Friday, July 17, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

When it was first announced that Harper Lee had a second book, a predecessor of sorts to her beloved and wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird, I think many of us who are readers and writers and teachers were first shocked, then delighted. Another novel by Lee! How wonderful! Of course it should be published with pomp and ceremony and fanfare!

I know that there is much debate in the press about this novel, not only about the odd timing (after Alice Lee’s death, it was suddenly found underneath a Mockingbird manuscript), but also that it was the rough first novel that led to the editor suggesting the change in point of view and age of the heroine. I read a couple of articles on the eve of its publication with attention-grabbing headlines about Atticus Finch being a racist, and I decided then and there to avoid reading anything else (including my friends’ reviews and comments on social media sites) and, to borrow a line from The Great Gatsby’s narrator Nick, “to reserve all judgments” until I had finished the book myself.

Let me state at the outset I don’t think there will be much debate about authorship. In anticipating this novel’s arrival on my doorstep, I reread To Kill a Mockingbird, and it is evident from the very first page that the author of Go Set a Watchman is the same. In fact, there are a few passages that are nearly identical in both books (one about the Cunningham family, another about Aunt Alexandra, among others). This book was not edited in the same way, which is consistent with the story of its origin.

Here is a comparison that came to mind last night that may help make sense for other readers: If you have read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, then you likely remember finishing These Happy Golden Years and rushing to read The First Four Years—and perhaps feeling disappointed that the book was not the same, somehow. It was about the same people, and it follows in time and story, but the prose was sparser, stark in places, with a darker tone and a very different feel. We never doubted the author was the same, and the editorial note added confidence. What we know now is that The First Four Years was not edited by Wilder’s editor, her own daughter Rose, and that is precisely why its prose is darker and sparser.

I get the same impression from Watchman. The prose is darker, the subject matter heavier, and the point of view of a young adult woman dealing with the changes she sees in her father—and by extension her hometown—is also heavier and harder than what we find in Mockingbird.

If the legend of this book’s history is to be believed, then the editor who first suggested that Lee change Scout’s age and rewrite the story about Maycomb, setting it in the middle of the Great Depression and focusing on Boo Radley and the Tom Robinson trial from her younger self’s point of view, was a genius. Mockingbird is a better book by far. However, I think that if we take away the media hype surrounding its predecessor, Go Set a Watchman has much to offer.

I found Jean Louise to be a believable heroine, a reliable narrator with flaws of her own, who goes through one of the most difficult transitions of adulthood throughout the course of this novel: She realizes her father, whom she idolizes, is not the man she thought he was. Indeed, the passage detailing Atticus and racism is a difficult one, and I had to set the novel aside for a time after reading it. I can see why the media has grabbed onto that one scene and splashed it across the headlines. It is difficult to read, yet powerful. But whether or not Atticus Finch was racist isn’t the point of the novel at all. Jean Louise’s journey is the point. It is her story, and it is her struggle, and who among us who has realized the faults of their admired parents hasn’t faced the same crisis of belief and identity? I can recall three separate incidents in my own adulthood where I had to come face-to-face with some major issues involving my parents and decide within myself that those things did not have to change my love for them. The pedestals broke and I found myself on the same ground as my parents, a human being with flaws and sins, who made mistakes and was not perfect. Parents should not be idols, and the process by which adults come to terms with this fact is probably as different as each individual and family.

Jean Louise has to come to terms with her father’s flaws, and it is a difficult thing indeed. How many of us after reading To Kill a Mockingbird felt like Atticus Finch was the ultimate hero? How many of us who also watched the famous film of the novel still hear Gregory Peck’s voice pleading “In the name of God, do your duty” at the end of his defense of Tom Robinson in the summer-hot Maycomb courtroom? I wonder if the criticisms we will read in upcoming weeks will have something to do with the smashing of the pedestal of a literary hero and the personal stories of each of us and how we view Atticus Finch and his daughter Jean Louise, their relationship, and whether there is any truth to the old saying, “You can’t go home again.”

So the question becomes, should you read this novel? I will say yes and no. I still think To Kill a Mockingbird should be required reading, and I strongly encourage you to read it if you haven’t already. Go Set a Watchman is a powerful story in its own right, and while I don’t think it approaches the genius of Mockingbird, I think it has much to offer as its predecessor. Novelists should read it as Lee’s first novel and marvel at how much more wonderful her prose and story become in her masterpiece. Literary scholars and English teachers will find much to pick apart and analyze in its symbols, sometimes disjointed plot, and overall themes. Historians will glory in its historical context and sociologists will enjoy placing it in the turbulent times leading up to the Civil Rights movement. But if you are a person who wants Scout and Atticus Finch and Maycomb to stay the same as they are in the final pages of To Kill a Mockingbird and you don’t want your views of them tainted in any way, by all means do not read Watchman.

A final note: In light of the turbulence of 2015 with regard to race and prejudice and bigotry within our country, I think this book offers a point of view worth considering. Will the racial rift in our nation ever be healed? 

(To read my review of To Kill a Mockingbird, click here.)

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