Thursday, July 23, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - My Thoughts

Oh the media feeding frenzy that has been the release of Harper Lee's "new" book.  So many articles and podcasts and social media debates, and yet I still looked forward to the book's arrival on my doorstep, July 14th.  Multiple friends have asked me for my thoughts/opinions on the book.  I finished reading it last week, but I've been trying to let it all settle in my mind, make sure that my thoughts are actually mine and not the opinions of some well-read journalist, academic, or blogger.  There has been so much controversy over the backstory/origins of this book and its murky "discovery" by Lee's lawyer, a lack of clarity that hasn't been improved by the publisher, Harper Collins, that I think people were caught off guard when the book was at least as controversial as the release itself.  I will not be attempting to untangle the moral ambiguities of Go Set a Watchman's publication.  I was ambivalent about the book's history before it's release, and reading it did little to settle my stomach.  What I can do is tell you my thoughts after reading the book all the way through, but I must warn you that there will be spoilers.  (The book isn't super-plot driven, so spoilers may be a bit of an overstatement.)

First let me me say that I really love To Kill a Mockingbird, though after reading a lot of articles and rants about the new book, I realize that I must not be as in love with it as a lot of readers are.  There is so much anger out there about Lee's portrayal of some beloved characters, but for some reason, I just never felt like the characters in question were infallible.  I heard a podcaster yesterday say that To Kill a Mockingbird was a book about how white people think about racism and civil rights, and I think that's accurate.  Though I haven't heard or read much of anything from black readers on either book, I'm guessing that their feelings toward Atticus Finch (in the original book) are far more complicated than those of the average white reader.  Yes, Atticus works tirelessly to defend a black man on rape charges in pre-civil rights Alabama.  But throughout TKAM runs this idea of a helpless black community.  Atticus is their white savior.  Without him, they are defenseless, and it is clear that gratitude and devotion are required in return.  While Atticus does nothing wrong, per se, in TKAM, the tone of the book infantilizes the black characters, indeed the entire black population of Maycomb.   The reader is left less with a sense of Atticus' defense of equal rights for all than with a portrait of a man helping the helpless.  

Before you, dear reader, begin your adamant defense of the original Atticus Finch, please hold on.  Yes, legally speaking, African American's were mostly helpless in the face of a corrupt system at the time and place of the story.  Frequently, the only way a black person could be saved from an unfair trial or lynching was if a white person spoke up.  I am merely suggesting that being willing to do the right thing in defending a man unjustly accused of rape is simply that, the right thing to do.  It doesn't make you an activist, and certainly doesn't preclude you from being a racist.  So, I guess what I'm saying is that the revelation about Atticus Finch in GSAW (SPOILERS) didn't wreck me the way it seemed to so many people.  Maybe Atticus Finch really was originally a racist.  Maybe not.  What I do know is that the more complicated, deeply flawed Atticus seems far more believable for that time and place than the paragon-man-ahead-of-his-time Atticus that we read about TKAM.  

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's move on to another big picture question about GSAW, which is: How should I read it?  This book is supposed to be Lee's earlier incarnation (a first draft as it were) of TKAM.  Her editor supposedly read it and told her close but not cigar.  She followed the advice to move the story back twenty years and try again.  The result is the story we read in TKAM.  So do I read GSAW as a first draft?  Is this just an interesting look at the stages of writing?  That alone would be enough to make me read it -- getting a chance to see Lee's process, the evolution of a book.

Another option is to read GSAW as if it were published back when it was written in the sixties.  Certainly, many of the ideas put forward in this book would have been controversial, even revolutionary, back then.  The idea of a young, white woman championing the rights of black people in the deep South would have been surprising to say the least.  From this more distant perspective, the book becomes more of a study of racism in America, or at least, a study of white people confronting racism.  And it is chilling how so many of the arguments used by Atticus and his other essentially white supremacist colleagues can still be heard today (Confederate flag debate, anyone?).  There is no way you can read GSAW and not find yourself re-examing the status quo and your own prejudices.

What you can't do with this book is read it as a straight up "sequel" to TKAM.  This is in no way a sequel.  Without the input of Harper Lee herself (which we're unlikely to get), we'll never know if she decided to change Atticus' personality when she did the re-write or whether she really saw the TKAM Atticus as becoming this pompous bigot.  Without the added clarification of Harper Lee interviews, we cannot make any assumptions of sequel-hood.

I know this post is spiraling out of control lengthwise, but I have two more things to talk about with regards to GSAW.  The first is the racist content.  There's just way to get around the final message of the book, which seems to be that racists are people too.  This is a very dangerous message, and I find it far more disturbing that a woman who has been lauded for decades for her racially progressive novel wrote these thoughts down and tried to get them published fifty years ago than I do that fictional character, Atticus Finch, was once in the KKK.  Throughout the book, black people are infantilized to an absurd degree, even by the supposedly liberal protagonist.  While in a way this all makes the book more believable for its time period, the final thought the reader is left with is that Scout was somehow at fault for being angry with her bigoted loved ones, the suggestion that open-mindedness means giving equal-time in your head to racist drivel.  This is really troubling stuff to read, and I was left far more unsettled by the conclusion than any other part of the novel (even the brief domestic violence that is also portrayed as an okay thing to do to calm an hysterical woman.)

Paragraph after paragraph and I still haven't "reviewed" the book.  I did attempt the read the book for its own merits and tried not to place it side-by-side with Lee's classic original.  This was extremely difficult, but here's what I found.  Not much happens in GSAW.  This is not a book with much of a plot.  There are pages and pages and pages of arguments, ping-pong dialogue, with the venom flying back and forth sometimes at breakneck pace.  If only the book were paced a bit more quickly.  While some of the dialogue and Scout's personal asides were funny/entertaining mostly this is just Scout getting angry and nostalgic in turn for a couple hundred pages.  And that's about as compelling as it sounds.  Maycomb is still its own character in the novel, and I love that.  Scout is still irrepressible and smart.  Also great.  Everyone else seems inconsistently and a little vaguely drawn.  Of course, all of this would be about right for a first draft.  

Overall, I would have to say, I think Go Set a Watchman is important, and I'm glad I read it.  Do I like the way Harper Collins portrayed it as some long-lost sequel?  No.  Do I think it should have been published while she was still living? No.  Have I already loaned out my copy?  Yes.  Am I loving all the debate and discussion online about A BOOK?  Absolutely.  Go check it out for yourself.


  1. Not reading this post until I read (or listen since I have it on audible) to the book. If you haven't read it already check out The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills I loved it. Every day of Harper Lee was great.

  2. I have the Mills book, just haven't gotten to it yet. :-)