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.


FADEL said...

i love reading your thoughts. please keep sharing and keep writing. cheers!

Unknown said...

Thank you! That made my day.

Anonymous said...

Great review! Stumbled on it looking to see if I was losing my mind with the Mr. Tuffet/Ms. Muffet thing.

One thing I'd say is in response to your saying Lee set aside Watchman of her own accord. From what I understand she actually submitted Watchmen, that this is actually her "first draft" of what would become Mockingbird. I think, therefore Watchman is somewhat a testament to the editor that saw the classic in Watchman, in Lee as Watchman was rejected by the company that went on to publish Mockingbird. It seems the editor was the one who saw Watchman as too fevered and knee-jerk.

With that in mind, I do agree, but for a slightly different reason, that Lee did not truly want to ever publish Watchman following Mockingbird; that reason being any sane author wouldn't want anyone reading their rejected first draft.

Cheers (:

Unknown said...

Hi and thanx.

I remember the feeling of utter confusion on the Tuffet/Muffet part, so I am happy I was able to confirm your sanity. :-)

I was aware of Lee's original submission of "Watchman" to an editor and its rejection. I don't know that I'd say the editor saw "Mockingbird" within its pages. It is possible. The editor probably gave her solid feedback on the flaws.

My take is that Lee did set it aside, but had its essence in mind when she went a "different direction" and wrote 20 years earlier. Once "Mockingbird" was done, there was no way she could put out "Watchman" without significant re-working. I believe she simply decided not to do so.

Unknown said...

I actually just read that the editor advised Lee to focus on the flashbacks, so I'd give the editor more credit than I previously stated. I would still say "Watchman" could be a part of "Mockingbird" if Lee had gone back and done an enormous amount of editing. I don't know if that would be possible because she'd have to re-frame Atticus's views significantly to be aligned with "Mockingbird." Perhaps he might become less tolerant as he aged, or the focus could be again on the south in general.

Anonymous said...

I agree with all of your thoughts. It was heartbreaking for me reading this, but I feel that Lee wrote this book based on what was going on in her own life, as a way to let out anger of what she felt was right and wrong. "Watchman" moves away from the perspective as a child, as shown in "Mockingbird", and is written in the third person simply for the reason to have a more general feel as to what is going on. This book shows the more true aspects than what the readers would generally want to read. Despite the many grammatical errors that I've noticed, this book, to me, shows that Lee wrote it for her own purposes, and should of been left unpublished.

Unknown said...

Excellent points! I won't add to them further.