TCC Reads: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman is a hymn to the skill and wisdom of a good editor. This long-awaited novel is a first draft, and we must be grateful to the editor who saw in its pages the seeds of a masterful novel. Go Set a Watchman feels labored, and burdened with long monologues and too-clever set pieces, like the coffee Aunt Alexandra hosts for Jean Louise where the bits of conversations Jean Louise hears get strung together on the page as a clever, but unbelievable, series of unintended jokes, much like a studied game of adlibs. It’s meant to be funny, but the reader can feel Lee’s effort piecing together the dialogue puzzle.

Representing Tom Robinson in one part of the twentieth century was widely regarded as abhorrent as belonging to the White’s Citizens Council is regarded in the twenty-first.

To Kill a Mockingbird is spare, by comparison, no wasted words, no self-conscious attempts at meaning or humor and no long self conscious orations on race or the tenth amendment or the Methodist Book of Worship.

This story begins when a twenty-six year old Scout, now Jean Louise, Finch comes home to Maycomb, Alabama from New York City, where she has been living and working since her graduation from a southern women’s college. She comes to a world she wants to remain unchanged. So, she discovers, do the other members of her family. But their idea of change and hers do not mesh, and therein lies the conflict. Jean Louise wants to find her father, the hero of her childhood, still “the one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted,” even though her childhood is long past. (She also believes herself to be color-blind, which just gives you some idea how childish the grown woman, like the author, still is). She confronts an Atticus confronting challenges he neither expected nor welcomes.

As most devotees of To Kill a Mockingbird now know, Go Set a Watchman brings us to a Maycomb where Jem is dead, Calpurnia is retired, Atticus is crippled with arthritis and the NAACP is registering Black voters and monitoring the police and the courts with an eye to bringing lawsuits that will alter laws and lifestyles in the backwater southern town. Jean Louise is shocked to follow her adored father to a Sunday afternoon meeting and to find that he has joined the Whites’ Citizens Council. She is hurt, which we know because she goes to his office and lets him have it and then storms home to pack and leave. She is prevented from leaving by her uncle, Dr. Jack Finch, who smashes her in the face with his fist and then gives her Aunt Alexandra’s cooking whiskey, what he calls “missionary vanilla,” as an analgesic. He smashes the reader’s face with an overblown soliloquy on Victoriana as it relates to the south, which he considers England with kudzu. Or something. It’s just a mess, but some wise editor said, “No, go back, back before Jean Louise is grown and gone to New York and tell us that story. Oh, and by the way, lose Uncle Jack and Aunt Alexandra.” For which, anonymous toiler at Harper Collins, thanks.

The chief attention this book has drawn is from its depiction of Atticus Finch, Jean Louise’s revered father. He is, commentator after commentator has told us, revealed to have feet of clay. Was Atticus ever a champion of civil rights? Did he, always courteous and correct, ever have dealings with Calpurnia that were not on the level of employer and employee, served and servant? Atticus is a product of a particular time and a particular place. He is, also, in this book, and in To Kill a Mockingbird, a champion of the law and of the responsibility of a lawyer to take on and represent unpopular causes. In an age when many lawyers, just like the rest of us, see law as a kind of judicial lobbying for one cause or another, it’s easy to forget that part of the oath newly minted lawyers take is to represent unpopular clients. So Timothy McVeigh gets a lawyer and so does Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Representing either man doesn’t mean the lawyer likes or approves of their acts and agendas. It means the lawyer understands his or her responsibilities as an officer of the court. Recall that representing Tom Robinson (in To Kill a Mockingbird) in one part of the twentieth century was widely regarded as abhorrent as belonging to the White’s Citizens Council is regarded in the twenty-first. (Remember Kentucky Senator Robert A. Byrd, the much loved and revered Democrat who was once a member of the Klu Klux Klan?) In both cases, Atticus, rightly or wrongly, believes there is a legal principle at stake for which he is willing to fight. So, I don’t think Atticus has changed. I think the difference lies in the skills, much improved from this book to the next, of the author.

It is curious, though. Jean Louise’s curious Uncle Jack cautions her that, “As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God.” Sounds like the way so many of us have confused the character of Atticus Finch with God, and now, with the devil. He’s neither. He’s a man who tells his daughter his beliefs (badly because badly written), but admits that, even at the age of 72, he’s open to changing his mind, to being persuaded. Perhaps with a better author, we would see that fullness emerge. For now, look at Go Set a Watchman like that poem you wrote in eighth grade. It’s an interesting exercise, but not the work of a poet.

Harper Lee learned from her exercise and for that, and for her editor, we should be grateful.