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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: Atticus Finch joins a Citizen's Council--The KKK in business suits.

Half-way through, I am enjoying Go Set A Watchman, though it is clearly a first draft. I only wish I could literally get Harper Lee in a critique group or even just a conversation, and suggest she do some revisions.
Go Set A Watchman is framed as the painful return to her hometown of an independent young southern woman (Jean Louise Finch, also known as Scout) With her father aging fast and near-crippled by rheumatoid arthritis (he has taped long wooden spoons to most of his tools in an attempt to make them easier to handle), her beloved older brother dead and her best friend wandering Europe, Jean Louise, who does not really feel at home in New York City but feels smothered in Alabama, is wrestling with a huge decision--should she marry a fine young man from a "white trash" family, a man who happens to also be her father's young partner. In the midst of what would by itself create a rich, Eudora Welty plot, and after a clothed but risqué midnight swim with her near-fiance, Henry Clinton, Jean Louise makes the gut-wrenching discovery that both Clinton and her beloved father are involved in the local Citizen's Council, a political development Jean Louise has read about from New York but never expected to find in her home town, and with her family involved. (Brief historical note: During this era, Citizens Councils sprang up all over the Deep South. Essentially the KKK in business suits, and with much cross-over membership, Citizen Councils put a civilized face on the suppression, terrorism and oppression of African-Americans throughout the Deep South.)
In the novel as it stands, Jean Louise, bored after father and future fiancé have left for an unexplained meeting, finds herself looking for reading material in her father's home when she comes across a hate-mongering leaflet: Negroes are subhuman, infantile, evil and wanting to Take Over White Homes, Schools and Virgins. Suddenly, the "meeting" the two men just left to attend takes on an ominous cast.
Jean Louise races off to the courthouse, where, from an upper balcony, and in secret, she witnesses them join forces with a local political boss described as a human slug, as white trash and well-to-do businessmen sit around using code words of hatred to discuss ways to intimidate, suppress and continue domination of the local Negroes, without them knowing about it.
The problem is, Jean Louise's discovery of the pamphlet is a fairly passive way for her to come across this powerful information. Far better, I think, for such an important discovery to happen face-to-face, either with father or potential fiancé.
What a scene that would make. These are both astute men who know Jean Louise well. I, as a reader, would love to watch what Ms. Lee would make of Jean Louise struggling to believe her beloved males capable of such actions, and watch them try to read the cues of her reaction, as her revulsion and shock battles with love and sense of betrayal.
When she heads to the courthouse to sneak in on the meeting, I would suggest Harper Lee write a full flashback, not just a mention in passing, to that earlier rape trial seen from this same spot--young Scout, Dill and Jem watching her father represent the black man and then bring us back to the adult Jean Louise as she begins to face that, for her father, equality in the eyes of the law is not the same as equality, and that this man, while clearly the amazingly enlightened father of a fiercely non-conformist girl/woman for his day and age--or any day and age--is still a perpetrator of the same racial hatred and evil deeds as other powerful white folk of his time, white people he raised his daughter to shun and despise.
In fact, Atticus and Henry are not just active members of a council of hatred, they have chosen to try to harm the grandchild of their beloved Calpurnia, the black woman who was essentially mother to the motherless Jem and Scout. This young man has accidentally run over an old fellow known far and wide as a drunkard. Clearly, this is manslaughter, not murder. Atticus' decision to offer free legal representation for the boy could seem generous, but Finch makes his reasoning plain as he educates Henry on how to be a man--we have to represent this boy, or the NAACP will come down and rile up our Negroes even more, he tells his young menthe.
The scene where Jean Louise overhears her father casually explain this way of the world to his young partner is chilling and powerful.
However, here, again, I would like to suggest that Ms. Lee rewrite the way that Jean Louise learns of the accident. Part of that would be based on a decision about another concern of the book. Do we, as readers,  only see the world through Jean Louise's eyes or is this an omniscient narrator?
The times when Ms. Lee slips into omniscient feel almost accidental. I'd love to see her strongly decide to do one or other other. She could repeatedly signal an omniscient narrator by, for instance, letting us witness the accident and Calpurnia's family's reactions as well.
As it stands, though, we do visit Calpurnia and her family as they cope with the tragedy, giving us a distant view of how things may have changed on the other side of the color line as well. (Historical note: soldiers of color returning from WWII, men who had risked their lives in Europe, seen a greater world, and been treated with more equality than they found in the South, were a powerful force for increasing discomfort with the status quo in the Deep South, as was the NAACP. During these years, brave souls like Rosa Parks traveled wide swaths of countryside investigating rapes, assaults and lynchings, looking for those they could use as a wedge to try to change federal laws and force improvements in the conditions of hundreds of thousands.)
The scene where Calpurnia, essentially Jean Louise's mother, treats her as an enemy other, is gut-wrenching, though I would want Ms. Lee to emphasize that this is happening at the same time as her father, Atticus Finch, glad-hands the rest of the family in his effort to repress and control the grandson of the woman who cared for him and his children since the death of his wife.
This is painful stuff. Jean Louise knows her childhood home with a depth, a wisdom and microscopic detail, but what once seemed a town in peaceful stasis has now come unhinged. This discovery leaves her deeply shocked, hurt, and aware that she cannot keep silent about the horrors of what she is learning, yet, if she does speak up, it means abandoning an aging and increasingly frail father who raised his difficult daughter with compassion and love. Yet, home for Jean Louise is most emphatically not New York City, which she finds rude and oppressive in its own fast-moving ways.
When someone sees the world so clearly--and the world is so unbalanced, so wrong--where can she belong? Imagine the story of an uncompromising tomboy who returns to Germany to visit the father who lovingly raised her--a man she may have to return and care for--only to find he has now joined the SS is calling for the round up of Jewish neighbors he used to respect, people he now terms vermin. That would be the strongest parallel I can think of. 
One more note: The whole flashback about Jean Louise's terror over her sexual ignorance and possible pregnancy relate far more strongly to Calpurnia than to Henry Clinton. That is where I would place it, either just before, or even during Jean Louise' visit to Calpurnia at home. I would tie this visit to how Jean Louise learned about getting her period, and how Calpurnia gently, kindly helps the rough-hewn Scout accept an abrupt entry into the world of womanhood.
In fact, I'd reconsider this whole flashback. Yes, it gives us insight into the extreme poverty and ignorance of the community of Old Sarum--a poverty and ignorance accompanied by rigid social boundaries that are, fascinatingly, beginning to fade during Jean Louise's adulthood.
And yes, it shows us how isolated Jean Louise feels in her world, in her problem solving, so isolated that she feels her only option is to kill herself rather than talk to--and thus shame--her father and Calpurnia.
And yes, this flashback provides powerful illustration that Scout, as a child, is not at all protected from this white trash world, though the later concerns expressed are about how horrible it would be with children to be exposed to students of color. And, of course, it shows how close and caring Henry Clinton has been, even back when Scout was only in sixth grade.
However, I would suggest trying to hone this long flashback to make these points more clearly, and I would also suggest finding another flashback to show how important Henry has been to Jean Louise.
More to come. . .

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