In Defense of Go Set a Watchman

In an essay at The New Republic William Giraldi lays out a formidable takedown of Go Set a Watchman.  The gist of his argument is that it’s a bad first novel of negligible literary value that should have stayed unpublished.  There is little question that money was one of the primary motivations in its publication, if not the primary one.  To what extent Harper Lee is pleased with its publication can only be guessed.  In a public statement she says she approves of it.  She’s a private person and deserves her privacy.  She also deserves to be spared the indignity of our debating her present state.  The fact that the book was published after her sister’s death shows most clearly that her sister didn’t want it published.

But, whatever flaws and impurity of purpose there are in this publication, I think it’s a good thing that it’s here.  I also believe there’a a great deal more to recommend the book literarily than Giraldi says. 

You could say that Mockingbird is Lee’s book of innocence and Watchman is her book of experience.  The fact that innocence was written after experience tells us a great deal about the complicated world of the white conscience in the 1950s and 60s in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement.  My own guess is that Lee’s editor 1)wisely saw the potential for a literary blockbuster in a novel told from Scout’s perspective and 2)believed that the raw confrontation with 1950s racism in Watchman would be too off-putting for white readers in the late 1950’s.  But that’s all speculation on my part.    

Whatever you think of Lee as a writer and moralist, she gets credit, like Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena,” for taking these issues on.  Flannery O’Connor was no doubt a greater and more prolific literary artist than Lee.  But when Jim Crow and racism are broached in O’Connor’s stories we always encounter a certain negation and (dare we say) evasion.  In her stories O’Connor often demonstrates the church’s view of humanity as inherently sinful across the social spectrum.  For her, clashes between reform liberals and southern racists were clashes between groups both struggling under universal human sin.  I’m of O’Connor’s school in believing this to be theological truth(As does, I suspect, Harper Lee).  But segregation was most definitely a social injustice that demanded changes in behavior and an awakening in morality.  You could admit that all people are sinful and still argue forcefully that southern racism was inexcusable and needed to change.  In Watchman that sense of urgency is there.  I don’t detect it in O’Connor’s stories.    

Watchman is primarily a dramatization of Jean Louis’s liberalism on race issues and her disillusionment with Atticus’s racism.  Giraldi offers a blistering critique of the novel’s writing and structure:

Ponderous and lurching, haltingly confected, the novel plods along in search of a plot, tranquilizes you with vast fallow patches, with deadening dead zones, with onslaughts of cliché and dialogue made of pamphleteering monologue or else eye-rolling chitchat. You are confronted by entire pages of her Uncle Jack’s oracular babble, and you must machete through the bracken of listless, throw-away prose in order to get to a memorable turn of phrase.

I would agree that the book lacks a clear plot and that the pacing suffers badly from it.  It isn’t so much a novel as a series of dialogues interspersed with flashbacks that foreshadow Mockingbird.  But unlike Giraldi, I find much that is stimulating, real, and vital in those dialogues.  And I don’t find the writing nearly as bad as Giraldi does.  While at times awkward and unpolished, there is still much of the lyricism and poetic characterization found in Mockingbird.  Consider Scout’s description of her Cousin Joshua in the opening chapter:

Jean Louise’s aunt often held up Cousin Joshua to her as a family example not likely to be discountenanced:  he was a splendid figure of a man, he was a poet, he was cut off in his prime, and Jean Louise would do well to remember that he was a credit to his family.  His pictures did the family well—Cousin Joshua looked like a ratty Algernon Swinburne.

Touches like this are the strength of Lee’s writing.  She delineates the uniqueness of southern life and characters without lapsing into sentimentality or cliche.  Most people today have hardly heard of or read Swinburne.  He was a casualty of T.S. Eliot’s blistering criticism;  and his commitment to dazzling, metrical ballads became increasingly unfashionable in the era of free verse.  But for a young, literate 20th century southerner like Cousin Joshua, Swinburne would be exactly the kind of mythical Victorian to emulate.  The reference subtly illustrates the long influence of Victorian England on life in the Southern US in the 20th century.  

Besides Atticus, the main dramatic interest in Watchman is Jean Louise’s non-starter romance with Henry Clinton.  It’s awkward to read, but in this case I think it’s a necessary awkwardness.  Jean Louise is “supposed” to find a man and settle down.  Clinton is the most natural fit and she loves him, but as a friend not a lover.  When the two kick off their shoes and go swimming together in Finch’s Landing we sense Clinton’s pained desire for her.  Jean Louise has the difficult struggle to keep away from marriage without hurting him.  That kind of struggle was no doubt very real for many women of Jean Louise’s disposition and temperament in that era.

The revelation of Atticus’s racism is jarring for sure.  But I think there is continuity between the Atticus of Mockingbird and Watchman.  What sets off Atticus’s racism in Watchman is the fear engendered in southern whites by the Brown v. Board ruling.  It’s plausible that the man who defended Tom Robinson would have freaked out 20 years later when SCOTUS dealt the first major blow to segregation.  In the earlier era in which Mockingbird takes place, segregation is still unquestioned.  In defending Tom Robinson Atticus does not directly challenge segregation laws but rather the unjust and arbitrary way that Robinson is being railroaded.

Still, Jean Louise’s disgust and shock at discovering his segregationist sympathies shows that this commitment and identification with segregation is new for Atticus.  Her disillusionment with him mirrors our own.  She remembers the father who defended blacks wrongfully accused and who waited respectfully behind them in stores in defiance of Jim Crow etiquette.  For such a man to become involved with the worst, fire-breathing racists of the 50s is unthinkable, but historically plausible.

The Atticus of Mockingbird is probably the most beloved figure in all of US literature.  This popularity annoys some, but I think he earns the devotion by his actions in that book.  He is loving and tolerant towards all and tries to do the right thing in opposing a racial injustice, even when it puts the safety of himself and his family in jeopardy.  In some ways white southerners relate to the Atticus of Mockingbird in the same way that Christians relate to Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  We like to relate to those who stood up for what was right as their tribe succumbed to evil.  We all suspect, whether we confess it or not, that we would have been more likely to follow along with the wrong done by our tribe than do what is exceptional and costly.  Saints of any kind become so posthumously after the tribe realizes they were right to stand out.

But I think we are at a point where it is healthy to see an Atticus Finch beyond the context of sainthood.  In this way the release of Watchman is a blessing.  Great injustices don’t just happen because of angry and loud racists like Hitler and the Klan, but because the quiet majority gives their tacit approval.  This was the bitter and necessary wisdom MLK preached in his discussion of the “white moderate” in Letter From A Birmingham Jail.  We know that resistance to integration and the Brown v. Board ruling was almost universal among southern whites.  The great humanitarian and internationalist US Senator from Arkansas J. William Fulbright signed the Southern Manifesto opposing Brown v. Board along with nearly every other southern senator.  William Faulkner was quoted in the 1950s as saying, “if it came to fighting I’d fight with Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes.”  Faulkner quickly repudiated the quote.  But that a southerner as generally humane and sympathetic to the toxicity of racism as Faulkner could say that to begin with tells us much about the times.

Thus it is realistic to hear the Atticus in Watchman lecture Scout with the following pronouncements:

“Honey you don’t seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.  You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life.  They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet.  They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of ‘em voting than ever before.  Then the NAACP stepped in with its fantastic demands and shoddy ideas of government—can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?”

It’s the strength of Watchman that it lets Atticus and Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack present their own cases for segregation(and in so doing speak for much of the white South in the 1950s); but also lets Jean Louise deliver her own devastating indictments of them and their evasive apologias for injustice:

“Have you ever been snubbed, Atticus?  Do you know how it feels?  No, don’t tell me they’re children and don’t feel it: I was a child and felt it, so grown children must feel it, too.  A real good snub, Atticus, makes you feel like you’re too nasty to associate with people.  How they’re as good as they are now is a mystery to me, after a hundred years of systematic denial that they’re human.  I wonder what kind of miracle we could work with a week’s decency.”

What’s amazing in this scene is Jean Louise taking the humanity and wisdom her father modeled for her as a child and using it to indict him for his dishonest and fearful defense of segregation.  Watchman embraces human imperfection and tragedy, but rather than accepting a hopeless, irredeemable world it suggests the need for truth-telling.   

Jean Louise reaches some resolution with her family at the end, after a disturbing scene in which her Uncle Jack slaps her.  The truth here is that no one wants to live in total isolation from their family and home, least of all Jean Louise Finch.  Neither she nor Atticus will relent in their opinions, but they will live with their disagreement and make peace with it.  At the end we are told, “as she welcomed him silently to the human race, the stab of discovery made her tremble a little.”  This is the discovery that Watchman forces on all of us who love Atticus:  He is human and fallible after all.  And he, in turn, is “proud” of a daughter whose viewpoints have grown to diverge sharply from his own, but nevertheless owe a great deal to the way he brought her up.  This isn’t a neat resolution, but a true one. 

One more scene from earlier in the book bears mentioning.  It’s a scene where the adult Jean Louise goes to visit Calpurnia, the black cook who provided the closest thing to a mother she had.  Jean Louise feels Calpurnia is treating her coldly, and implores her, “Why are you shutting me out?”  Calpurnia asks her, “What are you all doing to us?”  There she expresses the pain of someone who has lived with and served whites who treat her as a second-class citizen and routinely murder her relatives in the name of “tradition” and “state’s rights.”  Jean Louise can’t seem to understand her question or realize the truth of it.  Before she leaves, Jean Louise asks “Did you hate us?” and Calpurnia shakes her head.  There is no true black perspective in the book, and indeed for such perspectives we need to read authors like Richard Wright and Alice Walker.  But the raw power of that scene and the pain of it stays with me. 

Go Set a Watchman is neither tidy nor comforting.  Neither are many vital books.