Thursday, September 17, 2015
Douglas Messerli | "Re-Righting the Story" (on Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman)
re-righting the story
by Douglas Messerli
Harper Lee Go Set a Watchman (New York: HarperCollins, 2015)
Upon the death of play- and screen-writer Horton Foote in 2009, I revisited three films for which he had written the screenplays, the first of which was the noted film, based on Harper Lee’s famed novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. While admitting that I enjoyed the fiction when I first read it as a 16-year-old in Norway and that the movie is one I have seen, with joy, numerous times, seeing that film again and rereading Lee’s novel, I had a negative response this time round, particularly given the fact that, despite all the good intentions of the obviously high-minded and well-meaning Atticus Finch, nothing in the world of Scout and Jem really changes. As I wrote in 2009:
Given the events of both film and novel…despite any moral
lessons and perceptions gleaned by the Finch children and the
audiences of the movie and book, the world to which Jem
will awaken in the morning (the familiar last lines of both
being the adult Scout’s words about her father: “He turned
out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all
night, and we would be there when Jem waked up in the
morning.”) is no better than the one in which he was nearly
killed that night. Atticus Finch may represent a hero, but his
actions in such an isolate world in which the Finch’s exist, have
little effect. And in that respect the work embraces the status
quo, and the moral indignation of the readers of Lee’s classic
and the viewers of the Mulligan/Foote adaptation can only
represent a kind of righteous pat on the liberal back.
As I noted a bit earlier in my essay, concerning the sheriff’s argument that they should keep secret Boo Radley’s involvement in the murder of the evil Bob Ewell:
Frankly, given the outcome of Tom Robinson’s trial, we may
find it hard to imagine that the “good” ladies of Maycomb
would award the murderer of Bob Ewell, who has convinced
their kind that his daughter has been raped by a black man.
Is it any wonder then that Tom Robinson, despite Atticus’ advice
to “not lose faith,” runs “like a rabbit” to escape the police.
The fact that he is shot and killed, despite the deputy’s
proclamation that he meant just to wound him, is, perhaps,
given the racists attitudes of the community, inevitable.
In short, this time reading through the book and reviewing the film, I discerned that despite Gregory Peck’s impeccable acting skills, and the lovely nostalgia and romanticized literary writing of Lee, there was something empty about the book, as if, for all its good intentions, we were being asked to sentimentally align ourselves with this obviously beloved but also somewhat sanctimonious small-town Alabama lawyer. Although I didn’t directly speak it, I truly felt that the book almost all high school children throughout the country were required to read, was somehow, if not an not an outright lie, at least a kind of fantasy that embraced the Southern values of the racial status quo.
I recognized that my new perspective was clearly controversial, and many of my friends, including my spouse Howard, snorted at my stubborn insistence that the nobility of Atticus Finch didn’t ring true.
Having just now finished Lee’s fiction Go Set a Watchman, the work she originally wrote before being encouraged by her then-editor Tay Hohoff to recast it as the very different To Kill a Mockingbird, that I was absolutely right! Hohoff may have been an excellent editor, and surely she knew how to turn a difficult and more complex work into a more populist and appealing bestseller, but I would have, as an editor who has worked with hundreds of brilliant writers, politely asked Miss Lee to change her title and promptly published her book just as she had written it—with maybe just a minor tweaking of the debate between Jean Louse (the adult Scott) and her father near the end of this “new” work. Thus, we might have lost the beloved classic, but certainly had a more honest piece of writing about race, sex, and familial relations than the creaky theatrics of Mockingbird.
Lee sends up the various local lady groups in a wonderful satire of their various accents and viewpoints, while the still tom-boy adult Jean Louise moves back and forth between their conversational modes serving coffee and sandwiches in a kind of down-South version of something Wyndham Lewis might have written satirizing the British establishment.
In an honest depiction of childhood sexual realities, at times writing almost at a level of other adventurous writers of the 1950s such as J. D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Purdy, Lee recounts the painful experiences of young Scout’s first menstruation and her very touching and frightening presumption that she is pregnant because a young boy has stuck in tongue into her mouth to demonstrate his gratitude for her scholarly help. That series of events almost leads to Scout’s suicide as she ponders leaping from a nearby tower, from which, fortunately, she is plucked before the ever-wise black servant Calpurnia finally explains all things sexual to the motherless child. This long passage alone is worth the price of the book.
And then there’s the wonderful intellectual ramblings of her uncle Jack that take Jean Louise’s frantic anger into completely illogical linguistic territory, as if she had suddenly come up against the a combination of the Wizard of Oz and Lewis Carroll’s Madhatter. Along with her aunt Alexandra’s endless pronouncements (a character also in the original book, but stricken from the movie) representing nearly all the old-fashioned values of the South, these passages help us to recognize Lee as a wry humorist.
In this work, moreover, the adult Jean Louise has a boyfriend, Henry, whom, despite her long residence in New York City, she is expected by everyone in town to marry, and might have married, if only…. Well that’s where this fiction gets even more interesting. Henry, an obviously caring and loving being, the protégé of Atticus, is destined to go far in the Maycomb county political system, and clearly is determined to bring to the community what Atticus attempted to do in his younger days. But as we learn by fiction’s end, Henry has a deeper psychological problem in evaluating himself within the narrow limits of Maycomb’s calcified social distinctions.
The trouble is, as the heroine of Go Set a Watchman quickly discovers, Atticus Finch was not truly the man she imagined him to be in To Kill a Mockingbird. Threatened by the Supreme Court decision of 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) and the increasing N.A.A.C.P “intrusions” into their isolated life, Atticus, like so many in the South, is a determined libertarian, willing to fight against the governmental decisions that, remind us today, of the reactions of many Southerners to the Supreme Court Decisions about gay marriage. In the very same courthouse where the young Scout and Jem proudly embedded themselves in the all-black gallery to witness her father’s impassioned defense of a black man, his daughter now watches her father and Henry plotting with the worst of the segregationists to speak out against black equality.
Although today it is somewhat uncomfortable when the 26 year-old character Jean Louise describes herself as being “color blind”—how can one be blind to the color of someone’s skin, as if he might have not really seen the other? You can embrace one’s equality and humanity, but you cannot, I would argue, any more than you can ignore one’s sex, pretend that people don’t have different complexions and tonalities—she obviously cannot bear the reality of what she perceives as her father’s radical shift to ultra-conservative values. Certainly, she can longer pretend that she might be able to return to Maycomb (and one wonders, accordingly, how Harper Lee felt when she actually did return to her hometown).
In a final long debate with her father, still a skilled lawyer bent on convincing her of her illogical thinking, Atticus Finch, despite his commanding view of history, sounds very much like a paternalistic white autocrat, arguing that the blacks of his community are not ready for equality, not ready to attend white schools, not capable of leading their communities, are ignorant of all the fine things his white society has denied them.
Jean Louise’s own views hardly might be described as enlightened; she admits to having been furious with the Supreme Court decision. But unlike her father, she recognizes that it is a time for change, and that she can longer embrace her father’s, Henry’s, or anyone else’s values in Maycomb, suggesting, without quite saying it, that the community which has betrayed the blacks among them by refusing to allow them a good education, financial opportunities, and simple friendship and camaraderie, now condemns them for not having any of these.
As an editor, I might have argued for Harper Lee to rethink some of the elements of her substantial political discourse, but I certainly would have insisted that she retain the often intelligent debate—so advanced from most of the empty racial discussions of today—with her father, Henry, uncle, and aunt. For hers is the voice of a young, pre-feminist woman who has learned her lessons perhaps all too well to be able to accept the hypocrisy of the white spokesmen of the 1950s South. If the novel ends in another kind of stasis, Jean Louise, is now in control, comfortably placed behind the steering wheel, driving her old father back home.
In many ways, this is a brave work, far braver that the novel her editor demanded she create in its stead. The only braver act would been to have cast herself, as many perceived her to be—I have no knowledge of Lee’s actual sexual inclinations, and I truly don’t care—as a lesbian.
Go Set a Watchman is not a great fiction any more than To Kill a Mockingbird was. Lee is no Faulkner, no Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty, or even a Carson McCullers or Truman Capote. But, in this book at least, she was brilliantly honest, witty, and committed. Perhaps if we read both of her works, the powerful earlier assessment and the feel good fantasy, one by one, we can comprehend the dreams and the failures of all lives, black and white, in so many small American towns.
Los Angeles, August 17, 2015