Here’s a rare thing. I’ve read a book within a month of its publication. I figured I would eventually read Go Set a Watchman (whose title, which still annoys me comes from Isaiah) and I got tired of seeing all these spoilers so I went and read it. And now, I’m not sure what to say, because it can’t really be talked about without spoilers, so if you haven’t read it, don’t read on. Or, don’t read past this paragraph in which I will state that there are some wonderful scenes in which Scout looks back on her childhood, beautifully written glimpses into how life was in the South, and probably still is cuz damn they don’t change. Pretty sure Alexandra’s grandmother gave coffees not unlike the one she gives in Watchman. So it has some great parts and the first third is enjoyable and then it is by turns appalling and sort of a mix of dismaying and non-plussing. I would definitely be curious to see what anyone says about it who hasn’t read Mockingbird, because as this guy points out, it doesn’t really seem to stand on its own. Spoilers in the article though so just go read the book if you want to avoid them, It’s the only way.
Okay, spoilers galore now. Atticus, as you may have heard, has feet of clay. One feels this dramatically if you’ve admired him since reading TKAM. The epitome of what the Southern man could and should be: just, patient, loving, fair-minded, and unprejudiced. Ha! Turns out, he only loves the law and the difference between him and the rest of the South is that his racism is some sort of high-minded bullshit as opposed to the foaming-at-the-mouth loathing of Mr. O’Hanlon. He sees the “negroes” as children, to be brought along in paternal fashion, but who can never truly grow up and be the equal of the white folks who are so much more advanced. Maybe someday. In a hundred years, or two, they’ll be ready to eat at the same table, go to the same theaters, learn from the same teachers, and even vote or hold office. Maybe. It’s horrifying and to give Scout credit, she’s thoroughly appalled. Her semi-fiance is one of these people which is painful enough, but her father was, as Lee puts it, a god to her and finding out he’s merely a non-violent racist is as horrifying to her as it is to us. For several chapters. Then I think Lee didn’t know what to do, or maybe I don’t understand what she did, but there’s a big confrontation, Scout starts to run away from everyone, but is stopped by her uncle who blathers on about not running away and your friends need you when they’re wrong not when they’re right and she can do the most good by coming back to Maycomb and what…? She’ll just end up being that eccentric, token non-racist Scout Finch who likes to wear trousers and pretend that race doesn’t matter. She’s not going to make an actual difference that I can see. Life goes on as it did before. She gives her father a ride home and goes on another date with her racist fiance, who she intends to eventually let down easy. Don’t string him along, Jean Louise, you were right in the first place – end it. You can’t marry him and it looks like there isn’t a non-racist in all of Maycomb you could marry. Wondering if Jem is left out because she didn’t know whether to make him a racist or not.
Go Set a Watchman is a mostly well-written portrait of racism, the South and using the 10th amendment to justify treating people like shit. I found it extremely painful to read and if that makes me a bigot (as Jean Louise’s uncle calls her) because I’m unwilling to entertain peoples’ ideas on why racism is actually okay, so be it.
So, I’m starting to think that the reason Harper Lee didn’t write another book nor have this one published for 55 years was that To Kill a Mockingbird was edited into a thing better than she was capable of — that her own views were not so evolved as the book that came out in her name so when and if more books came from her pen they would, as this one has, revealed thinking that was in no way as progressive as Mockingbird would lead one to think. Similar to the statement All men are created equal. It has been vociferously pointed out to me the writer of that statement only meant landholding white males, but I firmly believe we can say true things that are better than we ourselves are capable of believing. We are creatures of our times, but we sometimes have a glimpse and are able to articulate something better, something forward thinking, something true. If challenged on it, we’d probably fail because we don’t have the conviction of what we said, but it’s right nonetheless and the only way we move forward is by seizing on these diamonds of insight and holding onto them as showing us the way to go. Like a small star to guide us. Mockingbird was fiction – no such person as Atticus existed. Watchman is cold, sad fact – many such people as Atticus existed and still exist and they are solidly in the wrong.