A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Go Set a Watchman, 2015

I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction, and I've only ever purchased two novels on the day they were released. The first was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the second was Go Set A Watchman. I can't say that there was a deep emotional motivation that led me to rush out and buy Harper Lee's book--I found To Kill A Mockingbird beautiful and moving when I read it in my early adolescence, but no more so than most people do, and I can't say that it's one of the books that particularly influenced me in my intellectual development. But I recognized the sequel's publication for the rare event that it was, and wanted to participate in it.

It's hard to engage with the book without wrestling with the extratextual question, why now? Coming so soon after the death of Alice Lee, Harper Lee's sister and literary executor, the discovery of the long lost manuscript, and Lee's decision to publish it after 55 years of adamant refusal to publish another work, seemed odd. An investigation by the state of Alabama found that claims of elder abuse were unfounded, but it was difficult to shake the suspicion that a frail 89 year old woman was somehow being manipulated or coerced. It was a strange situation; if the manuscript had been found after Lee's death, I would have been unambiguously in favor of its publication, just as I believe Max Brod made the right decision in publishing Franz Kafka's stories, and Dmitri Nabokov made the right decision in publishing The Original of Laura. I don't believe that artists are entitled to dictate their posthumous legacies that way. But of course, Harper Lee is still alive.

Ultimately, I decided to defer to the state of Alabama and others who have maintained that it was Lee's decision to publish the book. Even if her faculties are failing, I believe a person has the right to change their mind, and in this case I can imagine why Lee might have done so. In the wake of her sister's death, it makes some sense for Lee to contemplate her own legacy and perhaps to want to extend it. The publication might even serve as a distraction from her own mourning.

Whatever her reasons, I'm grateful that she published it. I read the first 180 pages of the novel the night it came out; work commitments then got in the way, and it took me another week to get to the last 100 pages. I've been ruminating on it since then. Its an uneven but fascinating novel. Sometimes its clear why the publisher rejected it and encouraged her to write the story of Atticus defending Tom Robinson instead. The novel can be slow, directionless, overly sentimental, and clumsy. But it has moments of brilliance and beauty that match if not exceed my memories of To Kill A Mockingbird. I agree with Randall Kennedy's assessment, "Go Set a Watchman demands that its readers abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school lessons about the nobility of the white savior and the mesmerizing performance of Gregory Peck in the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird."

As Kennedy notes, the first hundred pages or so seem overly nostalgic and mostly directionless. Overall, the book's greatest weakness is its lack of a plot, something Lee seems to tacitly admit when Atticus's brother, Dr. Jack Finch, tells Jean Louise, "The novel must tell a story." But that meandering quality helps Lee offer glimpses into the philosophical mindset of 1950s southerners, providing insights into the pathological mentalities that link veneration for tradition with the perpetuation of racial inequality.

What little story there is is simple enough: Jean Louise returns to Maycomb for a visit after living in New York, and finds it a more segregated and hateful place than she had remembered from her childhood. Whether the town actually is more racist than it was is ambiguous--the characters attribute the rise in racist fervor to the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, but what the decision actually did to the mentality of white southerners remains an open question in the novel. Did the Supreme Court and the NAACP spark a reaction that made progress more difficult? Did the decision simply turn the volume up on racism that had existed more quietly in previous decades? Or was that racism always there, right on the surface, regardless of the Court, and had only been invisible to Scout thanks to her youth and white privilege? The answer may be clear to anyone with a sensible understanding of American history, but given how contemporary these debates remain, I find tremendous value in how Lee unpacks the psychology of white supremacy.

At times, the novel does feel tremendously contemporary, so much so that it's hard to believe the novel was written in the time it was set, rather than decades later. It often reads like a work of historical fiction using the past to comment on the present, the way that To Kill A Mockingbird does. In one scene, for example, Jean Louise walks in on a women's meeting hosted by her Aunt Alexandra. In a discussion of miscegenation, Jean Louise's response seems straight out of recent debates over gay marriage (and satires thereof): "When white people holler about mongrelizin', isn't that something of a reflection on ourselves as a race? The message I get from it is that if it were lawful, there'd be a wholesale rush to marry Negroes. If I were a scholar, which I ain't, I would say that kind of talk has a deep psychological significance that's not particularly flattering to the one who talks it."

The fact that these debates feel so familiar--in discussions of race and other social justice movements--might provide another answer to the question, why now? The fact that Atticus is revealed to harbor racist attitudes has garnered the most controversy since the book's publication. But maybe now is the best time to interrogate our white saviors, and, more importantly, interrogate our own veneration of them. Why, exactly, are we surprised that Atticus Finch would join a Citizens Council to oppose the NAACP? What does that reveal about what we chose to see and not see about others? What does that reveal about what we chose to know, and what we chose to assume?

This might not be why Lee decided to publish the book in 2015, but I do believe it's why it's a book of 2015--a book for the era of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and so many others. It's a book for an America full of white progressives who elected the nation's first black president and actually patted themselves on the back for achieving a post-racial America while confederate flags still flew over statehouses, not even noticing that they were there until nine people were murdered in a church. We (and I'm including myself among those white progressives here) are all Jean Louise. We naively remember our homes and our friends and our families as being better in the past, but then some progress is made and we see them lash out violently to protect institutional racism. And we act surprised, thinking this isn't the Maycomb or the Atticus or the America that we remember. But the hate was always there; it was just able to remain hidden from us because we weren't its victims, and because at the moment it was going more or less unchallenged.

And it's in us too. Our own nostalgia for the simple days when we didn't feel the responsibility to confront the bigotry only fuels it. We try to put responsibility on older people, attributing reactionary attitudes to generational change. But that's a naive comfort. The most haunting moment in Go Set A Watchman comes towards the end, when when Jean Louise confronts her father, and he presses her to tell him what her first reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education decision was, and she admits, "I was furious." Atticus's racism is sad, but Scout's racism is a tragedy.

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