Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Go Set a Watchman Opens a Window into History and Current Debates

I must confess. I read To Kill a Mockingbird annually, and I taught the novel to sophomores in high school for years. It was one of the few books that every student who didn’t avoid reading assignments enjoyed. The book is a fine coming-of-age story fraught with conflict, lightly seasoned with humor, and completed in loyalties and courage that heal hearts.

Having read about Harper Lee’s other novel, the one her older sister advised against publishing, I wasn’t sure what that other novel, titled Go Set a Watchman, could deliver. Having read that an agent advised Harper Lee to refocus the novel on the children and helped Lee write, revise and rewrite for approximately three years, I wondered if Go Set a Watchman would have the qualities that made To Kill a Mockingbird a prize -winning novel. And having read that Harper Lee’s sister watched Lee struggle to produce short stories and another novel until the sister finally gave Lee permission to stop trying, I doubted that Go Set a Watchman could rise to the level of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Go Set a Watchman has some of the qualities that made To Kill a Mockingbird a prize-winning novel, but Watchman does not rise to the level of Mockingbird. In this and a subsequent post, I’ll explain further. For today, however, I want to focus on Watchman’s place in history as an extended footnote explaining why Red state and Blue states are so different, why the matter of States’ rights is still at the heart of primary campaigns, and why South Carolinians were joined by Oklahomans and many others in protesting the retirement of the Confederate flag.

What you probably know by now if you listen to and read pundits, reviewers, and Facebook is that Atticus Finch held strong opinions about race--opinions that cast doubt upon his role as defense attorney for Tom Robinson--but let us not forget that Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird are two different novels with characters that happen to have the same name. In fact, those characters have roles in both novels, but Watchman is more a memoir than fiction while Mockingbird is more fiction than memoir. Watchman tells the story of Jean Louise, a twenty-six-year-old woman who has not realized her father has feet of clay. Watchman is the story of that woman’s initiation into adulthood by way of events that strip her father of his perfection and reveal him to be human. More important, Watchman shows Jean Louise standing on her own convictions, not her father’s. She suffers as adolescent characters do in initiation stories, and she resolves to embrace herself after suffering.

Alabama Capitol, Montgomery, Alabama
Photo provided by Al Griffin. Taken in 2010.

What we learn about Atticus is that he is a member of the Citizens’ Council and once attended a KKK meeting in order to see behind the masks, to know who in town was so full of racial and religious animosity that he swore allegiance to separatism and even violence. Atticus, we’re told, is more moderate. He’s not a rabid racist, but he is a man who does not believe African-Americans have evolved enough to govern, lead, vote, and self-determine. He defends the Tenth Amendment, hinting that it should weigh more heavily in Supreme Court decisions than the Fourteenth, and he resents the NAACP for trying to impose principles and policies from the outside upon those living inside the South.

Jean Louise, on the other hand, is color-blind and believes that white Southerners are entirely responsible for what will surely come their way. She foresees an inevitable reckoning because of what and who they are. She says of them in Chapter 13 (Audible edition):

“My aunt is a hostile stranger. . . . Why doesn’t their [white Southerners] flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do?”

Speeches written for Atticus could be speeches delivered today by candidates for office defending States against Big Government--candidates who believe as President Reagan believed: Government is the problem. State efforts to assert themselves in matters of the environment, education, and enterprise are direct descendents of the Tenth Amendment argument. State Attorneys General who decry the federal government’s role and now the Supreme Court’s authority in matters unrelated to the national defense are Atticus’ descendents. 

Atticus’ speeches about voting and voting rights could be used today to argue for gerrymandering and voter identification cards to insure that the best and right people have direct and easy access to the polls while others do not. Atticus merely argues in favor of white supremacy as the safer course for all, especially in elected leadership.

If you have a taste for political debate and a desire to understand the reasons the South still believes itself put upon, if you wish another point of view about current candidates calling for changes to or even eliminating the Supreme Court, then this novel offers a window into the minds of Red voters.

For that window into current events, the novel deserves to be read even though a full third of it is a polemic wherein Lee positions two characters across a desk or room talking at each other, giving each other sufficient time and words to explain, and countering the other's point of view. In life, such debates rarely occur so nicely--unless a moderator has established ground rules or a writer has superimposed order on a scene.

Literature demands verisimilitude and if it were present, Lee’s characters would interrupt each other, misunderstand each other, and shout at each other. In fact, Jean Louise does all of these while still managing to listen to Atticus. In a final bow to the love and regard the characters have for each other, they accept their differences and love each other more deeply.

Now that’s fiction--some would say! Others may not find it a fault, choosing instead to embrace the idealism.

Reading Challenge:

Read Go Set a Watchman, especially if you have a taste for polemics. I don’t--as I’ve confessed before.

Writing Challenge:


Rewrite the scene in which Atticus and Jean Louise confront each other across a desk in Atticus’ office. Make the Atticus and Jean Louise of your scene hold the same views as they did in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.