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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review of "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee

3.5 Stars

Many people have been asking whether they should read this book.  Some fear having their image of Atticus Finch tarnished and some are concerned about the circumstances surrounding the book’s publication.  I suggest that people read it but with an appropriate mindset.

DO NOT read this as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.  Superficially it might seem to be one; after all, Jean-Louise is twenty years older when she goes to visit her 72-year-old father Atticus in Maycomb.  We learn what has happened to some of the characters encountered in TKAM:  Jem, Dill, Calpurnia.  And, yes, it is a type of coming-of-age novel, like TKAM.  This time Jean-Louise learns that her father has flaws:  “[She had] confused [Atticus] with God.  [She had] never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings” (265). She also learns that she has to let her own conscience guide her; at first she declares, “I need a watchman to lead me around” (181) not realizing until later that her conscience, not some other person like her father, must be her guide because “’Every man’s island, . . . every man’s watchman, is his conscience’” (265).

DO read the book as “the parent” of TKAM, which is supposedly what Lee called it.  GSAW was written before the book that has become so beloved by so many.   Parts of GSAW appear verbatim in TKAM:  “Instead, Maycomb grew and sprawled out from its hub, Sinkfield’s Tavern, because Sinkfield . . .  induced [the surveyors] to bring forward their maps and charts, lop off a little here, add a bit there, and adjust the center of the county to meet his requirements.  He sent them packing the next day armed with their charts and five quarts of shinny in their saddlebags – two apiece and one for the Governor” (43 GSAW; 133 TKAM).  At other times, minor wording changes are made.  “when the time came for John Hale Finch to choose a profession, he chose medicine.  He chose to study it at a time when cotton was one cent a pound . . . Atticus . . . spent and borrowed every nickel he could find to put on his brother’s education” (89 GSAW) becomes “he invested his earnings in his brother’s education.  John Hale Finch . . . chose to study medicine at a time when cotton was worth nothing” (9 TKAM).  Certain events are obvious parallels:  Aunt Alexandra hosts a Coffee to welcome her niece in GSAW whereas in TKAM she hosts the Missionary Society; in GSAW, Jean-Louise observes her father at a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council from “her old place in the corner of the front row [of the Colored balcony], where she and her brother had sat when they went to court to watch their father” (105).

The Tom Robinson trial figures prominently in TKAM but it is mentioned only briefly in GSAW and with a major change.  In the precursor novel, Jean-Louise mentions, “he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge” (109); in TKAM, Atticus has only a moral victory.  There are other interesting deviations; for example, in GSAW, when Scout is twelve she wonders, “Would Jem cry?  If so, it would be the first time” (135) whilst TKAM has Jem crying after the guilty verdict at Tom Robinson’s trial:  “It was Jem’s turn to cry” (214).

I would add that, like Atticus, GSAW is a flawed parent.  The first one hundred pages meander:  Jean-Louise returns home and visits with Aunt Alexandra, Atticus, and Henry Clinton, her wannabe husband.   It is only with Jean-Louise’s discovery of her father’s reading of a pamphlet entitled The Black Plague (101) that the novel seems to find its focus.  Even then, in terms of plot, very little happens:  there are a lot of long conversations especially between Jean-Louise and her uncle and her father.  Certainly in terms of plotting, GSAW is weak.  In these conversations, much may be beyond the understanding of readers.  Uncle Jack launches into a long history lesson about Southern racial history; realistic dialogue it is not.  And Atticus and his daughter argue about the Tenth Amendment and a Supreme Court decision, though neither is ever explained; only someone versed in states’ rights and the Brown vs Brown ruling will be able to make sense of that discussion, even though it is part of a climactic scene.

That is not to say that GSAW does not have strengths.  A twenty-six-year-old Scout is exactly as readers of TKAM would expect her to be.  She refuses to submit to conventional expectations of women so she and Aunt Alexandra continue to butt heads.  The flashbacks to Scout’s adolescence are wonderful, probably the best part of the novel.  Especially because of when it was written, the book provides a very clear view of what most whites in Alabama in the 1950s would have felt in the face of the civil rights movement; even Jean-Louise admits she was “furious” when she heard about the Supreme Court’s school-desegregation ruling because “’there they were, tellin’ us what to do again. . . . to meet the real needs of a small portion of the population, the Court set up something horrible that could – that could affect the vast majority of folks. Adversely ‘” (238 – 239).  It seems that Jean-Louise shares her father and uncle’s “’constitutional mistrust of paternalism and government in large doses’” (198).

Which brings us to Atticus’ racist comments which have already been quoted so often.  He does say, “’Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?  Do you want them in our world?’” (245) and “’Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?’” (246) and “’you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people’” (246). We even learn that Atticus once joined the KKK though Jean-Louise is told, “’Mr. Finch has no more use for the Klan than anybody . . . You know why he joined?  To find out exactly what men in town were behind the masks.  . . . all the Klan was then was a political force. . . He had to know who he’d be fighting if the time ever came to –‘” (229 -230). He introduces a speaker at a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, a speaker who proceeds to spew hatred, though Atticus tells his daughter that he considers that man a sadist but he let him speak “’Because he wanted to’” (250).  This is certainly a harsher portrayal of Atticus than that found in TKAM, yet he is certainly recognizable in his willingness to let people speak their views regardless of his agreement with them.  Jack’s description of his brother certainly sounds like the Atticus of TKAM:  “’- the Klan can parade around all it wants, but when it starts bombing and beating people, don’t you know who’d be the first to try and stop it? . . . The law is what he lives by.  He’ll do his best to prevent someone from beating up somebody else . . . but remember this, he’ll always do it by the letter and by the spirit of the law’” (268).

GSAW may have people returning to TKAM for a closer look at Atticus.  He, for example, didn’t choose to defend Tom Robinson; “the court appointed him” (165).  What about his comments about the racist neighbour, Mrs. Dubose:  “’She was [a lady]’” (116)?  And he does comment on the KKK:  “’Way back about nineteen-twenty there was a Klan, but it was a political organization more than anything’” (149).  Perhaps the reader, like Jean-Louise, has to see Atticus in a more realistic way, has to “welcome him silently to the human race” (278)? 

Despite being disenchanted, the reader should not see GSAW as totally dishearteningThe title of the book, a Biblical allusion, refers to the prediction that Babylon will fall.  The implication is that Maycomb and the South will fall; Uncle Jack says as much to his niece:  “’The South’s in its last agonizing birth pain. . . . It’s bringing forth something new . . . but I won’t be here to see it.  You will.  Men like me and my brother are obsolete and we’ve got to go’” (200).  Jean-Louise is colour-blind and has no difficulty expressing her views; she may be seen as the new moral compass. 

So . . . read Go Set a Watchman, keeping in mind that it is an unedited manuscript from which To Kill a Mockingbird was derived.  Written in the 1950s, it provides a look at Alabama in the early years of the civil rights movement from a white person’s point of view.  It may not be a pretty picture but one need only look at the news to see that much has not changed.  It may not become such an integral part of school curricula but, as an early draft, it can be especially useful for writing classes.  If I were still teaching, I could see many discussions:  Why does the first person point of view in TKAM work so much better than the third person used in GSAW?  Why is plot structure so much more effective in TKAM?  Why would the portrayal of Atticus have been softened in TKAM?  Which novel is more effective in developing the theme of disillusion?  When there is a discrepancy between events, why was the version in TKAM chosen?

So . . . read the book, and like Jean-Louise is required to do, become your own watchman/woman.