A Belated Shock - “GO SET A WATCHMAN” - A Book Review.
Isn’t that always the way? Give them enough time, and even fictional heroes will betray you in the end…
A Belated Shock
A BOOK REVIEW - By Fanitsa Petrou
The publication of Harper Lee’s new novel “Go Set A Watchman” in July 2015, a sequel of sorts to her first novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”, was a true literary event. The book went on to become the fastest selling book in the history of publisher HarperCollins, having sold more than 1.1 million copies in the USA alone, in the first week of release.
When the unexpected news of its publication were announced, I personally kept away from newspaper articles, pre-publication press leaks, and first chapter releases, and then once it got published, from reviews. I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone’s comments, opinions, critiques. I didn’t want to diminish this little pleasure that was to be my Xmas treat. That’s like my Xmas ritual. Each year I reread a classic book (Dickens, Austen, Melville, the Brontes - you know, the usual suspects) and this year, “Go Set A Watchman” would have been a "new" version of that. Friends and family having come and (mercifully) gone, a couch, a piece (or three) of Xmas cake, disconnected phones, a dog sleeping at my feet, and the rare pleasure of entering the extended cosmos of a beloved author. Keep the world out, savour the moment of heroes being revisited. This was supposed to be my piece of festive paradise, my perfect Xmas day. By Boxing day, I was heartbroken. Because as I found out (rather belatedly), there’s a shocking aspect to the novel, that no one saw coming.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was Harper Lee’s debut novel, which was published in 1960, when she was 34. In 1962, it was adapted into a critically acclaimed film with Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his role as Atticus. The book which has been considered very deservingly a literary masterpiece, has won the Pulitzer Prize, and went on to become an instant classic and an international success. It has sold more than 40 million copies, and it continues to sell more than a million copies a year, while it has been translated into more than 40 languages and been part of the curricula of countless schools around the world. It also remained up until recently, the only book Harper Lee has ever published. Now, 55 years later, this “new” book of hers, sees the light of day. And not just any book, but one that is set in the same cosmos of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and which apparently was written about the same time as that.
The discovery of such an unexpected treasure is so exiting, so rare, that it deserves something more than the generic information that was given to explain it: the manuscript was discovered by Lee’s lawyer in a “secure place” where she keeps her archives… This explanation somehow doesn’t satisfy our curiosity… Why wasn’t it fount all these years, if this was a secure place where she normally kept her archives? And given the significance of this discovery, how come hardly anything is written about it on the jacket of the book, which includes no less than thirteen lines of information about the type used! Months after its publication, the provenance of the manuscript is still largely a mystery. There’s is still a disproportion between the information given about its origins and the importance of such a find. It’s like discovering a new Tutankhamen-like grave, a lost Shakespearean play, a bunch of discarded Seinfeld episodes, or announcing that Firefly is going on the air again, and not offering much in the way of details as to how it all happened!
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a coming of age story. Set in the ‘30s in the fictional Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, it is inspired by the author’s Depression era childhood, and it narrates the story of five-year old Scout and her family, as her father Atticus Finch, a lawyer, decides to stand up and defend a black man who was wrongly accused of raping a white woman. He defends him even when the whole world seems to be against him, because it is the right thing to do. It is a beautifully crafted piece of work, one of those rare perfect novels that affects you, and to which you return time and again. “Go Set a Watchman” is said to have been written the same time as the Mockingbird, and it is an early draft which was somehow lost, up until its recent discovery. When she first submitted it to her publishers in 1957, they were more exited about the parts of it that refer to the childhood memories of Scout, and particularly the story of the wrongly accused black man. This was to turn after years of redrafting, into the gem of a novel we have come to know as “To Kill a Mockingbird”. The once discarded chapters, or first draft of the original book are apparently what is now the “Go Set A Watchman” novel which has been marketed as “its essential companion”.
“Go Set A Watchman” is set in the fifties, in the time of the Civil Rights movement that was destined to eventually transform the American South. Scout is 26, and goes by her proper name of Jean Louise. She returns to Maycomb from New York, where she now lives, to find her town and her father changed. Her aging father whom she adores, and whom she considers to be a man of integrity, has (spoiler alert) joined one of the Citizens’ Councils that opposes integration and regards black people as inferior beings. Shocked and devastated, she confronts him, only to be faced with his calm racist reasoning. The same reasoning shared by her uptight aunt, her eccentric intellectual uncle, and the young man who loves her. Not to mention the entire town of Maycomb. At the end of the book, outraged and betrayed, she attempts to leave, and never come back, but comes to her “senses” as her uncle, in a Tennessee Williams play-like twist, slaps her hard in the face (!) making her see that this is where she belongs… She then makes peace with her father, as she understands that what he was trying to do all along, was “preserve” her world (the world of the South) for her… (by keeping black people to their place, since they are so backward and all…)
When you first start reading the book, you are fooled, because for the first few chapters you feel like you are returning to a familiar place, meeting with long lost friends. You even start picturing a new movie in your head, that would live up to the legacy of that old Gregory Peck one. You start thinking about your dream cast (Emma Stone, as the plucky, outspoken Jean Louise; John Kransiski as her gangly boyfriend; Margot Martindale, as her uptight, perpetually angry, corset-wearing aunt; a bearded Jeff Bridges as her absent-minded academic of an uncle; and maybe an aged Tom Hanks as Atticus? Or better still, Harrison Ford, at last in a serious role with some gravitas?) But a few chapters down the line you are suddenly sick to your stomach, and the whole thing seems like a cruel joke...
Atticus, the fictional character who has been called “the moral conscience of 20th century America”; Atticus who inspired countless young people to become lawyers, because he made a profession that has always been seen as a bit heartless, look idealistic and noble and decent; Atticus whose name was given to countless baby boys born since the ‘60s; Atticus who defies racism because it is the right thing to do; Atticus who has been voted “the greatest movie hero of all times”, by the members of the American Film Institute, (think about it for a minute: a lawyer is seen as more of a hero than Indiana Jones, James Bond and Rocky Balboa!); Atticus who is like everyone’s perfect father figure is in “Go set a Watchman” a racist and a bigot who believes black people don’t deserve citizenship, and is opposed to them voting because they are too “backward” (Though in his defence, he does recognise that they ARE “human beings”. Now isn’t that gracious of him?) He is a segregationist who hates the idea of black children going to the same school as the white ones, and endorses a white supremacist who wrote a book titled “The Black Plague” and lectures on how the “niggers” would “mongrelize the race”. Ah yes, and he reveals he was once involved with the Ku Klux Klan!!! (Isn’t that always the way? Give them enough time, and even fictional heroes will betray you in the end…)
A racist Atticus is a bigger surprise than the discovery of a manuscript by a beloved author that has been lost for 58 years! A horrible, devastating surprise that no one saw coming! What next? Maybe Hamlet killed his father, maybe Don Quixote was a villain, Harry Potter a Voldemort disciple, and Miss Havisham not bitter at all… Last time I felt this kind of “literary” betrayal, I was reading a Pollyanna book (you know the sweet-tempered orphan with the “glad game”) It was one of the books in which she is a grown up, married, with a family, Pollyanna in Hollywood I think it was. She catches her son playing in the street with a black boy and she asks him to stop. Says something like it is not proper for white kids making friends with coloured ones. I was ten or eleven at the time, and I have never seen a black person in real life, but even I, knew this was a lot of nonsense.
So Atticus aged and got arthritic and became a racist! People do change with old age one might argue. And this change is more often than not, leading to a more conservative view of the world. The Irish stand up comedian Dylan Moran, says something like he hopes he won’t get so old he will start saying things like “I’m not a racist BUT…” He is right, people do tend to become more close minded with age, because they get more scared with age. Rebellion, is often a young person’s game. You could see Lee writing Atticus keeping in mind this truth (aka he aged that is why he changed) and even though one can still be shocked by the fact, one could see it as her being perceptive, being aware of human nature. But the things she puts in his mouth, leave no room for ambiguity. His racial rhetoric is so specific, so intellectualized, so well thought out, so well hidden behind a veil of noble nostalgia about the South, that must be preserved no matter what, (no matter if people’s dignity and future are the cost of it), that you can’t help but suspect there is conscious intention behind her words. You can’t help but feel that she is not just offering the other side of the coin, but maybe this is Lee speaking, these are perhaps her real views, her real intentions all along… (How can this not feel like a punch in the stomach, I ask you?!!!) Furthermore, Jean Louise may be devastated when faced with these realities about her loved ones, but she does see their point after all… Her uncle presented his racism as rebellion, her boyfriend as a social and professional necessity, Atticus as patriotism. All are seen as noble in the end. In the last pages of the book, she does see their point. (And that is sadly the point of the book!) She does learn her “lesson”. In the very last line, she sits in the car, and for the first time does not bump her head: in symbolic terms, it is obvious we are supposed to see this as a sign of her becoming more matured: she stopped making the same mistakes she used to make… Seeing a racist’s point of view, is seen as maturity, as finally “getting it”, as having one’s eyes being opened to a wider “truth”. Now how can this not be seen as disturbing?
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” Atticus says in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, referring to Tom Robinson (the wrongly accused black man) and Boo, (the abused wild man). He stands at the side of outsiders, underdogs, those who are treated with prejudice, bigotry and cruelty, and asks his children to do the same. In “Go Set A Watchman” he tries to convince his daughter to consider things from the point of view of a racist! And each word he utters, feels like a knife in our heart. His racial rhetoric may have been relevant within the context of his time and place, and shared by the overwhelming majority of Harper Lee’s contemporary Southerners, but being faced with it today, sounds outrageous, unthinkable! The truth is, we don’t care for any racist’s “perspective”, no matter how eloquently expressed, how elaborately analyzed, any more than we care for the perspective of a Nazi, a war criminal, a serial killer, or a pedophile… In a civilised society, they’ve lost the privilege of having their side of things being explained, hoping to be justified. We may be interested in what had caused them to be Nazis, war criminals, serial killers, or pedophiles, but we do not recognize their “right” to defend such things, be such things… (A point that is lost in the Watchman)
When Jean Louise feels betrayed, shocked devastated by her father’s attitude, Lee puts in her mouth the words we mean to say, but she then negates them, not by offering her father’s and uncle’s perspective, but by allowing us to see her own ambivalence: Jean Louise may not be endorsing their views but she does take them seriously finding them to be quite logical and understandable! And for this alone, she cannot be seen as an icon of hope for the then segregated South, as a sort of new Atticus-like (the Atticus of Mockingbird that is) persona, as some critics have claimed.
Sadly, this is not just a book that we have trouble going through, but it is a book that has destroyed a beloved classic for us. The Watchman makes us start second-guessing every word uttered by Atticus in the Mockingbird. Could his offer to help the young black man, not be an act born out of righteousness and integrity and dismay for the injustice and racism aimed towards black people in general, as we have naively as it turns out, previously thought? Could it be just the result of his “love of the law”, a lawyer’s belief in everyone having the right for a fair trail, as it is presented in the Watchman? Could his support be nothing but another side of his paternalistic attitude towards black people, his now revealed belief that they are too “backward”, and therefore too helpless to help themselves? And was his empathetic attitude towards his racist white neighbors, not born out of deep compassion for those who act out of ignorance and fear, as we have again naively assumed, but was fueled by feelings of camaraderie and shared beliefs? And by the way didn’t he defend the fact that women in Alabama couldn’t serve on a jury, because they need to be “protected” from “sordid cases like Tom’s”, and because they would slow down the judicial process by asking “too many questions”?!(Oh-My-God!) Maybe certain clues were there, but we were like Jean Louise: kids trying to make excuses for a beloved parent’s faults…
Was there a racist center in the Mockingbird which was cleverly concealed by the editors of the book in the ‘60’s? If so, why was the Watchman left to be seen in all its racist glory, destroying in this manner the legacy of a beloved author who has been considered for all these years a heroine of the Civil Rights movement? Was it done on purpose? Is it part of some bigger conspiracy? Is it because racism is making a “come back, it’s becoming OK again? Is it because finally the time is “right” for such a book to be out there? All over Europe, far-Right parties are becoming more and more popular, gaining voters on anti-immigration agendas. In the US, the Republican party has turn the clock backwards, and is using a fascist narrative in order to cultivate fear and gain votes. Basically anyone who is not a white male is seen as the enemy. Latinos, black people, Moslems, asylum seekers, and lately even Jews (again!) not to mention women, are singled out as the source of all evil, much like black people were seen as the “menace” by the White Supremacists in the Watchman. The incidents in which black people in the US are being treated with prejudice, injustice or violence by the police, are still quite common as the recent Ferguson unrest has proven.
Listing the various ways in which the South would be affected if black people were to be seen as equal citizens, if they got voting rights, if education was integrated, is somehow seen as an act of patriotism, as a way to preserve the beauty and the charm of the South which is still nostalgic of its pre-civil war glory. The so called “political complexities” and this nostalgia for a “noble” and prosperous South (never mind that it based its prosperity on slavery), which was separated from the rest of US in more ways than one, is sadly still prevalent in the politics of the Republican party, which is particularly popular in the Southern States, and in the often not so secret fantasies of some modern-day Southerners. A telling example of that, is the Southern celebrity chef Paula Deen, who in June 2013, organized a “slavery theme” / “plantation-style” wedding with black men playing the role of slaves! When asked about it, she said she can’t help if anyone is offended! She got inspired by a restaurant which employes middle-aged black men as waiters, dressed in white jackets and bow tie - like the waiters in the era of slavery. Paula Dean whose great-grandfather was the owner of 30 slaves, fount that to be “impressive”…
Harper Lee is also a child of her time and place of birth, one can argue. Atticus’s views for example, seem to reflect the now controversial Southern Renaissance or Southern Agrarian cultural movement of the ‘30s and ‘40s, which was founded by a group of writers and critics, concerned with preserving certain Southern “ideals”. Their borderline racist views, were not seen as such at the time. On the contrary, they were highly respected, making them one of the most powerful and influential intellectual movements of the time! Generally speaking, it’s not easy to find a whole lot of people of Lee’s generation from the American South who did not share this perspective after all – though why wasn’t it more obvious in the Mockingbird”? Both books were written at the same time, by the same person… Is it because the Mockingbird was heavily reworked by her “Yankee” New Yorkian editors, so that its racist roots were concealed? Can we dare assume that? Harper Lee did say in a statement released by her publisher.: “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,” Does this refer to the fact that she was told to publish only part of the novel she has originally written, or does she mean that she was told to hide the racist persona of Atticus which was maybe present even in the Mockingbird? Or is it that she herself considered Watchman to be an inferior piece of work, maybe because she herself was no longer comfortable with this side of Atticus? I guess we’ll never know…
Apart from the obvious objection one can have with the content of the book, there are other things that make its publication sound like a questionable as well as mysterious decision. The truth is, the Watchman book cannot stand on its own merit, because it is too self-referential. Jean Louise’s disbelief and initial outrage when faced with Atticus’s true self, makes sense ONLY if we’ve read the Mockingbird, in which he is depicted as a hero, and as a figure of absolute righteousness and integrity. A fact that again adds to the mystery concerning the book’s pedigree: this can only be so, if the Watchman was written after the Mockingbird! But again this does not make much sense if we consider that the Mockingbird was the work of an exquisite and mature writer, while the Watchman is a far less polished book that reads like the work of a talented, but inexperienced young author. In terms of its literary merits, this is a lesser book, but not entirely without its charms. The dialogues seem awkwardly written at times, especially when dealing with the political views of the protagonists, which sound more like long preachy monologues, but there is still beauty visible there. Like in the pastoral scenes, where she describes her beloved home land. And there is humour too, especially in those hilarious bits where she describes her utter boredom when faced with the banalities uttered by the local women which sound painfully familiar and are the kind of things still favoured by married women in small towns everywhere, when faced with single women. And even those parts of the book that may be seen in today’s terms as a bit old fashioned, do retain a certain sweetness that is quite charming. But this is no Mockingbird. This may be proof not of her lack of brilliance, but of not being given a proper chance to work on her material again and again, polishing away, until the rough diamond that is there, would shine. It is after all, a long process towards artistic perfection which requires endless reworkings and failed attempts. And the Watchman when compared to the Mockingbird is a proof of that. When faced with the half baked Watchman, the Mockingbird’s greatness may be seen as the result of her own hard work or it may be crediting her editor Tay Hohoff with real ingenuity. In any case, it affects our view of her skills as an author. So again, we come face to face with the question: WHY did she allow this almost unfinished book that is damaging to her - in more senses than one - be seen as it is?
Another speculation is that it was the act of her sister to keep it a secret for all these years and thus protect the author’s legacy by never publishing it. It may be so, since her sister Alice Lee who acted as her lawyer, died in November 2014 at the age of 103. The Watchman was discovered by another lawyer, shortly after, in Winter 2014, which may be too much of a coincidence… Maybe Watchman didn’t see the light until now, because of Alice Lee. Because of the thorny racist aspect that she knew would tarnish her sister’s reputation. Or maybe in order to protect the memory of their father, on whom Atticus was based. (Amasa Coleman Lee, their father, was like Atticus, a lawyer who once defended two black men accused of murdering a white man) It is also interesting to note that in the Mockingbird, the innocent young man was predictably convicted by the jury (like in the case of the real trial that inspired the story), but in the Watchman book, we are told that he was found innocent! Why is that? (Another mystery…)
Lee herself, who never cared to publish another book after the Mockingbird, and who lived her entire life away from the public eye, is now 89, living in a nursing home in Alabama. She is said to be wheelchair-bound, and largely deaf and blind after suffering a stroke in 2007. Some rumors claim she is now-a-days “forgetful”, some others that she is “able-minded and sharp”. In any case, her publishers admitted that they have never spoken directly to her about matters that concern the publication of the new book, and do all their “dealing” through her lawyer – the same one who came across the lost manuscript while going through Lee’s archives. If she is in any way incapacitated by sickness or old age, was she robed of her right to keep this novel which is damaging to her legacy as a civil rights icon AND as a brilliant author (The Mockingbird being such a masterpiece, The Watchman being a lesser piece of work) for ever a secret? Don’t artists even when are sick, old or even dead, retain the right to keep forever under lock and key the drafts that lead to masterpieces, their failed, unfinished, imperfect or rejected efforts? Is that the case here? Is it like Michael Jackson’s family releasing songs posthumously? Songs which he had probably rejected, otherwise he would have released them himself while he was alive? Is it like the relatives of famous people, authors, poets publishing everything they have ever written, unfinished and rejected by them pieces of work - personal letters and grocery lists included? Academics are still angry at Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra for example, for having burnt after her death, part of the letters they’ve exchanged, forgetting that she had every right to do that. They were not written for anyone else’s eyes but her own… “Ah the things we would have learned!” they say. Unaware that they have no right to say it…
In any case, the Watchman did get published and it did affect our view of Harper Lee both as a civil rights icon and as an author. Going through such lengths to present the ‘side” of the segregationists, may have been her way of understanding where her fellow Southerners, including presumably her own father – were coming from, but this has left us shocked, disappointed, devastated. A world in which Atticus is a racist, is simply a world that has stopped making sense any more…
I still haven’t watched the new Star Wars movie. I was looking forward to it. Now I’m dreading it. Cause I’m thinking, what if some dark horrible secret is revealed? What if Han Solo was behind the Death Star all along? I just don’t think my poor heart can take it…
This article was written in December 2015.
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