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Monday, August 17, 2015

GO SET A WATCHMAN -- HARPER LEE'S BEST SELLER IS DEFINITELY WORTH A READ

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.  Hmmm.  I held back from reading any reviews or analyzes of the novel I pre-ordered and waited for with bated breath.  I had already read the various stories about this book's history, and I wanted to put that aside as much as I could just as I wanted to put To Kill a Mockingbird aside as much as I could.

But as I read Go Set a Watchman, I could not see Atticus as anyone other than Gregory Peck nor Jean Louise as anyone other than a grown-up Mary Badham.  Nor could I ignore that, at the very least, Go Set a Watchman may have been "touched up" by persons unknown from Harper Lee's original rejected draft form and that the characters I would come to love in To Kill a Mockingbird, including Tom Robinson, as well as the sub-plot of his trial, would have their seeds planted, to some degree, in this earlier book. The absence of Boo Radley was very obvious.  It wasn't until I finished reading that I looked at some of the reviews to see how others reacted not only to this book but also to the bits and pieces inserted or missing from To Kill a Mockingbird.

I did not finish Go Set a Watchman with the negative reactions I’ve read in the press and in magazines.  I thought the grace of language and the feelings of small-town Southern life that speak primarily of a past era were here, and the soft fluidity of expression that Harper Lee exhibits in a supremely more polished manner in To Kill a Mockingbird is evident here.  The tone, despite Jean Louise’s rambunctious and iconoclastic rebellion, is calm and consistent on the parts of the older Finches and troubled on Jean Louise's part.  One can see how Atticus’ approach to his daughter when she was six has not changed much now that she is 26.  Nor can one see any inconsistency in Atticus’ earlier defense of Tom Robinson or of his present defense of Calpurnia's son.  Held in higher regard than personal feelings is the law.  

While it is distressing to be reminded that the council’s feelings and even Atticus’ reasoning were so much a part of the pre-1960s South (and unfortunately even later), those feelings were real and to deny them is to re-write history.  I abhor re-writing history.  But this novel, if printed in its own time, would have died a natural death and gone the way of other dated and/or unacceptable works.

Go Set a Watchman is a rite of passage novel, and it's interesting because our protagonist is already 26 years old, far older than usual. She has to move out of the old ways and into the new, and she has to experience how different life is in a place like New York before she can make that move.  When she left Maycomb, she was searching for something she could not identify.  This trip home helps her move closer to the road she will follow in life.  It's not her Daddy's world anymore even if he doesn't know it yet.  That's a universal truth most adults have a tough time accepting, and Atticus is no exception.

I wonder where Harper Lee’s real feelings lie in these matters.  She said she wanted to write a "race book." There's no question that she sides with Jean Louise.  Was she trying to make that transition from the world in which she grew up into the new world just being born when she wrote this book?  Had this book been published in its time, I wonder if To Kill a Mockingbird would have followed.  I doubt it.  But if it had, would it have ever gotten to the pinnacle of American Classics?  I doubt that too, for we would never have forgiven the older Atticus Finch who is so much a part of the old order.  Jean Louise revolts against Atticus’ ideas, but she comes to understand them.  She is just past them.  She is actually asked to come back to Maycomb and exert some positive influence on these too-long-held ideas.

What is interesting about Jean Louise is that even as she is repelled by the people she loves, she sees how she accepted many of the same behaviors.  When she visits Calpurnia and asks if Calpurnia hated the family she faithfully served, Jean Louise awakens to the stark, hard realization of how different and how difficult their worlds were.  But it is not as if she had never been to Calpurnia's home or known Calpurnia's family.  She was brought up blinded to the injustices of the times.

Jean Louise realizes that accepting the way she is raised is the basis of racism and other types of prejudice.  Attitudes and behaviors that appear to be the natural scheme of things are never questioned, but they are subtly taught and passed down generation after generation.  Change is right, but change is a huge challenge.  When Jean Louise leaves Maycomb, she still has a long way to go.  But she is willing--and anxious--to work at it.  There's the key to moving in the right direction--it takes conscious work and effort.  It can be achieved.

The character of Henry becomes important in light of Jean Louise's awakening.  She already revolted against some of the hometown characteristics, and she continues to take stronger and stronger stances.  Henry, however, comes from a different background, will remain in Maycomb, and despite his feelings that some of what he sees is wrong, he is concerned with his own acceptance, and so he approaches problems from an entirely different standpoint.  Isn't that the way the world works?  In Jean Louise's case, it is Uncle Jack who lectures her about the way their world works and how she fits into that world--or doesn't.  I found it all interesting and with a great deal of truth.  Sometimes the truth hurts, as Jean Louise discovers.

The Boo Radley sub-plot of To Kill a Mockingbird is not hinted at in Go Set a Watchman.  What that does to To Kill a Mockingbird is broaden the definitions and demonstrate another type of prejudice.  It fills out this second book and adds to its richness. It reminds me that Go Set a Watchman is a rejected first draft.

I liked the title of this novel as well.

According to the website Bible Hub, the title is from Isaiah 21:6 about the prophecy concerning the ruin of Babylon. Jean Louise symbolizes that watchman, and she reports what she sees in the land that must change.  As in the Bible, the event is not to happen immediately, but will in due time.

In the novel itself, it is suggested that the watchman is one's conscience.  We know right from wrong, and we should be able to choose right for ourselves as we grow up and begin to individually evaluate the world around us.  We need a watchman to alert us to dangers.

No matter how one approaches Go Set a Watchman, first reactions will be visceral.  This novel, still a monumental best seller, hits us with a flurry of punches that knock the wind out of us because Atticus Finch is not the man we thought him to be--as Uncle Jack tells Jean Louise--or because the South was just beginning to be forced to change in many ways after WWII and was still filled with seething animosity.   We don't want to hear that.

But I recommend this book.  I see the seeds of Harper Lee's greatness. I'd like to hear your reactions to it in the comments section.



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