Sunday, August 2, 2015

How to be a Person when Atticus Finch is not who you thought he was

Some background: Months ago, when rumors surfaced regarding the existence of a *second* Harper Lee novel, I geeked out. All the way. Out. And I'm not even a super To Kill a Mockingbird fangirl with a kid named Atticus and another named Finch. In fact, I've only read the novel once - never had to read it in high school, bought a cheap copy in college, and decided to read it a couple of summers ago.

Loved it.

So I was super happy at the idea of another Harper Lee novel.

Like most red-blooded Americans.

And then like many other people, I began to feel conflicted about whether I should read this novel, since it was also rumored that Harper Lee never wanted it published,* and that people currently taking care of her and making decisions on her behalf are taking advantage of her old age and diminished ability to keep track of what they're doing.


But I worked through those feelings of guilt at the realization that so many writers' work has been published posthumously, and many of them - Dickinson comes to mind - would be mortified to know their works were in anything like a canon of American literature. So I pre-ordered my copy of Go Set a Watchman and spent a weekend in bed reading it. What follows is my review of this novel.

It contains spoilers. A lot of them.

Summary Watchman concerns itself with a handful of characters, most of whom featured prominently in To Kill A Mockingbird as well: We still encounter Scout, Atticus, and Calpurnia; Hank and Aunt Alexandra feature more prominently; we meet Uncle Jack. These few characters and the ways they interact comprise the meat of the story.

The novel opens as 26 year-old Scout Finch makes her annual train ride home to Maycomb for her annual two-week visit with Atticus and the town that raised her. Scout's father Atticus is now 72 and arthritic, and his sister Alexandra has moved in with him to take care of him. The plot begins to come into focus: Scout and childhood friend Hank are involved in a semi-serious courtship. Aunt Alexandra mightily disapproves of Scout's general demeanor (she still isn't feminine or genteel enough, neither does she silence her voice when she hears people around her speaking about black people in ways she thinks are wrong). And gradually Watchman unwinds the "truth" after Scout discovers Hank, her father, and Uncle Jack in a meeting wherein the black people of Maycomb and the NAACP are referred to...unfavorably.

Scout's visit includes lots of mental trips down memory lane, as she recalls the case her father famously undertook - and won! - to clear a black man who'd been wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. [This case is undoubtedly the same as the case at the center of To Kill A Mockingbird, and I find it interesting that in this version of that case Atticus won.] Scout also recalls childhood summers spent with her brother Jem - whom we learned dropped dead suddenly outside his father's law office, of the same heart condition that killed his mother while she rocked in a chair on the front porch. And through Scout's remembrances we get to see childhood friend Dill, the adult version of whom presently resides abroad. A key memory of Scout's is one wherein she recalls how Calpurnia, Atticus's hired help who took care of his house and children and who- in Scout's mind - was a part of their family, would change the way she spoke when company came around for dinner. Scout remembers knowing as a child that Calpurnia spoke "Jefferson Davis's English" perfectly well, but she would drop her verbs and put on her company manners when unfamiliar dinner guests were around.

The reason for this memory's importance comes into play when one of Calpurnia's relatives gets into trouble, and when the family calls on Atticus to help, Hank - his law partner - answers that Atticus won't help (which is false). And before Atticus can set the record straight that he will in fact help Calpurnia's family member, an invisible but very real wall rises up between Calpurnia and the family she's worked for all these years. Scout goes to Cal's house to speak to her, notices how conversation quiets when she arrives, men leave their conversations and stand and take off their hats. And she hates it. But then it gets worse: when she gets to Cal's room to talk to her, apologize to her, she finds that Cal has put on her company manners. And she refuses to take them off.

And here is where Scout seems to lose it. She heads over to her eccentric uncle for some kind of Explanation, receives one she does not entirely understand, then in her rage breaks up with Hank whom she sees as a racist and a coward (he has a slight sympathetic appeal but really?), and then she tells. Atticus. Off.

The novel ends with an awkward reconciliation between Scout and Atticus - after her Uncle has slapped her out of her hysteria. And then life- we assume - goes on.

Review: If this had been an assignment for my students, I'd have expected them to spend some time analyzing the novel before moving on to telling me their opinion. But "Watchman" contains so many nuanced cultural and literary references that I know full well went right over my head, that I couldn't complete an adequate analysis at this point if I tried. So here's my thoughts...

This novel is not an easy read. Atticus is no longer superhuman, and he may not even be likeable, let alone the father you may wish your father was more like. He's human here, and he's a product of his time. Scout's idealism and impulsivity contrast starkly to his cool demeanor, and so my first criticism is that Scout seems to be the only of the main characters to really be on the right side of history, and her message is easily tarnished by her youthful rashness. That said, Scout speaks a lot of truth when she goes off on her dad. I can't say she's right to talk to him the way she did, but she says a lot of correct things in her diatribe.

As a coming of age story, I think this novel is important. In fact, it may be more important than the novel that made its author famous. Because its plot doesn't depend on a superhuman, unconventionally wise, white male character saving the innocent black man who can do nothing to save himself, this novel is especially timely as well. Its characters are vivid, human, puzzling, complex, and in the end not much gets resolved except that family members must agree to disagree. This is at first deflating. I'll even share with you that I was still shaking when the novel ended, in outrage at some of what these characters had to say, about their opinions on the way of the world, the complexity of what was - and still is - a mighty simple case of racism entrenched in and intertwined with southern culture. This novel's plot is flawed not in its prose but in its characters' very human fallibility, in their staunch unwillingness to accept needed changes occurring in society at large because they disagreed with the methods used to achieve that change, and the speed at which it was headed their way.

If Atticus is the hero of To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout is the hero of Watchman. I'd suggest you read it with open eyes and heart, and be aware that the parallels between the historical setting of this novel's events and the events unfolding around us in America today are many.

Watchman takes its title from Isaiah 62:6 - "O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually. Take no rest, all you who pray to the LORD." I have concluded that Harper Lee's ultimate purpose in writing this novel was to encourage us all to examine our consciences, to take no rest.

And so we should.**

*Word around the Google water cooler is that Harper Lee wrote Watchman before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, from the point of view of Scout as an adult. When she presented Watchman to her potential editor/publisher, the editor's suggestion was that she re-work the novel to be form Scout's point of view as a child; the resulting novel after that self-revision process is To Kill a Mockingbird.

**Apologies if I misrepresented any details in the novel. I didn't highlight or dogear my copy, and it was hard to go back and find specific passages without any markers.

No comments: