Thursday, May 5, 2016

Book Review - Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

I have just read Go Set a Watchman, the first novel that Harper Lee ever wrote. To Kill a Mockingbird functions as a sort of prequel to it, exploring its themes in greater depth; but this was Harper Lee's original sketch of Jean Louise "Scout" Finch and her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch.

Harper Lee has a very distinctive writing style; yet as I was reading, I had the feeling I'd read something similar from a different author. Then it hit me: James Baldwin. Whether either of them ever read the other, I do not know, but the resemblance between the two writing styles is striking: frank, wisecracking without resorting to cynicism, presenting history as a series of events that no one is really happy with and the most entertaining part of life is trading stories about why we don't like to do as we're told. Almost every conversation is a series of minor incongruities over one's ideas of how we ought to live our lives, spoken between characters who are trying earnestly to understand each other but know that in the end it's just not worth all the fuss. I have the feeling that, at some point in her life, Lee discovered to her immense disappointment that life is not half as tragic as some people make it out to be. Not a discovery I recommend making, if you are an author (since I think the tragedy is an excellent form of literature); but once you stumble upon this sort of conviction it does not go away easily.

Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel takes place within a very short space of time, approximately four days (with a few flashbacks, to earlier events). Scout (called "Jean Louise" for most of this novel, although Atticus still calls her Scout on occasion) is now twenty-six years old and has been living in New York for several years. She comes back to Maycomb County by train, anticipating a restful two-week stay with her friends and family, and instead finds that the town has changed greatly. Rest does not come easily.

The book is ambitious yet cautious; it tries to tackle a great number of issues and encompass an enormous scope, yet remarkably little happens in the entire story. Jean Louise spends time with her boyfriend, Hank, who has trained with her father Atticus to be a lawyer; she finds out that Calpurnia's grandson, Frank, accidentally ran over a man and Jean Louise is anxious over what sentence Frank will receive in court; she attends a tea party with women of her own age and finds that she has nothing in common with them; and, apart from a few passionate dialogues that erupt between Scout and the key male figures in her life, that is it. The novel hints at court cases, but none is witnessed or concluded; jibes at the NAACP and the SCOTUS, but a full history of their actions is never outlined; showers the reader with emotional sparks that result from a major turning point in Jean Louise's life, but barely examines where she came from or elucidates where she will be going. The novel is powerful, but disorganized.

Although it does not dabble in "sit-ins" or peaceful protests, Go Set a Watchman is a novel about the civil rights debates of the 1950s. Scout has been living in New York, an overwhelmingly metropolitan center of world communication, where people of all different races and religions and backgrounds have learned to tolerate (or ignore) one another in every context - in school, on subways, in public restrooms, in the office, etc. She returns to Maycomb and finds out, during a citizens' council meeting, that several prominent officials of the town are racists and treat the "Brown vs. Board" decision as an infringement upon their rights. What is far more horrifying is that Atticus, though unsympathetic to the racists' viewpoints, does not denounce them; Atticus sits calmly, and he quietly defends the black man whose crime is the subject of their debate. Disgusted, Jean Louis leaves the courthouse. Later she attends a tea party held by her Aunt Alexandra, and she hears young ladies sharing many of the same opinions, mostly parroting what their husbands say. The novel finally comes to a boil when Jean Louise confronts her father Atticus and scolds her for raising her to be "colorblind" when she should have been exposed to these racist opinions earlier in her life. Jean Louise discovers that her father is not a deity, but wholly human, and that he cannot simply elevate all people to the same level of intellect at which Jean Louise was bred to live. Though Atticus justifies all of his actions with reason, the image we had of him from To Kill a Mockingbird is shattered.

The title of the novel is derived from a passage in the book of Isaiah, one that tells people to "set a Watchman" who will stay at a city's gates and report what he sees. Jean Louise's Uncle Jack warns her that she must form her own conscience, her own set of beliefs, which can function as a frame of reference when she determines what is right and what is wrong in the world. In short, this is a sort of final nudge in a series of nudges toward womanhood in Jean Louise's life - one final illusion to be shattered before is capable of being her own woman in society. It is a microcosm of a coming-of-age story, one that begins at the very end (kind of like a cross between Jane Eyre and "The Cask of Amontillado," if Virginia Woolf had written it).

The shades of gray in the novel are unsettling, but the novel itself fails to form a coherent whole. There is no Boo Radley, no Tom Robinson, no character whose plight is so terrible that it distracts Jean Louise from her own personal doubts and drives her to transcend her internal struggles. The novel has many powerful moments, but if it had not been written by an author who is now famous, those powerful moments would not have been enough to merit widespread publication. Nonetheless, they were enough for me. Go Set a Watchman is an admirable first novel. It lacks the ingenuity of construction that a mature writer would possess, yet it is a stunning look at the conflict between different ideologies of 1950s America. Uncle Jack holds Jean Louise up to a mirror and says to her, "What do you see?...I see two people." He then adds, "What was incidental to the issue in our War Between the States is incidental to the issue in the war we're in now, and is incidental to the issue in your own private war." I don't claim to know precisely what he means, but my guess is that he refers to a struggle between the "New York" Jean Louise and the "Maycomb" Scout - a struggle between the desire to keep everyone living in harmony, and the assumption that harmony is already a natural occurrence between people. What is our natural state of mind? When we try to treat everyone as equals, do we actually want to make everyone equal, which then reflects an innate human dislike of those who are not already equal to us? To put it more simply - when we try to integrate the races, does that mean we really would prefer that the human race was all one color with no exceptions? Can human beings ever really live with diversity, and be genuinely happy? These are questions the novel does not answer. No definitive answers for these questions exist, of course, but some novels have produced at least a few tentative answers, i.e. Invisible Man, Huckleberry Finn. Go Set a Watchman leaves these questions unanswered, and I would have loved to see another part written - one where Jean Louise Finch, as a mature adult, confronts the world and finds out whether she is strong enough to make her ideas a reality. Alas, a trilogy that will never happen.

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