Go Set A Watchman

harper-lee-go-set-a-watchman-cover-leadYeah, yeah, yeah.  I know.  It’s been a while.  I hope to get the mojo going here and what better place to start than with the much-anticipated novel by Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman?  I will try to avoid too many spoilers here, but there will inevitably be a few.

I recently heard on NPR that there are bookstores actually giving refunds for this book.  Some demanded their money back because the book wasn’t as good as they thought it would/should be.  Others said they wanted a refund because of their disappointment in the characters in the book.  I fail to understand either of these claims.  I read the book and not only thought that it was good, but I saw it as a faithful depiction of reality.

I can understand that many had their hearts broken when the Great American Literary Hero of civil rights, Atticus Finch, turns out to be less than affirming in his advanced age.  It turns out that Atticus didn’t defend Tom Robinson so much for the sake of social justice as to reestablish order in the town that had gone crazy over the alleged rape of a white girl by a black boy.  Unlike Harper Lee’s father who was a segregationist who became more inclusive in his old age, Atticus joins the Citizen’s Council (White response to the NAACP) to slow down change in Maycomb Junction after SCOTUS had declared segregation to be unconstitutional.  When his daughter, Scout, who revered her father as a champion for equal rights, realizes that he is a member of this council, she lashes out at him in what results in the most moving parts of the book.

Scout eventually musters up the courage to speak to her father about his membership in the council.  She goes into his office and pulls no punches with the man she has never had the courage nor inclination to say a cross word to.

I remember that rape case you defended, but I missed the point.  You loved justice, all right.  Abstract justice written down item by item on a brief – nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief.  His cause interfered with your orderly mind, and you had to work order out of disorder.  It’s a compulsion with you, and now it’s coming home to you – “

It obviously pains her to say these harsh words to the man that she has revered, but she has her heart set upon rebuking him for letting her down the way he has.  She damns him for ruining the image that she had of him.

I believed in you.  I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again.  If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me – if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing.  If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood today.  Then I’d have said that’s just His Way, that’s My Old Man, because I’d been prepared for it somewhere along the line – “

Atticus doesn’t argue with Scout.  When she says that she’s leaving and not coming back, he merely tells her to have it her way.

It’s never easy when our heroes betray us.  We put them on a pedestal and almost worship them with our undying fidelity and feel utterly lost when they fail to return the favor.  This is the danger of worshiping people and this, I believe, is the point of the book.  Atticus’s learned brother, Dr. Jack Finch, who has heard of the tongue lashing Scout has given Atticus paints a clearer picture for us.

Every man’s island, Jean Louise (Scout), every man’s watchman, is his conscience.  There is no such thing as a collective conscience. . . . now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s.  As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God.  You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings – I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em  like all of us.  You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers . . . . When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience – your conscience – you literally could not stand it.  It made you physically ill.  Life became hell on earth for you.  You had to kill yourself, or he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity.

And here, as they say, is the rest of the story.  I won’t spoil the ending, but I would be remiss to not mention the real point.  Those who would demand their money back because they felt betrayed by Atticus or Harper Lee in her depiction of him fail to see the reality of the situation.  Hemingway, Tolstoy, and others have said that the great stories have something in common – they are all in some way true.  This is why Hemingway would get over apparent writer’s block by “writing one true sentence.  The truest sentence [he] knew.”  Harper Lee did the same.  She knew that race relations were far from perfect in the real world.  She knew that our greatest heroes would always disappoint us in the end if we continue to worship them as Gods and not respect them despite being the flawed humans they are.

Lee was prophetic when she first presented this work in 1957 that would change and eventually become To Kill a Mockingbird.  Instead of seeing Atticus as a bigoted dream-slayer and faulting Lee for making him this way, perhaps we should appreciate the work as it is – literary fiction and Atticus for who he is – an archetype for all of the heroes we have and ever will worship.

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One Response to “Go Set A Watchman”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    I have not yet read Watchman, but look forward to doing so.

    Your insightful comments remind me of two other (historical fiction) parent-child relationships where two (daughters) characters similarly came to grips with corrected perceptions along race-related strife:

    1. Skeeter and her mother in The Help; and
    2. Sarah and her father in The Invention of Wings.

    1. In The Help, the author Kathryn Stockett crafts a realistic portrait of a mother (Charlotte Phelan) falling short of her (adult) daughter’s compassionate expectations. Her mother is not painted in broad brush strokes as a stereotypical bigoted ogre, but rather as a product of her times/environment/culture.

    2. In The Invention of Wings, the author Sue Monk Kidd similarly allows for her main character (as an 11 year old daughter) to face a less heroic image of her (local judge) father, poetically captured with the following quote: “His eyes were clear and brown and empty of compassion, and that’s when I saw my father as he really was — a man who valued principle over love.”

    Well written, authentic characters … these parents.

    Equally well constructed, rebellious characters … their children.

    Perhaps the fictional embodiment of old vs new, age vs youth, tradition vs innovation, conformity vs compassion.

    The arc of history fortunately appears to bend toward the latter.

    Thank you for initiating this commentary Brandyn. JL

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