discover your poetic possibilities
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read the book, you might wish to do so before tackling this review or attacking this reviewer.
Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has caused quite a stir.
First, people weren’t sure she was of sound mind and thought perhaps she was being manipulated when she released it. Horseshit. From personal encounters I’ve read, she is as bright as ever (and brighter than most).
Second, how dare she change Atticus from an upright, perfect gentleman with a strong moral code to a racist! But was he? I think he was far ahead of his Southern neighbors in the 1950s, as was Lee ahead of her contemporaries. But we’ll return to that.
We need to begin with Harper Lee’s wonderful telling of a story. If you rushed into the book trying to get to the “juicy” part where we find out the horridness about Atticus, do yourself a favor and read it again. Slow down and enjoy the childhood memories she shares, the scenes she sets, the language she uses. Read these marvelous lines again:
If you did not want much, there was plenty.
“I’m not familiar with the author,” she said, thus condemning the book forever.
When she looked thus, only God and Robert Browning knew what she was likely to say.
Had she [Aunt Alexandra] been obliged to pay any emotional bills during her earthly life, Jean Louise could imagine her stopping at the check-in desk in heaven and demanding a refund.
And those lines are all just from Part I (of VII).
It’s almost hard to believe Watchman was written first. Knowing the true complexity of her characters, Atticus in particular (and while this is the focus, there are so many other layers to the book), how was she able to pull off Mockingbird? It’s because she respects that Scout is then a child and sees everything from a child’s point of view. Lee refrains from “correcting” Scout’s impressions because they are not wrong. She sees her father as she sees him. Period.
In To Kill a Mockingbird:
“Do you defend niggers, Atticus?” I asked him that evening.
“Of course I do. Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common.”
” ‘s what everybody at school says.”
“From now on it’ll be everybody less one.” . . .
“Do all lawyers defend n-Negroes, Atticus?”
“Of course they do, Scout.” . . . “I’m simply defending a Negro—his name’s Tom Robinson.”
Referring to the same case in Go Set a Watchman:
Atticus Finch rarely took a criminal case; he had no taste for criminal law. The only reason he took this one was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy go to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense.
Scout adored Atticus. If she had found out as a child that he had “pursued the case to its conclusion with every spark of his ability and with an instinctive distaste so bitter only his knowledge that he could live peacefully with himself was able to wash it away,” she would have either 1) hated him or 2) accepted his sentiments and started believing that black people were somehow inferior. As an adult, she is ready to face her father’s personal attitude, and even then it almost destroys her. She misses that Atticus does what’s right despite not wanting to do it. It takes a strong person with solid values to do that.
Jean Louise doesn’t make her “discovery” until chapter 8, a full one hundred pages into the book. And when she does, she can’t stomach the fact that her father and aunt and Henry all seem to be strangers, that she didn’t know how they felt before this. [And by the way, for those who complain that she is not “Scout,” what a ridiculous thing to let bother you. That’s her childhood nickname and is still used occasionally by her elders in this book. Honestly, people!] It eats away at her that she imagined she knew them completely, and especially that she thought her father above everything:
But a man who has lived by truth—and you have believed in what he has lived—he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing.
But Atticus does leave his daughter with something: independence and freedom to form her own opinions—about Maycomb, about him, about life. It’s Atticus who suggests she live in New York after graduating college because he knows she will not learn to think for herself otherwise. When Jean Louise finally angrily and viciously confronts him (and let me tell you, that scene was brilliant—read it on more than one level, from more than one point of view), he listens to her and tries to explain his perspective. And his perspective, if you read it carefully, makes sense to a person with a lawyer’s logic:
“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ’em? . . . Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people . . . They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of ’em voting than ever before. Then the NAACP stepped in with its fantastic demands and shoddy ideas of government—can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?”
Before you jump up screaming and waving your fists, consider that this is a 72-year-old man in the South in the 1950s. Consider, too, what Jean Louise recalls:
Many times she had seen him in the grocery store waiting his turn in line behind Negroes and God knows what. She had seen Mr. Fred raise his eyebrows at him, and her father shake his head in reply. He was the kind of man who instinctively waited his turn; he had manners.
Atticus is ahead of his time. He is not a hypocrite. He is polite to everyone because that is who he is. He is not a racist. Racism is fueled by hatred. Atticus does not hate anyone, not in Mockingbird and not in Watchman. Others are afraid of those not like themselves. That’s not Atticus either. But he’s grown up with things a certain way and he’s not sure anyone in his town, black or white, can handle change at that pace, especially when he feels civil rights are being forced on them.
Don’t get me wrong. The Civil Rights Movement was long overdue. I am not agreeing with Atticus, but I understand his rationale at his age in that time. And I understand Harper Lee sharing his mindset with us. (What I do not understand is our current mindset—more on that later.)
Near the end of their debate, with Jean Louise firing away and Atticus calmly responding, he says, “I’ve killed you, Scout. I had to.”
That line is crucial. He has taught her to think for herself and he recognizes that the next generation will be better than his. That’s the gift we give our children. We don’t force our beliefs and biases on them. We let them decide for themselves, even if we privately think differently. That’s a selfless love, difficult for many parents, impossible for some. Me? I want my children to be better than I am. I want them to love the imperfect person I am, but to imitate only my good qualities and to reject my bad ones.
Jean Louise isn’t seeing that and feels betrayed, not just by her father, but by everyone in town. Uncle Jack, and you may or may not agree with his method for grabbing her attention (that part was a bit jarring), opens her eyes:
“You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings . . . You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.”
“You’ve no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you’ve been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, ‘I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’ You’d better take time for ’em, honey, otherwise you’ll never grow.”
” . . . the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong . . .”
If you didn’t heed my Spoiler Alert and you haven’t read the book, better stop reading this and go pick it up. If you have read Watchman, we’re getting to my favorite part:
She went to him. “Atticus, she said. “I’m—”
“You may be sorry, but I’m proud of you.”
She looked up and saw her father beaming at her . . .
“Well, I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right—stand up to me first of all.”
Notice how we’re back to not teaching children our “truths” or to follow blindly, but teaching them to take what they need (her father’s compassion, kindness, dedication to justice, and his love for her) and reject what no longer makes sense in a changing world (his misguided thoughts on civil rights):
As she welcomed him silently into the human race, the stab of discovery made her tremble a little.
Made me tremble a little, too.
And now, let’s bring Harper Lee’s Watchman into this millennium. Is it any less relevant today? Harper Lee did not turn a “decent man” into a “racist.” What she has done is remind us that we have a long way to go. We shouldn’t need reminding, but we continue to pat ourselves on the backs, convince ourselves that we are enlightened, insist that everyone has the same opportunities.
We are not there yet and we know it. We cannot ignore what’s been happening in America (police targeting black men and women; gun massacres; hate crimes against anyone different) and across the globe (suicide bombings; ISIS; hate crimes against anyone different).
ACKNOWLEDGE what’s wrong, THINK deeply about what must change, DECIDE what role you play, and DO something.
As Uncle Jack tells Jean Louise, “every man’s watchman, is his conscience.”
Go set your watchman. Let’s leave this world knowing we made a difference.