Wednesday, September 9, 2015

In which I venture into murky waters

Explanatory note: Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but Harper Lee’s editor felt the stories of Scout’s childhood were the most engaging parts of the novel, and encouraged Lee to concentrate on those. Thus Go Set a Watchman eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, and the original manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was put aside. Thus while Watchman predates Mockingbird it describes events set chronologically after Mockingbird. Got that? Good. 

Once upon a time, a lawyer named Atticus Finch represented a young black man named Tom Robinson, who had been accused of rape of a white woman. The interesting thing is this; in order for Lee’s narrative to be convincing in that time and place, it is necessary for the accused man to be almost utterly powerless – crippled both financially and physically. The dramatic tension of the novel depends on there being plausible doubt about the outcome of the case. And in Lee’s Maycomb it seems pretty clear to me that the word of a black man being believed over that of a white woman would have been such a challenge to the established order of things that it would never have been allowed to happen. It only even comes close to happening because Tom Robinson is such an entirely and visibly powerless person that – in the eyes of Maycomb’s white society – he doesn’t really matter.

Jump forward 20 years. The political climate has changed. Separate schools for black and white pupils have been declared unconstitutional. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has got a political voice. The black population is no longer so wholly without power. Maycomb is being forced to change, and doesn’t like it.

Now we have left To Kill a Mockingbird and entered the world of Go Set a Watchman. Scout – Jean Louise Finch – is an adult. She has been to college, and lived in New York for several years. And Atticus, although still a lawyer, is a crippled shadow of his former self. The balance of power in Maycomb is different now.

Is the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird the same Atticus Finch of Watchman? The principled lawyer in the first sits uneasily with the worried old man of the second, who fears that the rapid change of the society he lives in will lead to chaos, if not armed revolt, and who, by reading the racist literature of the anti-integration movement and going to their meetings – and apparently failing to speak out against what he hears – appears to collude with that movement. Scout’s idolization of her father is shattered.

Go Set a Watchman has not been well received by the critics – and there is some justification for that. Lee devotes over a hundred pages to a portrait of Maycomb before we come to any kind of plot, and that’s so antithetical to the structure of the contemporary novel it’s almost blasphemy. Scout’s Uncle’s description of what is going on in Maycomb by analogy with the lives of Victorian literary figures is bewilderingly obscure. To Kill a Mockingbird is what Watchman became after two years of re-writing and editing, and it shows.

Even so, I loved it. It was glorious to meet Scout again as an adult. I love Harper Lee’s writing enough that I could read her anecdotes about Maycomb all day and not care if there was plot development or not. And actually, while the novel may seem meandering, none of it is gratuitous. We need all those descriptions of Maycomb and of Scout’s alienation from it if we are to fully understand what is happening later on. The book may not be the literary masterpiece that is To Kill a Mockingbird, but it’s readable and subtle and meaningful and in no way does its publication represent an exploitation of Harper Lee in her old age. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to read it.

Which brings me back to Atticus, and the question of whether the Atticus of Mockingbird is the same man as the Atticus of Watchman; and I really don’t see why he shouldn’t be. If anything, if we allow the two Atticuses to be the same principled person, Watchman asks important questions: To oppose a movement, is it always necessary to protest against it from the outside? Or is it morally acceptable also to work from within, to attempt to quietly and patiently guide it along more ethical lines? Scout’s passionate response to the second question is “no!” and it is this disagreement with her father that allows her to finally cast off her hero worship and grow up. Nevertheless, she reconciles with Atticus in the end, recognizing that running back to New York to condemn Maycomb from afar is also a flawed response. However much of a misfit Scout may be, she is part of Maycomb society and perhaps has an obligation to engage with it to help it to change.

So I do not agree with those who condemn Watchman because Watchman gives us a different understanding of Atticus’s character. Do we so desperately need Atticus Finch to be the great white hero of the racial equality movement that we cannot stand to discover that he might have feet of clay?

Mockingbird presents us with the viewpoint of a child, and it is perhaps what makes the novel great that we are forced to see the ugliness of racism through the black-and-white filter of a child’s vision. Watchman is told from the point of view of an adult, and is correspondingly more complex and has many shades of gray. Even Scout herself does not wholly embrace our twenty-first century ideal of racial equality – for all her claims to be colorblind, she still feels uncomfortable with the idea of interracial marriage. Lee’s heroine is a person of her own time and place.

The Wikipedia article on Mockingbird notes that it tends to be more popular among white readers than among black readers. I can guess at why. The black characters tend to be powerless, stereotyped and marginalized – the only developed black character in Mockingbird is Calpurnia, and for all her strength and grace it’s been suggested that she’s merely the stereotype of the “contented slave.” At least in Watchman she is allowed to break out of that role and express somewhat the conflict of her position. Is it possible that part of the appeal of Mockingbird is that it – through our identification with Atticus and Scout – allows white, middle class liberals like me to feel good about themselves?

So the racial equality movement has lost a great white hero, and Watchman doesn’t let people like me feel as good about themselves as Mockingbird does. Tell me again why this makes it a bad novel?