Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman
In 1962, after three years of graduate school in Massachusetts, I returned to the south to teach French at a prestigious boys school in North Florida. Born and raised in the south as was my wife, we are products of 1950’s southern culture. During the first meeting of the faculty and administration the Chairman of the Board of Directors, a wealthy business man from the area began his welcoming speech by telling a demeaning racist joke. Delivered by the Chairman as an icebreaker, the joke was also served up as a reminder of where we were and what was expected of us.
Harper Lee delivered the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman to publisher J.B. Lippincott Company in 1957. She was 31. The manuscript was not accepted for publication. The rights were purchased, however, and the best information has it that Lee was either sent home to rework the piece into a story set in the main character Jean Louise Finch’s youth in the 1930’s, or that Lee was guided in that transition by her editor Tay Hohoff. The reworked version was published in 1960 as To Kill a Mockingbird.
Hohoff was right in 1957 not to publish the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman. And without the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, it would not have been published today. Critics generally agree that the book is not well written: the dialogue for example is stilted; the book is poorly organized, offering one unrelated account after another; the characters are not clearly drawn; clichés abound; and the plot is weak and simplistic. Finally, the book can’t seem to decide what it wants to be about: a woman trying to separate herself from her father, segregation in a small southern town, or disillusionment. In short, it reads like a first draft by an author who was just learning to write, which in fact it was. Yet, here we have it, basically unchanged from the original manuscript. But even though it seems clear that it was published to trade on the fame of the author, it does offer something of value that outweighs its failure as a work of literature.
Go Set a Watchman is a book out of time. On the one hand, it reads like an unintentional parody of the 1950’s south, but at the same time it meets us as a mirror that reflects an ugly truth about our own day. The setting of the novel is the mid 1950’s and Jean Louise (Scout) has come home from New York to Maycomb, Alabama for her two week vacation. She has done this each year for the past four years. On this fifth trip she is surprised to find that her father the venerable attorney Atticus Finch, as well as her fiancé Henry Clinton, her aunt Alexandra, and everyone else in her family all endorse and support the Jim Crow policies of the south. They also resent or even hate the NAACP, the Supreme Court, the Federal Government and any other agent of change “meddling in the south.” It is unclear why Jean Louise didn’t get hints of this attitude during her preceding four visits.
Lee is clear, however, that there are two classes of segregationists in Maycomb. The lower classes like Grady O’Hanlon, guest speaker at the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council meeting. These people are vulgar, uneducated, and spout racist invective in the crudest of language. O’Hanlon’s remarks at the Citizens’ Council, for example, are too vile to quote here. Then there is the upper class like Atticus Finch and Jean Louise’s other relatives and acquaintances. These people “understand the inferiority” of the Negro and believe they are not ready for assimilation and the role of governance that accompanies it.
Like many of my contemporaries, I have met both of these classes. The first spewed vile hatred at me as I marched to the Dallas County Court House in Selma, Alabama with Martin Luther King, Jr. The second I found closer to home: my family and the town I grew up in. In Sunday School Class, for example, I was taught that Negroes were inferior by nature to white people and that segregation of the races was natural and necessary for the preservation and advancement of society. This attitude was reinforced daily by social and civil strictures that kept Negroes in “their proper place.” Segregated housing, employment opportunities limited to menial jobs, poor schools, as well as inadequate community services in what were called Colored neighborhoods all served their limiting and defining purpose.
At home, my father was my Atticus Finch. He taught me everything I know of virtue, honesty, respect for individuals, personal initiative and civic responsibility. Reasonable, generous and kind to people of both races, he was a highly respected businessman in the community. Yet at the same time he was an avowed segregationist and could offer a full rationale for its reasonableness and necessity. In all these generous characteristics and in their apparent incongruity with the disparate treatment of African Americans, he was not untypical of the day.
This same schizophrenic contradiction Lee holds up to us in Go Set a Watchman; there are the lower classes like O’Hanlon, who spit at and curse Negros, and there are “good people” capable of rationalizing the suppression of an entire race. All of the arguments for segregation are played out as Jean Louise tries to understand what is happening to her family and community: Negroes are naturally inferior, God ordained the separation of the races, they are not ready for integration, they might marry white people, they are incapable of governing. Atticus tells his daughter, “Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life. They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet.” Then he goes on to rail against the NAACP and how they’ve messed things up. The only concession to real change appears to come from Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack who intimates at a newsouth when he asks her to move back to Maycomb. She doesn’t have to do anything, he insists, just join them with her progressive attitude. “I don’t mean by fighting,” he says. We’re led to believe this is the way change will occur; through a slow, incremental process. “I know it’s got to be slow,” Jean Louise says. Change needs to be slow, was a refrain we heard every day in the south of the 1950’s and 60’s. Slow was a euphemism for never in the southern town I grew up in and as never in Maycomb, Alabama as well.
Jean Louise’s answer to Uncle Jack when she is encouraged to move back to Maycomb and lend her talents to this transition to a new south is particularly revealing. She says, “That’d be great, with me on one side and everyone else on the other.” Now we understand what has been missing in this novel: there are no black voices, nothing of the black perspective from that time. Go Set a Watchman is a white novel that uses African Americans as a foil for what white people think. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man comes to mind. The whole African American population of Maycomb is not part of the everyone else in her thinking. It does not occur to Jean Louise or apparently to Harper Lee for that matter, that in their midst is a vibrant community of African Americans equal in size to the white population of Maycomb; a community that has a culture, an economy and a religious life of its own. Except as a cause, a reason, a backdrop to enhance and help define white life, African American society simply doesn’t exist in the novel. As a result, the novel ignores the black response to segregation or the subtle methods of resistance adopted by the Negro community in order to endure and even thrive in the oppressive environment of Maycomb, Alabama.
Paul Lawrence Dunbar shares one of those methods in his poem “We Wear the Mask.”
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be otherwise.
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh, the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask.
And this is why Jean Louise doesn’t understand why Calpernia is so distant when she goes to visit her in the Quarters after Atticus agreed to defend her son. Jean Louise finds Calpernia, surrounded by family, “sitting in a haughty dignity that appeared on state occasions….” a person in her own right now, not the maid who helped raise her. “Jean Louise said slowly more to herself than to Calpernia: ‘As long as I’ve lived I never remotely dreamed that anything like this could happen. And here it is. I cannot talk to the one human who raised me from the time I was two years old…it is happening as I sit here and I cannot believe it. Talk to me, Cal. For God’s sake talk to me right. Don’t sit there like that!’
“She looked into the old woman’s face and knew it was hopeless. Calpernia was watching her, and in Calpernia’s eyes was no hint of compassion.”
In his review of the novel in the July 27, 2015 issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says, “That Southernness, however much it is now the material of cliché, is still the most pleasing thing about the book–…”
Gopnik is wrong on this one. This one-sided book is about white Southernness and there is nothing pleasing about the white Southernness in Go Set a Watchman. Southernness here describes a thin veneer of civility that hides a deep seated insecurity, fear even, capable of erupting into a nasty and violent hatred at a moment’s notice, as it still does today. The value of Go Set a Watchman with all its literary faults is that it unwittingly lifts this veil of gentility to expose the nasty fear that underpinned segregation and the Jim Crow laws that were its support. Gopnik tells us that beneath his style of enlightenment Atticus suffered a bigotry that couldn’t recognize itself. That’s giving Atticus the benefit of the doubt and the south as well. It would not be difficult to argue that out of a deluded sense of white arrogance and privilege, Atticus suffered a bigotry that wouldn’t recognize itself. And Jean Louise and Harper Lee by extension, by buying into the argument against the outside agents of change, betray their own unstated bigotry and arrogance of race.
By 1968 the paradigm had shifted and the mask described by Dunbar had come off. In the Mexico City Olympic Games that year Tommy Smith won gold in the 200 meter dash and John Carlos the bronze. On the medal podium Smith raised a black gloved right fist signifying black power and Carlos raised a black gloved left fist representing unity in black America.
It is 2015. On a recent visit to my elderly mother-in-law in her assisted living facility in Savannah, Georgia—the residents in the home are white and the staff is mostly African American—I was chatting up an old gentleman in a wheelchair who was having trouble with his cell phone. I couldn’t help him. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, “I’ll ask one of the nig…uh, staff to help me.” Go Set a Watchman may well be a novel out of time, but even in its distance from the present, even out of its awkwardness it reminds us of the thin veneer of civility that covers who we are.