related to the problems I have with the book. While “Watchman” does not have Scout as its narrator, Jean Louise does remain its focus. And as she unravels the “hidden” truths of Atticus Finch and much of Maycomb itself, is it possible all of this was apparent in Scout’s childhood, but being a child who worshipped her father, she was incapable, or unwilling, to see his warts and flaws? Since we were reading “Mockingbird” through her eyes, we were perhaps blinded to the realities around Scout, too.

With each discovery of Atticus’s racism, and Jean Louise’s corresponding disgust, pain, loss, contempt, and confusion in encountering them, the reader is meant to sense the same. We are left heartbroken in the wake of Atticus’s betrayal. Even Calpurnia’s justified walls around herself after her grandson’s arrest bring feelings of anguish to the reader.

But the Atticus of “Watchman,” a man now in his early 70’s, is also unrecognizable given “Mockingbird.” And it is hard to believe this is simply due to Scout’s perception of her father. Here I question most strongly whether Harper Lee wanted “Watchman” published. Though this story attempts to explain the Finch of his early years as being no more than a respecter of the rule of law, it is hard to imagine the man in “Mockingbird” being limited in this manner. Atticus Finch went far beyond that characterization in his treatment of blacks, both in word and deed. It is my contention that Lee wrote during the fervor of the post-Brown times, saw her work as too much a social commentary and less a moving story, and put the book aside for a reason. “Mockingbird’s” brilliance lies not only in its lyricism, but in the sweetness of Scout’s story balanced against the troubles of the time. “Watchman” loses this balance.

Uncle Jack, Dr. Finch, is a better man in “Watchman,” but here, too, Lee allows for a longwinded and forced Civil War apologia that, while offering speckles of truth, is simply a bridge too far. And while many southerners, both pre-Civil War and since the Civil Rights movement gained force, ran the states’ rights arguments up the proverbial flagpole (the Confederate flag?), and attempted to cover their racism, both apparent and in the shadows, Lee allows for an excess of “explanation” for Atticus’s and Maycomb’s attitudes. She comes dangerously close in a number of instances to justifying them.

At the end of the day, Jean Louise Finch is able to maintain her integrity in the face of an onslaught of “this is who we are” poppycock and states’ rights rationalizations. Both the climactic confrontation between Jean Louise and Atticus, and the ultimate manner in which Jean Louise comes to something less than an understanding with her father, ring true and real. While we lose one of our oldest and dearest figures, Atticus Finch, Harper Lee does not take Scout from us. We loved her in “Mockingbird,” and we preserve this affection as we close the pages on “Watchman.”

Ultimately, though, my struggle remains with whether or not Harper Lee truly wanted “Go Set a Watchman” published. As stated above, as a standalone novel, it is not to be dismissed and will likely be with us in discussion and literary study for a long, long time. But it is not a book without a partner. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is joined to it, and in a manner that calls much into question. Did Lee see “Watchman’s” deficiencies and put it aside permanently? After publishing “Mockingbird,” did she know both books could not reasonably co-exist? Atticus Finch cannot be both the “Mockingbird” man in his 50’s and the “Watchman” figure in his 70’s. They are too distinct. I hope I am wrong. I fear the veracity of my conclusions are where the truth lies.