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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: Hot Grief Poured On The Page Over Atticus Finch

Go Set A Watchman reads as if young Harper Lee went home for a visit sometime in 1955, (one year after Brown v. Board of Education tossed out Seperate But Equal schools for children of color) and back in Monroeville, Alabama, encountered the shock of a potential fiancé and her dad taking blatant racist stands--in her finances case through expediency and in her dad's through true belief. 

I would guess Nelle Lee headed straight back to New York and poured her grief and rage onto the page without much editing. This is often painful, powerful stuff, barely shaped. Sometimes, she not even clear which pov she's writing in. She slips into first person then back to close third, Hope to omniscient for a paragraph or two, then back to Jean Louise's perspective again. Some parts read like dialogue pulled  straight from a journal, without Lee going back to the sketch and putting in the grounding details, something she clearly new how to do. 

Her publisher, Lippincott & Co., must have seen value in it, or they would not have spent money to purchase it. Her editor, Tay Hohoff, said, "The spark of a true writer flashed in every line," though she also felt it was less a novel than a string of connected anecdotes. I contend it was shock and betrayal vomited straight onto the page.

There is wonderful stuff in there, much of it beautifully written.  There is also much that provides real insight into Harper Lee, into her father, the times, the town. As strong as a young Harper must have been to see her beloved Amasa so clearly, it would have meant personal disaster for her to publish this novel as it stands in 1957. It would have been the choice to sever her connection with not just her hometown, but her beloved uncle, her irritating aunt, her older sisters, and most of all, her ailing father, who had recently and tragically lost his only son to a brain aneurysm, and who had with exceptional wisdom and grace, shepherded his fierce and wayward daughter to a shining and independent adulthood. I suspect Harper Lee might not have wanted Go Set A Watchman published all these years because of how it showed her father and her uncle, and that Alice Lee kept the family reputation safe by keeping it unworked and unpublished, hidden.

This novel would also have been a shocker to much of the country in those days, both North and South. I don't think anybody anticipated the mammoth, lasting success of To Kill A Mockingbird, but even if this book had been edited as is, its contents, shaking with rage and betrayal, would not likely have sold as well.  Still, it makes me very sad that this once bold, non-conformist, vivid writer was kept from her calling by fear for so many years.  I wonder if the rumor is true and there is another manuscript in that safe deposit box? If so, I'd love to see it.

Go Set A Watchman is very much a product of its time. Nowhere in the novel does Jean Louise or anyone question a paternalistic view of Negroes as childlike. She does not challenge her father's idea that Negroes are too poor or uneducated to vote with the notion that the Old Sarum clan of ignorant white folk would make just as poor and uneducated voters as he fears Negroes would be. She does not challenge Atticus' notion that "more Negroes are gradually registering to vote." She is obviously unaware of the intense voter suppression that had been going on since the Reconstruction, when Negroes had great success in sending people of color to both state and federal Senate and House seats. She does not seem to know that in the ensuing years, those who dared to register to vote were humiliated, forced to answer impossible questions, turned out of their homes, jobs, lynched, had their houses burned, or were even shot on the courthouse steps. She does not explain how busy white folk had been keeping Negroes uneducated, ignorant and immersed in poverty, though she skirts the edges of this notion.

She does not take the time or make the effort to really know any black person beyond Calpurnia, who we see as a half-member of the Finch family even in this novel, where she hovers on the edge, unable to comfort a child Jean Louise in intense pain until Atticus gives her permission to enter. As much as the adult Jean Louise loves her family's ex-maid and feels betrayed by Calpurnia seeming to view her as a White Person, it is as a white person that does not warn Calpurnia against using Atticus Finch as an attorney for her grandson, although Atticus has offered his services to the young man only to avoid having the NAACP take on the case, and thus "stir up" the Negroes further.

Jean Louise, too, is deeply upset by Brown v. Board of Education, though for her, the issue is state's rights, and the Big a guy's bossing the little ones around. There is a lot of flap about individual liberty with a lick and a spit addressing Jeffersonian vs. Madisonian democracy, but she does not really explore these ideas. I wish she had.

Still, for a white Southern woman of that time, I think Jean Louise Finch (and Harper Lee) did a damn fine job of becoming the Watchman of Isaiah's text, keeping a lookout for the betrayal of the whore of Babylon. If this novel had been edited as is rather than drastically changed, I imagine we'd have traveled with Scout on a powerful journey, while the Watchman of the text shifted from the previously all-wise Atticus Finch to a brave and ultimately willing Jean Louise.

One of the most interesting swathes cutting through this novel is the character of Henry Clinton, whose diligent efforts to rise above the label of white trash force him into a bigotry he does not really feel, but chooses, out of ambition, to embrace. Had the editor kept Harper Lee on track to rework Go Set A Watchman, I think this relationship and this character would have been the most enlightening of all--someone who sees bigotry and abhors it, but goes along to get along and get ahead, much like someone joining the SS because it's the best route for advancement.

Also, no one has yet mentioned a most important point, as far as I am concerned, one I wish had been explored in depth: Henry Clinton says that Atticus Finch, his boss, joined the Klan more or less as a spy, to know what he was up against. Was this true? If so, I'd love to know what particularly changed.

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