Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Evidence and Memory: Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee in 1961. (Photo: Donald Uhrbrock/Time & Life Pictures)

The New York Times announced on February 3 the imminent publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins; 278 pp.)—an early manuscript, the rejected draft of which inspired a rewrite resulting in To Kill a Mockingbird, winner of a 1960 Pulitzer Prize and still among the most beloved of American novels. The manuscript, thought to be lost or destroyed, had lately been discovered by Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer, but doubts were immediately raised about the legitimacy of its publication. The 88-year-old Lee, it was pointed out, had suffered a stroke in 2007, and might be insufficiently compos mentis to authorize (or even understand) the release of a moldering, long since rejected work—one which, in any case, she herself had not seen fit to publish in all the intervening years, despite every opportunity and incentive to do so. Added to this was the fact that Lee’s sister and protector, Alice, had died in the fall of 2014: some claimed that Alice, at Harper’s behest, had purposely blocked publication of Watchman, and that its appearance so soon after her death smelled of exploitative cause and effect. Yet statements endorsing the publication and attributed to Lee were released through her publisher and lawyer, and her agent—while noting his client’s puzzlement about why people were interested in the book now—indicated no veto action on her part. That the same publisher, lawyer, and agent all stand to benefit nicely from the publication is duly noted, but others visiting Lee at her assisted-living facility in Alabama have likewise claimed that she is well aware of, and quite happy about, the book’s appearance.

Book sales have seldom if ever been hurt by controversy, and Watchman has commanded the largest preorder in its publisher’s history. But within an overwhelmingly affirmative popular response have been individual optings-out from some of the very people who under other circumstances would have stood in line for a publication-day copy. These people declared that they had decided not to read the “new” novel—some out of respect for what are said to be Lee’s thwarted wishes, but most frankly because they don’t care to befoul their love of Mockingbird by subjecting themselves to Watchman’s widely-reported revision of its most revered character. For a range of these declarations, Google the phrase “I won’t read Go Set a Watchman” and see the demurrers, expressed in varying degrees of passion, of everyone from a Dutch Reformed theologian to a London theatergoer to rank-and-file book bloggers—each of whom no doubt loves To Kill a Mockingbird every bit as much as I do, if not more.

At the center of Mockingbird are the voice of its narrator, pre-teen tomboy Jean Louise Finch—known as Scout—and the character of her father, Atticus, state legislator and part-time lawyer in small-town Alabama. Atticus, whom the worshipful Scout reckons “the bravest man who ever lived,” defends a black man charged with raping a white girl; snipes a rabid dog with gimlet-eyed precision; offers keen advice and unfailing guidance; has a rich sense of humor and exercises discipline only regretfully. Atticus is a children’s saint. Not plaster, he’s too subtle and interesting for that, but a saint nonetheless, one molded in flesh from warm qualities and loving description. The novel, unlike the 1962 film version, is less about the rape trial and its aftermath than it is a collection of episodes focusing on a set of people and a community over the recurring cycle of a few key summers. The consistency, grace, and fullness of the telling, not the drive of plotted narrative, render Mockingbird novelistic rather than merely anecdotal; it has the spun, holistic quality of tapestry, something conjured whole from a single weave of memory.

Watchman, though it was written first, occurs two decades after Mockingbird, with Scout a young woman of 26, an unsettled transplant living in New York City. (We aren’t told what she does there, or much about the nature of her life.) Watchman contains much of the regional history and local color familiar from Mockingbird, whole paragraphs of which turn up here in rough draft. The details of the rape case are different—the girl was 14 rather than 19, and the “colored boy” was acquitted. There is not a word about Boo Radley, Mockingbird’s ghostly recluse, the “malevolent phantom” down the street at first so feared by the Finch children, then seen clear by Scout in an epiphany of understanding. Scout’s idolized older brother, Jem, has been dead two years; their summer comrade Dill, a fun-loving liar with a “fat cherub face” (based on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote), has long since drifted out of touch.

Such details of familiarity or omission, while minor, will scrape a bit the soul of anyone who knows and loves To Kill a Mockingbird. But the real rupture—which fed the other part of the initial Watchman controversy—is the new novel’s depiction of Atticus Finch as a pompous septuagenarian and sententious bigot. In the winter of his years, Atticus is slowed by rheumatoid arthritis and a sense of resignation, excited by little save his contempt for northern agitators, the encroaching power of the NAACP, and the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating America’s public schools (“the Supreme Court’s bid for immortality,” he calls it). Jarring this certainly is. But most interesting is the fact that, as a fictional creation, the Atticus of Watchman predates the one of Mockingbird. Reread the latter novel and see how the saint is extracted, as a less withered or weathered essence, from the bigot. A few digs at New Deal-era social engineering suggest the younger Atticus’s indignation at government intervention—consistent with his view, in Watchman, of an overreaching Supreme Court and his elevation of states’ rights. When, in Mockingbird, Scout says “nigger,” Atticus admonishes her against using the word—not because it degrades and dehumanizes blacks but because it’s “common,” used only by “ignorant, trashy people.” Despite his aura of wisdom, the younger (that is, middle-aged) Atticus is afflicted with a myopia shared by smart but complacent people blind to what is before their eyes: “The Ku Klux’s gone,” he tells his children in Mockingbird’s mid-1930s. “It’ll never come back.” (Did he live to see the gruesomely renascent Klan of the Sixties?) Reading the novels in tandem, it’s easy to see that the two Atticuses (Attici?) are quite the same man, and how the rupture presented by Watchman is in fact only a jump-cut past the long and gradual process of aging poorly—of hardening and shrinking, of shedding ideals and options, of settling and sinking in the sediments of one’s worst, narrowest self.

Jean Louise seems not to have witnessed any of this process in her father. When she watches Atticus attend, without protest or rebuttal, to the genocidal foamings of a bigot who makes George Wallace sound conciliatory, it is a trauma for which she is utterly unprepared. The crux of the novel is her (literally) sickened response to that trauma, and her recognition that she must deal, as Harper Lee’s readers must deal, with what lay inside the saintly father all along and is now brought out by the heightened social stakes of the Civil Rights Movement. The emotional stakes of Go Set a Watchman, meanwhile, are all dependent on Jean Louise, and she is the best thing about the novel—an appealing and companionable protagonist, a yawning, arm-stretching scorner of ladylike behavior, passionate yet objective, both hardheaded and a born daydreamer. Many scenes take the form of long conversations between Jean Louise and others—her father, her uncle, her aunt, the young suitor she’s known since childhood—on the peculiar size and shape of their individual bigotries. These conversations, effectively refuting any assumption that all racisms are the same, are full of rationalizations, condemnations, and subtleties both political and regional; they are heatedly written, and quite interesting as they are read. But they evaporate quickly. The clashing ideas and opposing sides don’t seep into a reader’s mind or heart because they are really only thick gray clouds of idea matter following Jean Louise around, occasionally spitting rhetorical lightning but never seeming to emerge from dimensional characters—who, as the history of these two books tells us, were never characters so much as placeholders for figures later reimagined with greater delicacy, to less didactic purpose, in another space of time and frame of memory.


Go Set a Watchman is now published; it exists. That makes it a form of evidence—of Harper Lee’s writing, of the American “social problem” novel, of racial furor in the US broadly and the Deep American South of the 1950s specifically. To abjure it in imagined solidarity with an author some believe to be unwilling or unconscious doesn’t strike me as an impressive ethic: on the same logic Kafka would be forgotten today, given that most of his short stories and all of his novels were published after his death and against his explicit command that every word be destroyed.

What has interested me about the novel’s appearance—more, quite honestly, than what is in its pages—is how the controversy has pointed up differences in desire between the critical and, for lack of a better counter-word, the non-critical reader. Jane Schilling, the London correspondent noted above, puts it this way: “For literary scholars, everything a writer produces has its own particular charm. For the rest of us, common readers who open Watchman hoping for enchantment and find it absent, the publication of Lee’s ‘lost’ first novel is a reminder that writing a masterpiece is not an act of magic, but a grim slog of failing, trying again and failing better.” None of which any critic, “literary scholar” or not, would deny. The difference obtains in the desire to know versus the desire to leave well enough alone. “evaschan,” author of a blog called Coffee, Classics, and Craziness, describes why she would rather not subject herself to a revisionist view of Atticus Finch:
I don’t think I could handle it; it would really hurt, and for what? . . . Maybe I’m being a coward, but I want my perspective of Atticus, To Kill a Mockingbird, and fictional characters in general to remain constant. Right now, I don’t need any more upheavals in my life. I need to remember Atticus as “the bravest man who ever lived,” not a racist bigot.
For what Schilling calls the “common” reader, a beloved book is a pristine object reposing in a personal museum of thought, feeling, and memory. The critic meanwhile carries around his own museum, for he too is a common reader, a human with thoughts, feelings, memories; but he’s also possessed of that nagging need to see, read, and hear a bit more, even if it means unlocking the display cases and handling the jewels inside. The risk, as readers both common and critical know well, is that those jewels might turn to paste in the process of revisiting and reviewing, of filtering tender memory through mature consciousness, or testing epiphany against additional evidence. Sometimes the risk redounds to the good, and the jewels shine higher in new light: The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Sound and the Fury, and Hemingway’s stories are works of great importance to my adolescence that have grown along with me, gotten deeper rather than shallower with time. Other works, once just as impressive, haven’t held up so well; Bonnie and Clyde is a personal example. You won’t know until you know. But the critic has to know.

As one of the millions who read To Kill a Mockingbird several times in adolescence and still feel close to it, I’m heartened to see the book take its place in that first group. It meets the challenge of an adult’s thought process; it holds up. And although as a critic I knew I needed to read Watchman, as curator of my personal museum I feel regret that Mockingbird can never again be the book it’s been for the past 55 years. New evidence has changed the case: the classic will always be qualified by its prequel, its tragedies and affirmations smudged and skewed by the moral contingencies of the text from which it grew. Mockingbird was crucial to generations of American kids less for its literary qualities than as an introduction, via nostalgia and ideal, to the ugly truths and insoluble complexities of America’s racial history. Terribly beautiful and beautifully sad, the novel awakened a sense of what racial injustice was—albeit through white eyes, white life governed and protected by the paternal intentions of staunch, right-minded men like Atticus Finch. Now, here comes Watchman to queer that elementary arithmetic, confuse that piercing yet—for white kids, anyway—resolvable sadness. From this point on, no one will be able to read Mockingbird entirely innocently, as we did. Always, kids will see this “other” Harper Lee novel beside it on the shelf, imposing itself as fact and evidence, and even if they don’t read it they will know it as a smirch on the face of a classic, as a question mark, a problem, a shadow, even a shame.

“He would be there all night,” goes Mockingbird’s famous last sentence, referring to Atticus in the bedroom of his unconscious son, “and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” Those who have decided they will never read Go Set a Watchman—or who, for that matter, shun other books for similar reasons—want to go on knowing that Atticus will be there in the morning. They have every right and good reason to want that. But others of us find our literary sustenance, our pleasure and even our comfort, in doubt, or at least uncertainty. The fear of a transforming darkness is a large part of why we read in the first place: we’re driven to ecstasies of wonderment by just such ambiguities as these. Not that we’re necessarily any better as readers, or any less common than another; only that we are different. We wonder what would happen if Atticus were to disappear in the night—or even if he were to have turned, while we slept, into something we didn’t want to recognize.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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