Recently Read: “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee
If you’ve been stuck under a literary rock somewhere for months and haven’t heard all the buzz surrounding Go Set a Watchman, let me fill you in:
One-hit-wonder-authoress Harper Lee has published a “new” book (i.e. something she wrote in the fifties but is just now being released). For those of us who are fans of To Kill a Mockingbird (i.e. everyone ever), this is great news.
…or is it? (Ominous ellipsis, dun dun DUNNN.)
Some say it never should have been published, and there has been great debate concerning the book’s origins.
If you haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet and don’t want your opinion of the book at all influenced by others’ reviews, get a copy and read it first. I read it knowing only that some people were saying it SUCKED AND THE WORST EVER AND THEY HATED IT AND COULD BARELY GET THROUGH IT AND SHE RUINED ATTICUS but had no spoilers or indications about the plot’s direction other than the sensationalist media coverage, and I liked it that way, thank you very much.
If it doesn’t matter to you and you’re going to read it anyway, great. If you weren’t planning on reading it in the first place and you just like reading people’s conflicting opinions, by all means, read on.
The novel opens with twenty-six year old Jean Louise (known to us as Scout in Mockingbird) returning home from New York for a two-week visit. Oh, Alabama. Oh, Maycomb. It’s all the same: Aunt Alexandra pesters her to wear a hat to church (such a hoodlum, our girl), Atticus in his seventies but is still running his law firm, and it’s easy to fall back into her comfortable patterns: being at home, sleeping her childhood bed, running the roads with childhood friends.
Except, it’s not the same: there is a small business where her home used to be, her brother is dead, her childhood friend is pressuring her to marry him, and Atticus is arthritic, tired, and frail. Jean Louise is not a lovable, motherless tomboy anymore; she is a grown woman: a motherless young lady with a sharp tongue and dry wit, struggling to find her place in the world. She doesn’t quite fit in either in New York or in her changing hometown.
Then, the revelation that her father has sided with the people that she has mocked, dismissed, and fundamentally disagreed with shatters Jean Louise. The idea that Atticus may not be the infallible crusader she had always believed him to be makes her physically ill—and then it makes her angry. She rants, she raves, and she runs away.
Jean Louise is prepared to cut her trip short and get back to New York as fast as she can—to get away from these people: once her people, who have so tragically betrayed her.
Her Uncle Jack stops her, and forces her to see that the kind of deity she has imposed upon Atticus is not only unfair, but unrealistic, and in many ways, immature. He’s only a man.
But “you, Miss,” he says, “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.”
By relying on Atticus so fully, “leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers,” Jean Louise had become “an emotional cripple.”
Uncle Jack’s revelation is damning—not just for Jean Louise, but for us all.
Until the publication of Watchman, we had only seen Atticus through six-year-old eyes. He was a hero, but real heroes are humans, and humans have flaws. I agree with the Bloomberg View’s review that “to make the novel about pinning the right label on Atticus is to miss the point.”
Those who are too busy crying “racist!” to see the real point are stuck in Scout’s childish shoes and haven’t grown up to be Jean Louise: an adult who can see the world for what it is and effect real change. No matter how kind, decent, good, or morally infallible a human being many seem—no matter how much we admire them—we cannot assign another person to stand as our watchman.
This is the novel’s charge, and it comes with certain ancillary, unpleasant obligations.
Before Jean Louise makes up her mind to run away from the backwards racists of Maycomb, she is forced to co-host a Coffee with her Aunt Alexandra.
It is pretty terrible.
I am with her on the internal eye-rolling and please-don’t-make-me-talk-to-these-people because this kind of thing is definitely not my style either. It is the type of event where no one is actually friends but you all go sit in someone’s living room for what feels like days, but you have to sort of perch in a ladylike fashion on the edge of the couch or a chair because if you sit too far back on the furniture you look like a slob or a man or something and everyone is judging everyone else’s sweater/sundress combos and marital statuses. If you have not been to one of these functions you must not have been raised in the South, bless your heart.
After everyone has a beverage there may be an opportunity to regurgitate your husband or your pastor’s political views. This is about the point at which Jean Louise thinks that if she has to host these Coffees herself then the whole marriage gig may not be in the cards for her.
One of the ladies tells Jean Louise all about the kinds of things “those people” are doing “up North,” which makes Jean Louise wonder “where Hester had picked up her information. She could not conceive of Hester Sinclair’s having read anything other than ‘Good Housekeeping’ save under strong duress. Someone had told her. Who?”
“What?” Hester asks. “Oh, I was just sayin’ what my Bill says.”
For me, this scene was particularly poignant, because it reminded me of the Facebook activism of today.
Most people don’t read much. Numerous surveys have shown a steady (depressing) decline in the amount of recreational reading done in America in the last thirty or forty years.
So then how is it, then, that so many people are so angry about all the things going on in the world, when they seem only to have information fed to them in five-second sound bytes of outrage?
There seems to be a lot of regurgitation of other people’s opinions. Sharing an opinion is fine, but failing to do the requisite research to back it up is negligent. (And, when you have the kinds of resources readily available to our generation, being an “activist” without being either active or informed is honestly just obnoxious, lazy, and more than a little pretentious.)
Uncle Jack tells Jean Louise not “to fall into the tiresome error of being conceited about [her] complexes.” We must all remember that “every man’s watchman is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.”
“Well I heard,” and “They said that down in,” and “Can you believe that?” and “oh I was just sayin’ what my Bill says,” are not the end of the conversation. They may be the emotional beginning of a conversation, but they certainly should not be the end. Jean Louise listened in on a meeting where a lot of close-minded people said a lot of backwards, racist things, and instead of behaving rationally, she shut down and responded in anger, grouping everyone in Maycomb into the same, racist, close-minded category of people that she could neither live among nor trust.
Despite having the opportunity to serve as an example of a different mindset—someone who is truly colorblind—Jean Louise is too angry at her father and her community to try to make a difference. Instead of reaching out with kindness and empathy, she mocks and belittles people who already know perfectly well how to subjugate their fellow humans.
When the ladies at the Coffee ask Jean Louise about New York, they hardly listen to her before launching into all the reasons why they couldn’t stand to live in such a terrible place. She explains that New York can take some getting used to: “It intimidated me daily until one morning when someone pushed me on a bus and I pushed back. After I pushed back I realized I’d become a part of it.”
Yet her transformation is not complete. In many ways, Jean Louise is still very childish, because she is still clinging to a “collective conscience” she has created piecemeal from Atticus, her experiences in Maycomb, and her new life in New York.
“Conceived in mistrust and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created evil,” she thinks bitterly as she hears the ladies at the Coffee speak—yet she is the one who is supposed to be open-minded and pushing back, capable of thinking things and saying things other than “what my Bill says.”
The title of the novel was inspired by a verse from Isaiah:
“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”
We are more than fifty years removed from the Civil Rights Movement in America and we still haven’t gotten it right. There are a lot of uncomfortable conversations going on right now about tragic situations that happen every week, and, just like the ladies at the Coffee, many of us are not listening to each other. The women of each other are racist and dismissive of what they perceive to be rude, pushy New Yorkers (people they stereotype and have never really met). But at the same time, Jean Louise, a character who is ostensibly colorblind and free of prejudice, who has found a new place full of opportunities, is too petty and pretentious to take the hand of someone afraid of change and help them be part of that new place and those new opportunities.
As Jean Louise learned, simply because someone you typically agree with is angry or upset over an injustice in the world does not mean you must automatically react in kind.
Stand on your own island. Consult your watchman. Read. Research before you make a decision. (No, I don’t think angry, sensationalist Facebook rants count.)
To run around wailing that Go Set a Watchman is not To Kill a Mockingbird is to miss the point. In fact, to point our fingers at Atticus and cry, “Racist! Bigot!” is to take the spotlight off our own watchman. Reading the novel was both a literary treat and an opportunity to stand inside that New York subway and get pushed and think about how hard I might push back. It is uncomfortable and intimidating, but I applaud Ms. Lee for showing both sides of the push.
May we all be courageous enough to set our own watchmen, and listen to them when they tell us what they see.