Friday, March 18, 2016

Harper Lee's first/last novel

I just read Go Set a Watchman, the lost/found first/last best/worst novel by Harper Lee, who died last month at 89. I hadn't partaken in the national fever to read it when it was published in July 2015, but last week I came across it in the library and decided to borrow it. Now that I've finished it, I have no huge deep meaningful pronouncements to make...but I guess that's sort of the point, sort of why I bother commenting here at all.

The novel's back story, as I recall from all the publication-date publicity, is that it was actually Lee's first. That when she submitted it, her editor said Watchman's most resonant passages were the flashbacks to Jean Louise's childhood as Scout, and suggested she write a new book telling the Scout story. She took the advice. She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, won the Pulitzer Prize and many more awards down through the years during which she never wrote (or at least never published) another book, and finally, the year before her death, agreed to let her first work be published. Watchman received mixed reviews. Some found it lacking the artistic finesse of Mockingbird and wished it had been left in a drawer. Others admired Watchman's head-on tackling of the burning issues of 1950s small-town Alabama, that is, the Klan, White Citizens' Councils, the civil-rights struggle. Many were shocked at what had become of their beloved Gregory-Peck-inflected Atticus Finch, here aligning directly with the forces of racist reaction.

Me, I think Go Set a Watchman is purely of a piece with To Kill a Mockingbird. Well written, with a smooth conversational flow, it is a work of utter liberalism. By which I mean this: both are novels focused on the issue of racism yet in which the only Black characters are barely present and definitely not fully dimensional people, novels in which everything is seen through the filter of a white Southern sensibility with same as our hero/protagonist. Novels in which moderation is presented as the finest, best position as opposed to the extremism of both sides--and yes, in Watchman, the virtuous Atticus's view, for one, is that the NAACP is way too radical, equated with, for example, the KKK. Oy vey.

Indeed, in Watchman, Lee has Atticus say truly reprehensible things--bizarre things, really, like his rather benign and wholly inaccurate characterization of the history of the Klan--and she has his daughter, an adult Jean Louise who now lives in New York and is on her annual visit home, grope her way through an agonized disillusionment with him. If Lee had taken this further, if the book had followed through with real, honest grappling with the vital questions, if Jean Louise had actually made the break she threatens, and above all if there were any Black characters directly engaging, it would have accomplished something beyond liberalism. As it is, there are indeed some passages where Jean Louise argues--with her friend, father and uncle--and denounces them, and is horrified with which side they appear to be on. But then. It's all laid to rest in a rather hasty, clunkily constructed, condescending (and violent--her wonderful uncle has to slap her hard, nearly knocking her out, to bring her round to reason, and well he's just torn up about it but it had to be done!) denouement in which she (and the reader) is made to see that all this hullaballoo, all her ranting and raving, was a sort of immature extremism through which she had to wade as a necessary coming of age in order to step ashore on the other side, the other side being a quintessentially liberal coming to terms with the realities of home, the prime reality being the need for a slow sober approach to social change.