Sunday, October 11, 2015

2015.10.11 Go! Set A Watchman

Our world today is in love with pre-everything: pre-order, pre-promote, pre-empt, pre-crastinate ( do today what could wait until tomorrow, or the next day:) , pre-vail, everything but pre-vent. This impulse is geared to satisfy our control needs and also is for our good. It is a bit anxious! Still, we’ve developed a pre-habit: do everything ahead of time and instantly. Is this a wise or thoughtful life strategy? I do it too, and wonder.

Some time ago I read the pre-views of  Harper Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman. This was the book Lee wanted to write, and did in the 1950s. It’s about Jean Louise Finch, a young woman, ablaze with civil rights fervor, whose homecoming to the deep South is bittersweet at best. Lee’s editor told her it would be a better book if she rewrote it to emphasize the child called Scout’s perspective and voice and center the drama on Scout's father, Atticus Finch, who in the 1930s South defended a black man against charges of raping a white woman—and won the hearts of his children and all readers.  The editor was right. Lee wrote a better book, To Kill a Mockingbird, a bestseller still and a film classic.

Lee’s first novel would pale in comparison to Mockingbird, so it was laid to rest. You see, no one ever wanted Scout to grow up. And no one ever wanted her Daddy, Atticus Finch, to be anything but a hero who looked like Gregory Peck and did not let racial prejudice get in the way of his legal responsibility—or his parenting.  (Atticus and Scout in the movie)
When Watchman came out in 2015, having been discovered by a friend of the 88-year-old Harper Lee, a scurry of negative commentary burst forth. Many critics thought that Lee had been duped by a greedy publisher to publish an inferior book just for money. Nothing could ever live up to Mockingbird. But I wondered. Harper Lee, after all, thought Watchman “a pretty decent effort.”  Harper Lee wrote both books.
I re-read Mockingbird and snatched up Watchman. I was looking for Scout and Atticus, Maycomb County, Calpurnia, and all the sweet feelings I remembered from Mockingbird. I was also looking for Scout as Jean Louise Finch at twenty-six and her father Atticus as an aging white southern gentleman.

Initially, the title caught my attention. It is biblical. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah (21:6) wrote an oracle, pronouncing judgment on Babylon, Israel’s captor. The prophet was told by the Lord: “Go, set a watchman, let him announce what he sees.” The watcher saw signs of Babylon's destruction and hope for an end to the suffering of Israel in captivity and exile. (Historically, Babylon, ancient superpower, fell in 539 BCE.) No good will come of all this enmity by which people suffer—says the Lord.

When Jean Louise Finch returned to her “sweet home Alabama” from New York City, her eyes were opened in the way emergent adulthood permits. “I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour .  .  .  to tell me that this is what a man says and this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference, I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.” (p. 222)

I liked Watchman as much as I liked Mockingbird. I disagree with critics who have declared that the beloved image of Atticus Finch suddenly turned racist and bigoted. One angry reader even wrote, “Harper Lee, WTF?” Idols do smash. A good friend and writer wouldn’t read Watchman fearing it would kill Mockingbird’s charm—and her joy. I told her Atticus and Scout were still there—alive and well and true— in Watchman where they originated.
Atticus was present as the mannered southern gentleman with the measured demeanor he always was, living in the context that formed him. He was not racist. Racism involves emotions and awareness. He simply lived in a clearly structured culture he did not think was wrong, simply real. He defended a Negro because he knew that man was innocent. (Incidentally and by comparison, the drama of the trial which was so prominent in Mockingbird was passingly mentioned in Watchman.) Still, in both Atticus did not bow to cultural prejudices of his time, but kept his integrity as an attorney. His young daughter loved his courage—and learned from it.

And Scout was present with the same audacity she had as a child and in many hilarious scenes from her adolescent years. Imagine concocting a detailed plan for suicide over an imagined teen pregnancy for which death was the only logical punishment! Then darn near carrying it out.

Atticus and Jean Louise Finch battled out their differences, just as a father and daughter (or son) do when they experience growing up and being apart and then struggling to get back together again. Jean Louise was furious, precisely and ironically, because her father had NOT told her the “truth”: that whites were superior. And now she didn’t fit in at all. Why had he not married again, a “nice dim-witted Southern lady who would have raised me right.” Atticus, “desperately trying,” defended his position as a  Jeffersonian Democrat against his daughter’s newly-minted civil rights activism. 

Jean Louise defended her politics as fiercely as I did, once I discovered them and realized that my father couldn’t stomach FDR and Democrats, scorned those Catholic bishops who dressed in red dresses like satan, and had never even heard of my then hero, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, theologian and medical missionary in Africa. Scandal! I wanted Dad to be the way I’d set him up to be in my adoring child-heart. I don’t think I ever called him a son of a bitch, as Jean Louise called Atticus, but then I wasn’t writing a novel. Nor would my father have said, “That’ll be enough,” as Atticus did. Both fathers would say, and did, “Well, I love you.” Both daughters would come round to it.

To kill a mockingbird is a sin, because all they do is sing their hearts out, making music for us all day long. Watchers? They guide you waking and guard you sleeping—like a maturing conscience, or God.