Books

Troubles in Maycomb: Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.”

It’s hard to know what to make of Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee, which I finished last week. The first thing that occurred to me was how sharp some of the prose was, especially early scenes between Jean Louise (Scout, all grown up) and her part-time beau—and Atticus’ protege—Henry Clinton. Sharp enough that you can believe this is how the precocious daughter of a lettered, single-parent lawyer father in the 1950s South might have turned out if she’d gone off to New York and gotten all sophisticated. But then, as the scenes pile up, particularly lengthy flash backs, you start to wonder where the book is going and with some of the passages begin to feel you’re approaching “Gosh, can you believe?” Reader’s Digest territory.

Then there’s the context problem. As others have observed, we’re given a couple hundred words on the type used to print the book and zero information about the history of the manuscript and how it came to be published. Was it heavily edited? Was it even in manuscript form when discovered? And of course, did Lee really condone its publication? Then there’s the elephant in the room: at the book’s heart is the stunner that none other than Atticus Finch has joined a whites-only citizens’ council as ominous changes (some might know it as the Civil Rights movement) threaten the South’s traditional way of life. Now we don’t know what to think, especially when we’re eyeing Atticus but imagining Gregory Peck. The defenses that Atticus and his brother offer sound plausible (actually, they sound abhorrent, but realistic for the time), to wit, as Scout’s uncle, Dr. Jack Finch, explains: “Jean Louise, when a man’s looking down the double barrel of a shotgun, he picks up the first weapon he can find to defend himself, be it a stone or a stick of stovewood or a citizens’ council.”

But now we have other questions. If this was the original book that To Kill A Mockingbird was carved out of by a smart editor fifty years ago, with its clunky defense of Atticus’s actions, what are we to make of that decision? Was someone saving Lee from herself? Which is more realistic to the era: Atticus justifying his participation on a citizens’ council as an attempt to stave off hostile outside forces while the “backward Negro” catches up to the world under the South’s own timeline, or that same genteel quasi-segregationist defending a wrongly accused black man out of the principle of the thing? What was Lee’s goal in writing this chapter of the Finch family tale? Frustratingly, we don’t know, because, despite all the hoopla about the book, in the end we’re told so little about it.

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