“. . . now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father's. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him with a man's heart, and a man's failings --- I'll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes them, like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.” (p. 265)
In this quote, spoken by Uncle Jack Finch, explaining the situation of her life to Jean Louise Finch at the age of 26, as she needs to grasp it, we have the crux of the plot of the long anticipated novel Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. Although many readers had surmised that Watchman would delve further into the great hero, Atticus Finch, Lee's newly published book is about a young woman who has worshipped her father her entire life, and suddenly is confronted with the reality of his true identity; he is not a god, he is an imperfect human being.
The truth, so “in her face” and so irreconcilable to whom she is, that the adult Scout, becomes physically ill when she realizes that her father is attending a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizen's Council. Jean Louise has heard of these citizens' councils way up in New York where she now lives. They were “same people who were the Invisible Empire, who hated Catholics, ignorant, fear ridden, red faced, boorish, law abiding, one hundred per cent red blooded Anglo Saxons, her fellow Americans ---trash.” (p.104) And her beloved Atticus is taking part in this meeting; once again Scout has climbed up to the balcony where she had watched her father fight for the life of the innocent black man, Tom Robinson, only to witness her father participate in the council with her own eyes.
To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1961, was a flawless coming of age novel, rich with the local color of Maycomb, Alabama. Two young boys, Jem, Scout's brother, and Dill, their summer time pal, are Scout's companions and abettors as the three children try to get their enigmatic neighbor, Boo Radley, to show himself. The events of the three years that the novel covers lead us to believe that the children “grow up” through the dangers that they face and conquer.
People tend to believe that we are “grown up” by the time we are 21 years of age, but this is really not true. At 21 most of us are only beginning to know ourselves, how we relate to our parents and extended family, and what our true values are. Go Set a Watchman is about the extension of growing up, which is why Lee's editors asked her to write the back story, which was published as To Kill a Mockingbird, and reads like a truly inspired piece of art.
The experience of reading Watchman, knowing that it was written first is an interesting experience. For one thing neither Jem nor Dill appear in the novel, other than a few flashbacks. Jem, Scout's beloved and talented brother, had a fatal heart attack at the age of 22, leaving his fiance alone, just as the childrens' mother had done to Atticus. Dill, the childhood chum, is now successful and travelling the world. This stripping of Scout's support system leaves her alone and bereft as she returns to Maycomb to find herself.
Many readers had hoped that Watchman would provide deeper insights into the character of Atticus, and that we would have further opportunities to see him fight injustice in a provincial Southern town. Perhaps some hoped that Watchman might be a panacea for the racial problems that continue to plague America. It was only a week ago that the Confederate flag was removed from the State House in South Carolina, where it had hung as a symbol of hatred since the Civil Rights movement spread across the South during the 1960s. It had taken a tragedy of enormous proportions, the murder of a pastor and his parishoners in their church for the flag to finally be removed.
And I ask, why has it taken 52 years, since the deaths of four, little, black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, who lost their lives at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in a church bombing, for that dreaded symbol to come down?
As angry as I am about the current vicious assaults that continue on innocent American citizens due to the color of their skin, or their sexual preferences, or their cultural differences I see that Harper Lee was trying to make her readers understand another side of this battle. Growing up in the South is very different, even today, than living in the richly diverse and largely liberal world of the North. As Northerners we often credit ourselves for being more enlightened than the citizens in other parts of the country.
But as Atticus tells young Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, you really don't know a person until you've walked in his shoes. It is easy to feel morally superior living in the North, but we know that we don't live in a perfect world either.
In my opinion through the revelations of Jean Louise, Lee is exposing why Southerners were reluctant to grant blacks basic human rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. Lee does not condone the Southern attitude, but she portrays it in a way that we can explore it and try to make sense of it. It is largely Jean Louise's Uncle Jack who voices the Southern mentality for Jean Louise to comprehend. He states, “For years and years all that man thought he had that made him better than his black brothers was the color of his skin. He was just as dirty, he smelled just as bad, he was just as poor. Nowadays he's got more than he ever had in his life, he has everything but breeding, he's freed himself from every stigma, but he sits nursing his hangover of hatred.” (p. 197)
Is Watchman worthy of all of the expectations that people had for it? Yes. I have not been able to stop thinking about the book since I finished it. I loved revisiting Maycomb, even for a brief sojourn. I look forward to discussing the novel with other readers and hope that it will generate positive and productive dialogues among people.
Structurally there are weaknesses in the novel. The denouement comes too suddenly and could use more development. Jean Louise's final revelation about her father seems to come too swiftly, almost as if someone had knocked some sense into her (read the book to understand this allusion). The strengths of the missing characters, Jem, Dill, and most particularly Boo Radley, are gaping holes that make the novel a little empty.
Yet, the voice of Watchman is very much Scout's voice and the style is undeniably that of Harper Lee. Even some of the young Scout's expressions, mannerisms, and boyish mode of dressing are reflected in the adult Jean Louise. We waited for 55 years for this book, and the sad fact is that this is Lee's final chapter.
One final note on the character of Scout, once again from her Uncle Jack, who says, “You're color blind, Jean Louise. You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like. You've never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you're still unable to think racially. You see only people.” (p. 270)
This is the last word from Harper Lee. Let us all look forward to the day when we all see only people.
Beth Moroney, former English teacher and administrator in the Edison Public School District, specialized in teaching Creative Writing and Journalism. Recently Moroney published Significant Anniversaries of Holocaust/Genocide Education and Human/Civil Rights, available through the New Jersey Commission on the Holocaust. A passionate reader, Moroney is known for recommending literature to students, teachers, parents, and the general public for over forty years. Moroney can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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