“Go Set A Watchman”

July 29, 2015

i have now finished reading ‘Go Set A Watchman’ by nelle harper lee.  did a few days ago, actually but those few days have been filled with fermentation and thought.  i’ve actively avoided reading reviews or other comments about the story since i bought my copy, but they’re hard to avoid!

i intend to set down my thoughts about the story, the book and its story however it would be disrespectful to the world of literary review and critique to call this missive either.  just my thoughts…

when i first heard that a subsequent book to ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ was in planned release i was ecstatic.  and who wouldn’t be?  the loved and lauded best book of the 20th century was going to have a partner!  trepidation set in after contemplating that ms lee hadn’t written anything else, not one single thing, in fifty years.  there had to be a good reason for that, surely?  could it be that nothing could compare?  was ms lee a one hit wonder?  is she still? but more on that later.

as the release date drew near i learnt something of the story behind the publication.  ms lee is now enfeebled with age.  it happens.  her affairs, during her lifetime, were looked after by her sister; a seemingly well-qualified lawyer.  one source says that ms lee will sign anything put before her if she feels she can trust the person asking.  her trust in her sister seems well-founded, but now that sister is dead.  what was the motivation and who was really behind the publishing of GSAW?  i don’t think i’ll ever know.

from another source i recall that ms lee wrote GSAW before TKAM but upon presenting it to her publisher she was advised that there was a better story to be told from just a small part of GSAW, hence the birth of To Kill A Mockingbird.  in GSAW the one partial line on page 248, “I remember that rape case you defended…” seems to have spawned our beloved Scout and her daddy Atticus.  how amazing!  i don’t know the word count of GSAW, tho i feel it’s safe to say it’s probably similar or above my first completed manuscript of 89 000 words (still awaiting publication hint, hint.)  if i was told to write another story from just seven words out of nearly 90 000 of them, i may very well pack it all in.  huge ‘thank you’ that ms lee did otherwise.

commentary on GSAW laments that the fine, upstanding, morally outstanding Atticus of TKAM becomes reduced to a racial, racist stereotype.  (see, i haven’t been able to avoid all the reviews/comments!)  i feel that the conclusion of that sentence from page 248 is important here “…but I missed the point.”  it is Scout, or the now adult Jean Louise, who is speaking and i’m sure those that lament the moral corruption of Atticus have missed the point, or at least one of the many made, of GSAW.  to me GSAW is not a story about race relations, nothing so broad; it is the story of one relationship, that between a single parent and a single child.  (it is also hugely interesting that the parent is a single parent, the other having died in the wee years of the children’s lives, and a single child; Scout’s brother Jem having perished prior to the start of GSAW too.)  the relationship between father and daughter progressed over years to become one between idol and worshipper.  when the sheen tarnishes on the idol the worshipper can either choose to polish it up again or to investigate what’s under the sheen and why it may be tarnishing in the first place.  i would posit that simply by aging Atticus as idol, is tarnishing.  his worshipper, his daughter Jean Louise, without realising she even fills that role prefers to polish.  all her polishing is for naught when on page 103 a very great crack appears in her idol, by page 111 her idol is dirty rubble, “She felt sick.  Her stomach shut, she began to tremble…  Every nerve in her body shrieked, then died.  She was numb. She pulled herself to her feet clumsily, and stumbled from the balcony down the covered staircase.  …  She walked down the steps and into the shade of a live oak.  She put her arm out and leaned against the trunk.  She looked at Maycomb, and her throat tightened.  Maycomb was looking back at her.  Go away, the old buildings said.  There is no place for you here.  You are not wanted.  We have secrets.”  (maycomb is her childhood home town.)

poor Jean Louise spends the second half of the story trying to reconcile her belief in the infallibility of her father with the oh-so-apparent travesty of his witnessed failure.

since TKAM was published in 1960 and ms lee was born in 1926 GSAW must have been written, coloured with personal observations from growing up in monroeville, alabama, in the 40s or 50s.  the story and its setting is a story for its time; about race relations and the superiority of white skin over black skin, about the inferiority of the black person’s mind, habits, abilities and ambitions.  and if you want to read what i imagine is one of the few books published in the 21st century, particularly by a white author, that uses the word nigger repeatedly, here’s your chance.

but i think you’ll be the lesser if you read it just to fashionable, or to feign horror because Atticus heads a citizen’s council that spouts racist shit, or to see what became of little Scout once she grew up.

because you see, little Scout, isn’t that much grown up yet.  she’s 24 in this story and either by design or manipulating circumstances as they happened (i can’t tell which) her father shows again he isn’t just the pre-eminent lawyer keeping things neat, ” -nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief.  His cause interfered with your orderly mind, and you had to work order out of disorder.”  he also shows his profound, abiding and patient love for his only living child.  thru his patience and gentle leading he lets his daughter wreck her own idol, rather than disabusing her of her false notions himself, so that she may grow and go out in the world without the weight of childhood bonds constantly upon her.  i think it would be a marvelous thing for all children to be prepared for their adulthood, to smash their idols, to find a truer love and a stronger mind in the way Atticus, with the help of his eccentric and amazing brother, did for Jean Louise.

to answer the question i asked above; ms lee is mostly certainly not a one hit wonder.  GSAW is brilliantly written encompassing humor; drama; the tale of a family and those that came within its fold and reach; a plea for equality that stands the test of fifty years passing since it was written when race relations were different to what they are now, but perhaps not so much changed as a cursory look would let us believe; wonderful dialogue and personal lessons should we look and want to learn them.  i also read somewhere that ms lee has not edited or re-worked GSAW since she first presented it to her publisher a life-time ago, if this is true, “bravo!” to an incomparable and inspiring, talented author.  i hope she enjoys the benefit of her work for many years to come.  i will benefit from her clarity.

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