The OF Blog: Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

In evaluating certain literary works, conventional, tried-and-true approaches sometimes must be jettisoned.  This certainly has proven to be the case with the recently-released Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman.  Much (e-)ink has been spilled on the origins of this 1950s trunk novel that later begot To Kill a Mockingbird and how after a half-century of near-silence the dubious fashion in which it came to be published has come to light.  Those lines of thought are more the provenance of journalists than literary reviewers, however.  It is more than fair to raise the issue, but when it comes to the text itself, then it comes to the text itself and all else should be ancillary.  Yet in cases like this, attempting to remove oneself from the uproar would be a Sisyphean task.

When I began reading Go Set a Watchman, I found myself thinking of the various posthumous works that I had read or listened to:  Vergil's Æneid; Jimi Hendrix's post-1970 releases; Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again; among others.  Vergil reportedly made a deathbed request that his "unfinished" epic poem be burned after his death.  While obviously this was not the case (another such example would be the majority of Franz Kafka's work that his friend and literary executor Max Brod published despite Kafka's occasional declaration that they should be burnt), the debate on the merits of publishing, whether posthumously or in a situation where an author potentially could require a conservator to make legal and business decisions, is an interesting one.  I believe that if an appropriate framework is established for evaluating the works in question, then there is little to quibble about in the case of a work that almost certainly would have been published immediately after the author's death if not beforehand.

Go Set a Watchman's complex textual history makes for a fascinating study.  Readers familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird are going to see several parallels in descriptions, characterization, and plot development.  Jean Louise/Scout Finch's journey home to Maycomb, Alabama sometime in the immediate aftermath of the 1954 Brown vs. The Board of Education Supreme Court ruling contains several flashbacks that the germ of numerous events in the latter novel.  In a weird sense, the first novel becomes a quasi-sequel to the latter, not so much for the flashbacks (which in some cases were revised and altered in To Kill a Mockingbird), but for readers' understandings of how certain characters have developed.  Although much ado has been made about Atticus Finch's seeming character shift in Go Set a Watchman, there are certain other characters, Calpurnia in particular, whose actions here in this novel may be surprising or even unsettling to those readers who approached To Kill a Mockingbird as a mostly nostalgic, mildly "heroic" Southern novel despite the heartbreak of the Tom Robinson case.

Certainly there are grounds for being startled throughout.  Go Set a Watchman slays its gods, strewing about disillusionment in the wake of its revelations.  This is no accident, as it appears that Lee originally conceived of the autobiographical Maycomb milieu as being a way of retelling the civil rights era upheavals within a slightly fictitious family account.  Lee's father, A.C. Lee, was also a lawyer who became caught up in the counter-protests common throughout the South after 1954.  But in the case of Atticus Finch, what is interesting is seeing just how fully conceived his character was in this earlier draft:  he is just as wry, courteous, and humane as in To Kill a Mockingbird, but the key difference is the narrative perspective through which he is viewed.  Young Scout's first-person narrative in To Kill a Mockingbird portrays him as a sort of demi-god, a father who may not always understand his children, but whose wisdom and humanity inspire them to be the best they can possibly be.  Go Set a Watchman, written in a limited third-person point-of-view, demonstrates this lingering hero worship that Jean Louise has for her father, but it also reveals the cracks in this façade and also how much Jean Louise has changed while becoming an independent, opinionated young woman in her late 20s.

Go Set a Watchman deconstructs these earlier views of Scout through the liberal use of flashbacks (many of which were later transported, virtually unchanged, into To Kill a Mockingbird).  Although they are invaluable in demonstrating just how Lee initially constructed this coming-of-age tale and how it later morphed into a sometimes very different "daughter" novel, at times these flashbacks weaken the narrative thrust considerably.  For example, more space is devoted to discussing Jean Louise's first period than in connecting that to her complex emotions regarding the former family cook, Calpurnia.  The near "as in" presentation of this 1950s draft as the published Go Set a Watchman does an injustice to the "new" scenes, as an occasional judicious pruning of extraneous scenes could have heightened the narrative tension that builds throughout the course of the novel.

Yet despite this uneven narrative pace and its numerous digressions, there is a strong, questing core that should captivate most readers.  The revelation of Atticus's views on race, while disappointing to his daughter (and readers), are only the tip of the iceberg.  What Lee focuses more on is how Jean Louise tries to process this sudden upheaval of her world.  It is not always a pretty sight, as 21st century readers might find Jean Louise's arguments and rationales to be rather antiquated, if not bigoted themselves.  But perhaps that is exactly a point behind this novel.  Maybe for white Southerners, especially so-called Southern progressives of the mid-20th century, there are some hypocrisies that still need to be exposed to the light. 

The final two parts of the novel are the strongest, most attention absorbing, because they distillate these inner and familial conflicts into a series of dialogues (Jean Louise-Jack, Jean Louise-Alexandra, Jean Louise-Henry, and most especially Jean Louise-Atticus) that present a wide spectrum of white Southern thought during this period.  There is little that is facile about them; Atticus's counterarguments, when viewed within the context of the times, prove to be challenging to his daughter's more idealized views.  As a reflection of contemporary social views, these concluding sections are very well realized.  However, it is difficult not to see flaws in how Lee arrived at these final scenes.  It is not just the meandering flashbacks that clog up the narrative flow, but also those false steps, such as Jean Louise's impulsive visit to Calpurnia and her rebuffal there,  where much more could have been said to even greater effect than what was ultimately achieved.

Go Set a Watchman perhaps should be judged primarily as an ur-text; it represents a genesis of thought that led to a modern classic.  It certainly shows enough in character and plot evolutions to serve as an example of how to develop a story.  But with the majority of events taking place after those of To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is in many regards its own story.  It contains characters that shift somewhat in presentation, yet on the whole these are characters that are easily recognizable as being those who appeared in the earlier tale.  No, it does not contain the same narrative magic that made To Kill a Mockingbird dear to tens of millions of years, but what it contains, warts and all, is a story of confusion and conflict that speaks most clearly to white Southerners who have tried, like Thomas Wolfe's George Webber, to "come home again," only to discover that "home" is a more repulsive, conflicting place where hatred and love make for strange bedfellows.  This is not to say there can't be other readings for this novel, but only that the central conflict, or at least how it is phrased and conducted amongst its participants, might be foreign to non-Southerners or at least not as vital to them.  As it stands, Go Set a Watchman is a flawed yet occasionally riveting work that does not weaken or ruin Harper Lee's legacy, but rather is a testament for just how deeply she conceived this retelling of how an independent-minded, idealistic daughter comes to terms with the complexities of a father she had adored and worshiped her entire life.

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