Friday, September 11, 2015

Is it a sin to keep a wound hidden?

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
Isaiah 21:6

I'm a little over halfway through Harper Lee's "new" book, and I think I understand what all the fuss was about.

The "fuss", of course, was the fact that Atticus is, in the 1950's, a racist; something he adamantly was not in the 1930's.  This raised great concerns, even as this novel was tacitly denounced as not being the equal of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Well, of course; what could be?  Mockingbird is an evocative, lyrical presentation of a time; Maycomb, Alabama is practically Mayberry, North Carolina.  The novel is rich with characters and evocations, woven together by chronology more than narrative necessity (what does Atticus shooting the dog really have to do with Atticus defending a black man on a false criminal charge?  What does Jem breaking his arm have to do with anything?).  But we don't care about the tissue-paper of the plot, so captivated are we by the narrative woven out of these events related only by their occurring in within the same time frame, one after the other.

That powerful narrative voice, that story-teller's way of focusing on character without losing track of the fact in a story things must happen, is still present in Go Set a Watchman.  If anything, this earlier novel that was set aside for Mockingbird proves the more famous book was no fluke:  Harper Lee is a fine and worthy story teller.   The big difference between the two books, and the reason the second passed from public consciousness so rapidly, so as not to disturb our love of the first, is simple.  Mockingbird showed us racism as a problem of the "other."  It's situated in the townsfolk of Maycomb, in the faceless jury that convicts Tom Robinson, the mob that lynches him, the people who respect Atticus but don't respect the legal process.

In Watchman, it turns out the racists are us.

The shock of this novel is not that Atticus is a racist.  It is that we have been racists all along, and we haven't recognized it, and we don't want to recognize it.  If the narrative structure of Mockingbird is the year Jem broke his arm, Watchman has a narrower ambit:  it's the vacation Jean Louise takes from New York to return to Maycomb. As in Mockingbird, the narrator is in no hurry to get to a point:  this isn't a thriller, or a plot-driven potboiler.  Like a good Southern story or a well-told Southern joke, the set up is worth the ending, the characters as important as the point of the tale.  The conflict in Mockingbird forces Scout to grow up a bit, but come to grips with the world around her that isn't all the simple world of childhood.  It culminates in the assault on Jem and Scout, and the rescue by Boo Radley, but it is, ironically, more "a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel," as the first editor of Watchman reportedly said of that novel.

Watchman is actually more tightly constructed than Mockingbird.  It takes place in a shorter time frame, and it presents Jean Louise, as a young adult, returning to Maycomb and filling in the spaces between visits with people she doesn't really know or have much in common with, with memories from her childhood.  Dill makes and appearance, as does Jem, although in this novel Jem is already dead of a heart attack, a family inheritance from his mother, we learn.  It is these memories in the first half of the book that probably persuaded Lee's editor to encourage her to write a novel set in Jean Louise's childhood; but there's no indication here that this material would evoke the masterpiece that is Mockingbird.  The memories in Watchman are set pieces that describe a more tranquil world, but still one where Scout the tomboy embarrasses Atticus (in ways she never does in Mockingbird) and has trouble accepting that she is female (one of the longest pieces is the 9 months Scout spends convinced she is pregnant because a young boy, in gratitude for helping her with his school work, impulsively kisses her on the lips)..  These anecdotes go to Jean Louise's character, and set us up for the gut punch she experiences when she sees her beloved father at a White Citizen's council meeting in that iconic courtroom, sitting in the balcony as she does in Mockingbird.

It is the famous novel that echoes in this one, not because Lee planned it that way, but because Mockingbird got to us first.  But Mockingbird also did Lee's subject in Watchman an injustice, and that points to an explanation of why the timeline of the latter was abandoned for the earlier time of the former.  The famous trial is mentioned in Watchman, but the outcome is far different.  Atticus takes the case to prevent an injustice, and he does.  He wins the case, rather than loses it.  The loss in Mockingbird is more realistic to the setting and dramatically necessary, as it confirms for us that Atticus is a good man surrounded by the darkness of racism; and he's an even better man because he fights against the evil, even as he hasn't the strength or power to defeat it.  When the blacks stand in honor of Atticus walking from the courtroom, we all stand with them:  he never had a chance, but he fought the good fight anyway.

There is no similar tale in Watchman, but when Jean Louise sees Atticus in that courtroom among all the other racists, it turns her world upside down and inside out, and the worst part is she has no one to talk to.  Everyone in Maycomb agrees with Atticus, and those who don't, such as Calpurnia, see Jean Louise no longer as Scout, but as a white woman.  She is isolated on all sides, but not a victim of racism so much as a beneficiary of it, and that is a sin that is very hard to wash out, indeed.  Of whom do you ask forgiveness, and who can grant it to you?  That's the message of Watchman:  not that the racist is the other, the faceless mob, the implacable jury; not that we, too, can be Atticus.  No, the message is that we are Atticus:  we want to protect the status quo from "outsiders," Or we are Jean Louise, beneficiaries of a privilege we took for granted, but one that now, we have to pay for.

It's worth emphasizing that the setting of Watchman is not America under Martin Luther King.  It isn't King in the Birmingham Jail, or LBJ pushing the Civil Rights Act through, or the march on Washington or Bloody Selma or Mississippi Burning.  It's not even yet Orville Faubus standing in the schoolroom door.  All that's really happened in Maycomb is Brown v. Board of Education, an opinion whose implementation would still be resisted by school districts ("why don't they just resign?") as late as the 1980's.  Whenever people are frustrated that Obergefell isn't fully implemented in every county clerk's office in all 50 states by now, I think about that.  Little more than the threat to separate but equal schools has, in Jean Louise's world, spurred whites to form committees in opposition, and blacks to recognize they deserve a better place in America, fairer treatment from their government.  The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, are absolutely unimaginable.  It's not even clear Brown has been implemented in Alabama; just the idea of it is enough to force everyone to stand on the issue.

In Watchman Atticus does take on the defense of another black man accused of manslaughter; but he doesn't do it for the purpose of racial justice.  He does it to keep the NAACP from sending in lawyers, "outsiders," to "disrupt" Maycomb.  We realize, with Jean Louise, that the call of racism is not coming from outside; it's coming from inside the house.

That was a volatile message in 1950's America.  Oddly, it seems to still be that today.  The plot of this novel pivots on that revelation; on the radical change coming to the South, on the fact that Jean Louise literally can't go home again because home isn't home, the people she loved, from Atticus to Calpurnia, are no longer the figures of her childhood (and not just because she is no longer a child).  It is actually a more powerful statement on racism in America than Mockingbird was.  And I hope that isn't the reason, or even just the result that, this novel fades into the shadow of its famous predecessor.  This novel solidifies the talent of Harper Lee as an American novelist; and it makes us face, as adults like Jean Louise, what Wendell Berry labeled our "hidden wound" as Americans.

It is a much more honest examination of racism and race relations in America than Mockingbird; and it deserves to be honored for that.


  1. Now I really have to read it. I have to wonder if the reason Harper Lee didn't write more has something to do with the wildly positive reception of an easier book instead of a far harder one. Though I have to wonder how much of the success of To Kill a Mockingbird has more to do with the movie than the book. Atticus looking like Gregory Peck didn't hurt things in the popular imagination, I would expect most of the people who read the book saw the movie, too.

    I think the passage near the end of Mockingbird where she is standing on her porch, if I remember correctly, imagining the passage of time is quite beautiful. She is a real writer, it's too bad she didn't practice more. That is unless she has a trunk full of manuscripts hidden away to be discovered after she passes.

    I was thinking I wouldn't read this one but now I'm sure I will.

  2. Very glad to get your thoughts on this.

    When the great controversy started brewing a few months ago I pulled my copy of "Mockingbird" down from the shelf and re-read the first chapter and I was reminded of the beauty of Ms. Lee's writing.

    Keeping in mind, of course, that Atticus Finch is a fictional character, who very well would have been drawn differently in two different drafts, I guess I was struck by how the earlier book, which I just know from the discussions of it, made me think that even the Mockingbird Atticus can be read as a basically decent man still touched by racism. After all, just because you fight to keep an innocent African-American from execution doesn't mean you will automatically be in favor of complete civil equality. Unlike movie villains, real racists aren't necessarily dog-kickers or wife-beaters. Human beings display every combination of virtue and vice imaginable.

    I hadn't planned on reading Watchman only because I've got a long line of books I'd rather get to first. But it's been interesting seeing how the iconic Atticus Finch in Mockingbird itself has arguably been transformed from a naively-drawn role model into a character whose goodness is only partially achieved. It makes him more truly Southern (something I've been thinking about lately) as well as more truly human.

    So I'm looking forward to you thoughts on the whole book.