Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Watchman: The Shadow Side of a Classic

Well, I've read Go Set a Watchman, and I see what all the angst is about.

The novel is in its first half sweet without being cloying--Jean Louise Finch, 26 years old, living in New York, makes her fifth annual return to Maycomb to see her ailing father Atticus. He's icing from severe rheumatoid arthritis, and some days he's in such pain, he needs his sister (Aunt Alexandra, as starchy as in To Kill a Mockingbird, has, rather surprisingly, spared Jean Louise moving back home by moving in herself with Atticus) to help him dress. His brother, Dr. Jack, has fashioned specially large-handles utensils to help Atticus eat.

Jem has been dead for two years.

It's the characters you know, for the most part--we get a visit from Dill in a flashback, even--and they're mostly the same.

Certainly in that sunlit first half, with flashbacks to Scout and Jem and Dill playing together, Uncle Jack being amusing, and Atticus facing disability and mortality pretty much as you'd expect him to.

--And then Harper Lee shatters the cozy little world of Maycomb. Jean Louise stumbles on a racist pamphlet among her father's books and papers, and blames Aunt Alexandra for it. Aunt Alexandra holds her tongue, but is innocent. Jean Louise follows her father to an unusual gathering in the courthouse--the same place where he heroically defended Tom Robinson--and finds that he's a leader of the Maycomb Citizen's Council.

It hits Scout hard, and the reader, too. Lee has done such a grand job of evoking the Atticus that lives in our hearts (extraordinary, really, because Go Set a Watchman was written before Mockingbird) that we are hit as hard as Scout.

I won't spoil the book for you; the first half has all the magic of the innocent comic scenes in Mockingbird, and yet virtually no overlap. The Robinson trial is portrayed in a quick two pages, and is less heroic, and less tragic than in the first-published book.

The "back 9" of the book depicts Jean Louise's reaction, her anger and sense of betrayal. She finds an unlikely ally, has a wrenching confrontation with her father, and one with her uncle.

Scout dies, but Jean Louise lives.

Any more, and I'll end up spoiling the book.

But let me say, if Mockingbird is important to you, read this book.

Harper Lee is saying something important about racism (oh, Calpurnia!), about growing up, about fathers and daughters--and about human frailty.

It is an extraordinary achievement, even though you can see the seams, as the editorial process led to the abandonment of Watchman and the creation of Mockingbird--one critical scene is too talky, though most of the talk is good talk. Most of it.

Atticus is not, at the end of the book, a hero. He's a man. Flawed, loving, wrong-headed, passionately just-- a mass of contradictions.

Like many of us. I'm reminded of my favorite passage from C.P. Snow, with his protagonist, Lewis Eliot, engaged in a debate with a young Nazi official in 1938:
"No one is fit to be trusted with power," I said..."No one. I should not like to see any group of men in charge--not me or my friends or anyone else. Any man who has lived at all knows the follies and wickedness he's capable of. If he does not know it, he is not fit to govern others. And if he does know it, he knows also that neither he nor any man ought to be allowed to decide a single human fate, I am not speaking of you specially, you understand; I should say exactly the same of myself."

Our eyes met. I was certain, as one can be certain in a duel across the table, that for the first time he took me seriously.

"You do not think highly of men, Mr. Eliot."

"I am one."
Atticus, in either novel, would, I think, understand and approve.

3 comments:

Vinnie Bartilucci said...

Atticus Finch is one of the most perfect characters in American literature. He is honest, forthright, and the best shot in the county. He is not a Superman, he is simply a good man, as good as any of us can be. His quality of character is not unattainable. So for him to be turned into a racist is nearly unconscionable to me. Unless it's revealed he was the subject of a brain-swapping ray with Doctor Octopus, I might have a problem accepting the reality of it.

Of course, as has been made clear, this was written before Mockingbird. So perhaps that's the mindset it must be read in. This is the beta release of Atticus Finch.

But should we, in fact, be reading it? I ever come back around to the point that Ms. Lee decided not to publish it. She chose to write an entirely different book (and thank God for that) and clearly re-crafted Atticus as a far better man.

rick allen said...

I have not read "Watchman," but not because of the surprising differences in Atticus. He's a fictional character, and this was a first draft of what apparently became a very different book.

And there's the fact that, looking at "Mockingbird" again, there's little that's political, that's particularly "progressive" in Atticus's character. Many have lately derided "Mockingbird" because Atticus still has many flaws, from a contemporary perspective. He's condescending, accepting of much of the status quo. In light of the new book we may perhaps infer that perhaps Ms. Lee wasn't trying to paint a proto-civil-rights leader after all, but a man who, with all his assumptions, thought it worthwhile to defend a man he thought innocent, and who shared enough of the values of his own community that he thought he might have a chance to persuade others to see things as he saw them. This basic decency wouldn't preclude some lack of enthusiasm for that change that occurred in the 1950's...again, we're talking about versions of a fictional character, but not wanting an innocent man to be executed for rape doesn't necessarily imply political or social progressiveness. Much of that we read into the character. And, in all honesty, I find it not that unusual that an individual may display heroic virtue in one segment of his life and be blind to serious moral failures in another.

And, of course, "Mockingbird" is told through the eyes of the child Scout, and most of us work pretty hard to appear better in our children's eyes than we know we in fact are.

But...and this comes to my question...this whole bruhaha got me to pull down my old copy of "Mockingbird" and re-read the first chapter, and I had forgotten how beautiful the writing was. Many critics, after their take on the Atticus controversy, have found "Watchman" considerably less lyrical, less moving, less effortless than "Mockingbird." How did you find the writing? Do you think it would be worth reading if "Mockingbird" had never been published?

Anglocat said...

Thanks for. The comment, Rick. To your question: "Watchman" was not edited for publication, so it's rough in spots (the first chapter published by The Guardian is a good example.). But yes, I think it's worth reading, both on its own, and in light of Mockingbird. The writing is, as she hits her stride, as good in places as anything in the later book, and the portraiture is just as memorable. That said, the books work especially potently together, and are, with one major exception, consistent. With Mockingbird retrojected into it, Watchman is even stronger, and the characters more important. (Calpurnia will break your heart.)