20 July 2015
go set a watchman
I confess at the outset that I am not a literary critic, nor do I pretend to be one. I am a thinker and have been trained in my own field, but I readily admit that I do not keep up with the ins and outs of literary criticism to be able to engage a work such as this at the level it probably deserves. My comments are not intended to be an interaction of the book's artistry – other than what I thought was enjoyable and meaningful reading – as much as they are to be a thoughtful engagement of the message and content as best as I understand it.
The context of Watchman is that it is set twenty years after the events of Mockingbird, with a number of changes to the characters that were present in the first book. (I am aware that there are a number of 'inconsistencies' in the plot and story details between the two books but, again, that is not within the scope of this review.) Scout, who now goes by her given name of Jean Louise is returning home to Maycomb from her home in New York City, where she encounters a much different world than the one she remembers leaving. Her brother died a number of years before, Dill is off in Europe, Atticus suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, and the entire subculture is trying to move forward in the wake of recent moves of desegregation.
Much press surrounding Watchman haphazardly throws out there that Jean Louise returns home to discover that Atticus is a bigot. I caught this blurb just before I began reading the book itself, and was a bit nervous on what I was going to encounter. Those who run with this flat notion want to speak about Atticus being the 'fallen hero' that we all have in our lives, or that he was 'too flat' of a hero in Mockingbird, which is now remedied. It is at the halfway point of the book that Jean Louise runs headfirst into a situation which makes her wonder if racism has taken over her community, most importantly her father. And it takes the remainder of the book for her to work through this, and for Harper Lee to make some powerful points about society as a whole, with desegregation as the vehicle.
There is more power in this novel than is being recognized.
Any discussion of racism in Watchman is proven to be complex; there are no flat renderings of the issue in this novel. There is a spectrum being presented, with some characters going too far and others caught in situations which they most likely do not understand. (It is mentioned that Atticus once attended a KKK rally, but it is explained away in reasonable terms.) But there is more going on as well, and Atticus speaks straightforwardly in distancing himself from other voices that he finds appalling. But, for some reason this isn't being recognized. I wonder how many reviewers have read (and understood) Watchman in the first place.
One of the most significant scenes in the book is a drag-out-verbal-battle between Jean Louise and Atticus towards the end of the book, whereby she conveys her disgust for his 'bigotry' and 'racism,' being further angered by his unwillingness to become emotionally charged. He gives her reason throughout the discussion but she is unwilling to hear it. This is one of life's truisms, you cannot reason with emotion. It matters little to Jean Louise what Atticus says in this moment, in fact it will be Atticus' brother that will have more of a breakthrough moment with her when he is able to exhaust her emotional energy a bit. But there is a lot to commend in Atticus' words that merit closer attention.
In his own defense, Atticus makes a number of points about his belief on the desegregation of races – which has recently been thrust upon the South with Brown v. Board of Education. He speaks of keeping the races in their 'rightful place' which, to Jean Louise and most modern ears, sounds exactly like bigotry. But in his explanation of it he asserts that the Negro population is not yet ready for the many responsibilities that are now available to them, most notably civil leadership and government. He sees a certain equality among all persons but fears the dynamic that would occur if those who have never been in power at all were suddenly given the reigns without learning the responsibility. In this he calls out activism: "The NAACP doesn't care whether a Negro man owns or rents his land, how well he can farm, or whether or not he tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet – oh no, all the NAACP cares about is that man's vote."
This point is built upon the shared disappointment that both Atticus and Jean Louise have regarding the method of desegregation – namely, that it was the Supreme Court that issued a ruling without regard for the 10th Amendment. In this there is the feeling of being forced into a belief and way-of-life that comes with a legal decision rather than with the progression/evolution of human reason within the local communities. And Atticus tells Jean Louise that it is his role in this community to be an agent of change, not by condemning the community but by working from within the community itself to facilitate the change of heart and mind. (Just as he did in Mockingbird.) He also believes that it is Jean Louise's place to return to Maycomb and do the same.
It is fascinating to me that Harper Lee completed this novel in 1957, and was so keenly aware of the changes that were to come in generations being pushed by political activism. She was right about the 10th Amendment, and she is right about a forced equality that would never be satisfied (no matter how equal we all became) so long as it was driven by activism. I can not say just how Harper Lee would articulate these views herself, because of health issues and her own preference for silence she will allow her novel to stand on its own. But there is much more to say here than the headline of Atticus Finch being a racist, for it is Scout who discovers her own bigotry by the time all is said and done. (Perhaps the veil is lifted on the rouse that says anyone who disagrees with activism's tactics and rhetoric are automatically filled with hatred.) And maybe the same can be said for those who have seen race as an issue, rather than as about people. We are never as good when we are about a cause as when we are about our fellow man and woman, and this book is a strong statement to that reality.
There are other issues that can, by analogy, be interpreted in light of the discussion had in Watchman, it doesn't take too much for us to be reminded of them. Atticus is not presented as a racist in this story, though it is clear that some modern ears are so conditioned that they can only make such a charge because they don't know what to do with those who dare disagree with the language and ideology of political correctness. In other words, just because he criticizes the work of the NAACP and the like (for turning people into issues), Atticus isn't a bigot. Harper Lee is showing us in this alone how the world was beginning to change in the days that she completed this work, and how it is running amok in our present day.
So, that might be the minority report on those talking about Go Set a Watchman, and I'm all right with that. These were my observations of the book, and how the black community has been let down in so many ways by such activist groups these past few generations. Today's lack of equality is less about the pursuit of happiness in our country and more to do with the work of running ramshod over a people and culture to achieve a short-sighted political agenda ... at the expense of people, who too share the imago Dei.
labels: book review