Friday, October 7, 2016

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Harper Lee completed Go Set a Watchman in 1957, and her agent shopped it to publishers. J.B. Lippincott wanted to know what else she'd written, so she worked on what was published as To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. This earlier-written novel, set fifteen years later, was only published in 2015. Harper Lee died in February 2016 at the age of 89. The merits and shortcomings of this new book have fed an argument about Ms. Lee's state of mind when she agreed to pursue publication - was she senile? Was she pressured by her heirs, who stood to make money off sales of a book sure to be (as it has been) a best-seller?

It is the subject, race, and her approach to it, that have caused this schism: some critics have praised the novel highly, while many others have condemned it sharply. Race, segregation, and inequality are - should be - much on our minds these days. Atticus Finch, embodied for many in Gregory Peck's august, sensitive and upright performance in the wonderful film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, is a man of courage who stands up for right and justice, defending a black man on trial for the rape and murder of a white woman in a small southern town. His lawyerly pleading wins our hearts: "Here," we think, "is a man intent on righting wrongs, unafraid of those who oppose him!"

Spoiler Alert - I'm going to discuss the entire book. If you want to read it without knowing what happens, stop reading this now!

For the first half of Go Set a Watchman, that's the Atticus Finch we see - older now, afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis but still at 72 a lawyer at work, an honest and straightforward man. Then Jean Louise (Scout), his daughter, home on a visit from New York, listens in on a meeting of all the notable white men in the town as they discuss methods of maintaining segregation. And there is Atticus, introducing the out-of-town bigot who leads the way. Atticus stands beside this hateful small-minded man, giving him respect and attention.

Jean Louise spends the rest of the book wrestling with questions not only of justice and race but also, closer to home, of her sense of betrayal at her father's abandonment of everything he taught her to believe. How could he support these rabid race-baiters? How could he lend his imprimatur as a respected member of the town, to this loathsome campaign?

It's hard not to think of William Faulkner's novel Intruder in the Dust, in which a black man is jailed and narrowly avoids being lynched for the murder of an up-county (white trash) man - a murder he did not commit but will not unbend to address his accusers to deny. Faulkner riffs on repudiation, on the bravery of an old white woman and a pair of teenage boys, one white and one black, who save the imprisoned man because they have to, as honest people. They take on themselves the duty to repudiate the lies about Lucas, because he will not come to his own defense but such lies must not stand, must not be allowed to destroy him. Hate and ignorance must be resisted.

Atticus justifies his support of the segregationist cause by claiming that black people in the south are more backward than whites, that the Supreme Court decision (presumably Brown vs. Board of Education) is pushing them ahead too fast, that the NAACP are meddling outsiders forcing their will upon ignorant locals, that black people are not ready to have equal stature with whites. Jean Louise rejects his arguments and rages against him, but in the end Ms. Lee frames Jean Louise's push-back as a step toward maturity: Atticus has been Perfect, and finally she can see he is not, and bash him off the pedestal he's been on all her life. This liberates her, but leaves unresolved the question of whether, if even fair-minded Atticus has joined the lockstep racist movement, it is either acceptable or inevitable to push for a society in which African Americans must remain an underclass.

Harper Lee has pulled a bait-and-switch on us - she lays out the arguments for and against segregation, and racism itself, but at the last minute reduces these to the catalyst by which Jean Louise gains an adult view of her father.  She gives us a southerner's view of the Civil War by differentiating the social structure of the slave-holding states from the rest of this country, and using that to justify - and excuse - racism, Klan activity, Jim Crow.

How you feel about this book will depend heavily on how well you can compartmentalize: writing skill and vivid characters, separate from the world in which they live, and their attitudes. I admired Harper Lee's writing more before I compared her willingness to rationalize the racist structure of small-town Alabama, to Faulkner's solid repudiation of it in rural Mississippi.