Go Set A Watchman – Harper Lee

[This is a journal in five sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

14 July 2015
Chapters 1-3 – Part 1
It’s good to be back. I’ve been away longer than Jean Louise, and I’m wondering how long it will be before I stop comparing it with To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s different. This is no memoir of the ‘routine contentment’ of childhood rendered extraordinary by shocking events. This time – and everybody now knows that this novel was written first – there is a traditional omniscient narrator writing in the third person. Mostly we are following Jean Louise’s point of view – she is 26 and only Atticus, now aged 72, occasionally calls her Scout – but if it suits the author, we know what Atticus is thinking. Or Hank, who is new to us, having arrived in Maycomb as a child when Scout and Jem were also still children. (We quickly get used to this being an alternative universe: Jean Louise’s past in this novel isn’t necessarily what we know about from Mockingbird.) He is now the assistant in Atticus’s law practice and has wanted to marry Jean Louise for a long time. It’s kind of mutual, but not quite. She lives in New York now, and isn’t about to settle down, yet. Except the fact that he is bluntly dismissed as ‘trash’ by Aunt Alexandra – she is definitely the character we remember – is leading Jean Louise to favour him. At the end of Part 1 she ‘was closer to marrying trash than she had ever been in her life.’

So far, the main topic is one that was far more popular in the mid-20th Century than it is now. It’s about how the clever daughter, who has left the sleepy town for a more interesting life, goes back to find things changed. Or not changed. We don’t yet know whether Jean Louise really is going back, despite the real attraction she feels for Hank – something in the way he moves – but Harper Lee is careful to add layers of affectionate familiarity to the experience. The novel begins as, unusually, she has taken the train and is almost there. She knows the conductor will play the little joke of pretending to forget to stop – she knows, and knows that Atticus knows, that it will stop exactly 440 yards beyond the platform – just as the narrator knows to expect the little ‘H-rm’ that is Atticus’s only sign of annoyance. The ‘H-rm’ duly arrives – this narrator likes to give the impression of being as familiar with it all as the characters themselves. She even uses their language to describe people and situations (their idiolect, as the academics call it). At random: ‘Just about that time, Jean Louise’s brother dropped dead in his tracks one day….’ (I didn’t mention that. Sorry.) Or ‘Alexandra Finch Hancock was imposing from any angle: her behind was as imposing as her front.’ You can imagine these exact words being spoken on the mains street of Maycomb. That’s the point.

So it’s no accident that New York has already been left far behind when the novel opens. So far we’ve heard nothing of Jean Louise’s life there. She makes a joke that if she is living there, she must be ‘living in sin’. But we can definitely assume that she isn’t really – Harper Lee, writing this in the 1950s, could leave that sort of thing to John Updike. Jean Louise’s behaviour with Hank when he picks her up from the station – she knows it isn’t Atticus waiting because he doesn’t know the 440-yard rule – is definitely not racy. She speaks her mind – another familiar characteristic – and Lee shows how easy it is for her to gauge how far she can go in this… but it all seems very proper.

The rest of Part 1 is introductory. We meet Atticus, ‘wise’, and with the appearance (just as in Mockingbird) of having been middle-aged all his life. Yep. And Aunt Alexandra lives with him, which does not make things easy. ‘Of all her relatives [she] came closest to setting Jean Louise’s teeth permanently on edge.’ But, despite a long description – nominally the narrator’s, but indistinguishable from what Jean Louise herself would write – about how she ‘was one of those people who had gone through life at no cost to themselves’, she is capable of kindness. When Calpurnia finally had to retire, Atticus could have managed despite his arthritis. But Alexandra moved in anyway. Jean Louise feels more grateful for this than she ever says, because she wouldn’t do it herself

This is a big bone of contention. After Jem’s death, Alexandra made it very clear at the time that it was Jean Louise’s duty to move back in with Atticus. It was, and remains, no use at all explaining that Atticus had no desire to make his daughter miserable in that way, because it is received wisdom in Maycomb: ‘Jean Louise would return and make her home with Atticus; that was what a daughter did.’ Jean Louise, although she considers herself capable of proving her aunt wrong, never comes out of these arguments either unscathed or with her temper unruffled. Lee’s description of the old row is the background to a new one, to do with Hank. Jean Louise makes the mistake of mentioning her possible long-term intentions, and Alexandra pours all her family and class disdain on to the idea. Hank’s father was poor, and a drinker. End of story, as far as she is concerned. When Jean Louise refuses to concede, invective pours out of her: ‘Trash … Trash … Trash … Trash –‘ we get, in a single short paragraph. In the end Jean Louise, wound up beyond endurance, tells her straight: ‘go pee in your hat.’

Atticus smooths things over, and makes Jean Louise apologise. And, properly dressed – a concession not only to Alexandra but also to the not unconventional Hank – she goes out with him on Saturday night.

15 July
Chapters 4-5 – Part 2
Saturday night with Hank. Maycomb stuff: a meal at a modernised place that used to be very different. ‘You don’t like it, do you?’ She doesn’t really. Then a soft drink from some kind of drive-through, fortified with the strong liquor Hank has under the car seat. (Is this where she recognises the black waiter? Or was that in the restaurant?) And then what seems to be the inevitable summer’s evening jaunt: a drive to the river. She dozes in the car – cue a long memory about a typical summer’s day spent with Jem and Dill, but not Hank – and they arrive at Finch’s Landing. We know about this place from Mockingbird, but its history is slightly different in this novel. We’re used to these little differences by now, and so far most of them don’t matter. The cliff is still there and the midnight swim, fully clothed, shows how much fun these two can have if Jean Louise lets them….

But more than half of the 40 or so pages of these two chapters are context, back-story or memories. It’s a part of Lee’s style that she drops these in wherever they fit most comfortably, a part of the relaxed, almost passive way that Jean Louise is letting herself sink into the comfort of the old place. The reminiscences in the restaurant bring her back to the childhood she remembers with affection – it’s hard to keep track of all the memories of people and incidents in these chapters – and on the way to the river she’s suddenly back there. ‘Time stopped, shifted, went into reverse.’ And for the next sixteen pages we have what could, with a little tweaking, be a short story in itself. Except nobody would want to read it. It’s a single day in the childhood she shared with Jem and Dill, and I’m not surprised that most of it was cut out when the same childhood came to be described in Mockingbird. The big absence in this summertime reminiscence is that there is no Hank – he was out of Maycomb once school was out.

But there is something about the memory of the games they play during the long summer’s day that can’t be accidental. They all consist of stories and role-play. Jem is responsible for creating the fictions as they act them, and the power of story in the lives of all these people is made clear. And not only in the children’s lives. The day ends with Scout drenched in the pond and making her way back home. It’s only when she and Jem see that Atticus has brought guests that she remembers she is ‘stark naked’, and both this and what follows becomes part of the Finch family mythology. Uncle Jack, forever after, used to tell the story of how one of the guests, a dour Methodist priest, read her such a lecture that Atticus had to leave the table in tears. The punchline comes. When Scout, terrified, asks Calpurnia if he is terribly upset, she announces ‘to the table at large, “Mr Finch? Nawm, Miss Scout. He on the back porch laughin’.”’ And the liberal, gently subversive tendencies of Atticus are established.

Most of Maycomb life consists of stories, it seems, as is most of Alexandra’s pride in the family. It’s how status and respect can be confirmed, and how everybody’s place in society can be established. We think back to Alexandra’s repeated ‘Trash!’ and begin to understand: the strata in this world are, in her view, as fixed as in a medieval village. And the adult Jean Louise, however she might chafe at it, knows there’s little she can do to change it. Atticus, as we know, tends to keep his mouth shut.

The use of stories is one of the techniques we see Harper Lee refining in Mockingbird, alongside the easy way that she slips in memories and back stories to create the fully-formed society that Jean Louise is returning to. The childhood reminiscences are kept more firmly in their place in Mockingbird, used only to serve a larger purpose. It’s a sign of Lee’s development as a writer that she grew to know that we don’t need too much of that stuff.

Meanwhile it’s still Saturday night. I have no idea where Lee is going with Jean Louise’s relationship with Hank. She likes him despite – and, of course, partly because of – what Alexandra thinks about the way he will revert to type once married. She is sometimes so frank with him that, small-town boy that he is, he is dismayed. ‘I’ve never heard you so cynical,’ he says wonderingly when she describes how married life seems to follow predictably ugly trajectories in the big city. She apologises, but ‘It’s just that I’m so afraid of making a mess of being married to the wrong man.’ Hank has no such doubts. Atticus might have warned him not to push her – ‘every mule in the county’d be easier to live with’ – but he is perfectly sure of one thing. In law class he has learnt all about the legal status of possession, which ‘holds good against all comers except the true owner.’ In the next paragraph: ‘He was her true owner.’

This is the main driver of the novel so far. Is that what he is, her true owner? Is she merely putting off the inevitable? Time to read on.

26 July
Parts 3 and 4
These ‘Parts’ are like long chapters, each covering a day or part of a day and each signalling a stage on Jean Louise’s journey. Because if it hadn’t been clear before, it is now: this is all about her. If in 1 and 2 she’s reached insights, they have tended to confirm her previous mind-set, and haven’t been terribly uncomfortable. But that all changes now. In 3 we get the first cataclysm of her visit, and in 4 we get the second. At first in Part 3 it’s a familiar Maycomb Sunday. The only crises, it seems are whether Jean Louise will wear a hat to ‘Sunday school’, and the notion put into the music-master’s head that they don’t have to keep singing the same old hymns. Of course they do, Atticus persuades him. So that’s all right. And then it isn’t all right.

After lunch Jean Louise decides to see what the meeting is about that Atticus and Hank are attending at the courthouse. Cue memories, fleeting ones this time, that feel familiar to anyone who knows To Kill a Mockingbird. She’s walking past where the old men always used to sit outside, she’s in that place in the balcony where she and Jem used to watch Atticus doing the right thing by some helpless defendant…. But soon, the memory that flashes up is different, and there’s something so desperate about it that it’s italicised. Atticus, always presented as the hero before now – in the alternative past of this novel, he had got the maimed black man acquitted of the rape charge – is blithely sitting on the same stage as a rabid Southern racist. All we get of this man’s speech are random-seeming phrases lifted from the bigots’ handbook: ‘…essential inferiority… greasy smelly… marry your daughters…’. (They’re printed like that, separated by those ellipses.) Then, ‘her father’s voice, a tiny voice talking in the warm, comfortable past.’ Cue italics: ‘Gentlemen, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.’ The bigot carries on as before, Atticus doesn’t intervene… and Jean Louise leaves the courthouse. Some time later, having bought an ice cream from the store where her childhood home used to stand – you couldn’t make it up – she throws up her lunch. Atticus is… Atticus is…

Well, is he? Atticus? A racist? Jean Louise has clearly decided that he is, and the conclusion sends her to bed feeling so ill she sleeps through until morning. When she wakes up everything’s fine, and she realises she’s been hasty. Only joking. She does some early-morning Maycomb errands – more comfort-zone memories, but tinged with a terrible retroactive sadness. When she gets home she can only speak to Atticus and Hank in the most stilted way, can’t even raise her eyes to look at either of them. Are you all right, Jean Louise? (Sigh.) No she isn’t, especially with the arrival of what she takes to be unambiguous confirmation of her fear: Atticus is going to take on the hopeless case of a young black man who has run over and killed an old white man – but not, as she briefly hopes, because that’s what he does through love of his fellow-man, but because he doesn’t want the lawyers from the NAACP, who have been causing so much trouble in Southern courts recently, to start sniffing around for case to turn into a circus. Atticus persuades Hank that they should treat it as an open-and-shut case. They need to get Zeebo – a name we recognise from TKAM – to plead guilty.

There had been some talk as early as Part 1 of what has been going on in Southern politics while Jean Louise has been away. I think this is Lee’s cue to the reader that things look very different from nearly 2,000 miles away, and that things might seem very different when seen close up. From Jean Louise’s point of view – and that’s all we’re getting – it all looks pretty horrible in close-up. As she surveys the local dignitaries from the courthouse balcony in Part 3 the local mayor (he isn’t actually called that) and his side-kick are comic monsters of complacency. They assume that things are going to carry on like this forever, despite the winds of change she can see from where she is. (Is the balcony a metaphor for her perch in faraway New York, where subtleties are invisible? Might be.)

The question, of course, is whether she’s right. Has Atticus lived too long among these people? He certainly seems able to listen to the ravings of the pro-segregationist speaker without raising a single objection…. But, of course, this is standard procedure. Atticus is unlikely to heckle a speaker from the stage and, crucially, Jean Louise has left before hearing any of the replies to the racist nonsense. As for Atticus’s decision to pre-empt interference, as he clearly sees it, by the NAACP… that’s trickier for a modern reader. But I can see why an author writing in the late 1950s might be able to understand the view that outsiders would be likely to stir up more resentment than sympathy in a sleepy place like Maycomb. Lee has already implied that things are going to change soon enough when describing the mayor’s complacency – perhaps at the time of writing things had already moved on. (My knowledge of US history at that time is hazy, unfortunately.)

Just over half-way through the novel, it’s too soon to give up on Atticus. But… there’s the second cataclysm later in Part 4. Jean Louise goes to see the woman who raised her, the kind of black servant we’ve all come to know about through The Help (the novel by Kathryn Stockett or the film it was made into). Calpurnia was the only mother Jem and Scout ever knew and, with scant regard for narrative plausibility, is the grandmother of the Zeebo who is in custody. Scout visits, and the blacks also visiting treat her with the respect they always show to the daughter of Atticus Finch. But something is crucially different. Calpurnia speaks to Jean Louise as she would speak to any white person, with strained respect. Jean Louise is mortified at first, then tries to break through the invisible barrier: ‘Talk to me, Cal, For God’s sake talk to me right.’ But she doesn’t, and the only concession she receives is when she asks Calpurnia outright: ‘just one thing before I go – please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?’ After some time…. ‘Finally, Calpurnia shook her head.’

As she contemplates making her way home, Jean Louise muses, ‘Why is it that everything I have ever loved has gone from me in two days’ time?’ It does seem unlucky – but what she doesn’t know is that she’s in a novel about the emerging Civil Rights movement, and that old certainties are falling away all around her. I always found it unsatisfactory about To Kill a Mockingbird that, somehow, it was enough for the white man to have tried his best. In this novel, Jean Louise seems to be discovering that it never was, that the feelings of even the most liberal-minded white people are likely to get hurt if the blacks are ever to be equal.

8 September
Part 5
Two chapters, containing more set-piece episodes to go with all the others we’ve had in the novel so far. Harper Lee keeps placing her character in careful juxtaposition with another, or in a situation that might have been familiar once but no longer is…. The first chapter begins with Jean Louise having to endure Aunt Alexandra’s string of racist comments without exploding. To her, all African Americans – she now uses the N-word in a routine way that shocks her niece – are feckless, woolly-headed good-for-nothings who don’t know their place. And don’t even get her started on the NAACP and the problem’s they’re causing. Jean Louise is supposed to be getting the room ready for the coffee-morning her Aunt has arranged, and…

…I can’t really think of anything to say about it. Jean Louise finds every last one of the Maycomb women of her age eye-wateringly dull. Lee presents her point of view unedited, so that narrator and character become indistinguishable. (You can see why she decided on a first-person narrator for TKAM.) The women fall into different types – the Newlyweds, the Light Brigade, the Perennial Hopefuls and so on – and Lee offers snippets of their monotonous dialogue that combine into nonsense. ‘Mr Talbert looked at me and said … he’d never learn to sit on the pot … of beans every Thursday night’ and so on, for nearly a page. She must have thought it was hilarious at the time. She presents Jean Louise’s thoughts to us raw, unmarked by quotation marks, as she questions how far she herself is to blame for being so at a loss in their conversation. ‘Jean Louise’s scalp jumped. I guess I’m losing my sense of humour, maybe that’s what it is.’

This prepares us for the next chapter. Jean Louise is still fretting about Atticus – she still hasn’t spoken to him properly – and, looking for some common sense, so she goes to see Uncle Jack. He’s a kind of hero for her – a role Lee refines in TKAM – but the point of this chapter is that he doesn’t clarify anything for her. All he manages to do is confirm for her that she no longer understands anything about the attitudes of people in the town she grew up in. My own problem is that I don’t know the how far we are to try to understand what Jack is saying. He’s a great reader, routinely compares local people to great figures of European history, and he doesn’t say anything without having thought deeply about them. So Jean Louise should listen to him, right?

Umm…. Not sure. Talking to Jean Louise as though she’s about ten years old, he takes her through some home truths about ordinary white people in the South. Like, everybody is related. They have such a strong sense of shared identity and common ground that they will fight a war when there is nothing left to gain. They were not fighting the Civil War to save slavery – only 5% owned slaves. After the War, ‘Up popped… the breed of white man who lived in open economic competition with freed Negroes.’ And governments in Washington don’t understand them. Jack Finch goes on to argue, at some length, that the South might be conforming to the government-led shift towards the Big State – he doesn’t call it that – and away from individual ownership…. And so on. I’m glad Jean Louise doesn’t understand him, because I certainly don’t. When she tells him about five times to explain it properly – ‘Stop woolgathering and answer me!’ – he tells her ‘I cannot. It is neither within my power nor my province to do so.’

Fine. Or not fine. By the end of her highly unsatisfactory visit he’s issued a warning, and a promise: ‘when you can’t stand it any longer, when your heart is in two, you must come to me. Do you understand? … Promise me.’ She does promise, but she doesn’t know what on earth he means. And neither do I. All that’s certain is that there are more things in Heaven and Alabama than are dreamt of in her philosophy.

8 September
Parts 6 and 7 – to the end
(Sigh.) After reading Part 1 I wrote this: ‘It’s about how the clever daughter, who has left the sleepy town for a more interesting life, goes back to find things changed. Or not changed.’ 200 pages later, that’s what it’s still about. Harper Lee has been kicking around a number of issues of race politics, and in these final sections she has Jean Louise tell Atticus, in no uncertain terms, why she can’t live with his view of the ‘Negroes’. Then, after she’s put her suitcase in the car and is ready to leave for good, a punch in the face makes her realise she’s been a little hasty. She lets the man who did it escort her into the house, lets him persuade her that it’s all been about her childish view of her father as God – thank you, Dr Freud, I mean Finch – and she goes to see her father at his office, sadder but wiser.

I’m not making any of this up. This novel is mainly about the development into maturity of a twentysomething woman, and it’s undeniably a product of the late 1950s. Part 6 opens with a chapter that is one of Jean Louise’s complete short-story memories. It’s about her first prom, as guest of Jem and… and never mind the rest. If we’re paying attention (I wasn’t), it’s a signal to the reader that the key to understanding this novel is entirely in her head. She belongs here, she loves Hank – he saves her from humiliation at the prom when her ‘falsies’, discarded, are seen by everyone – but she isn’t, as she’s at pains to tell him, in love. That’s fine, and near the end of the novel she is given permission (by a member of the older generation) to let him go. But the important thing she learns is not to do with Southern attitudes, but that until now she hasn’t had the maturity to be able to deal with them. It’s all about her, because whatever you thought it might be about, really it’s just another Bildungsroman.

Like Part 5, these sections mainly take the form of set-piece encounters. Somebody, usually Jean Louise herself, will speak for what seems like minutes at a time, setting out a case like a character in a particularly static stage play. Following the baffling exchange with Uncle Jack, the only certainty she is left with is that she hates everything about her home town. Hank is as tainted by the poison as Atticus, and he’s the first she tells that she can’t spend another day there. And no, there won’t be any wedding. She tells him in one of the cute little diners on the high street, and he does his best to make her understand that Maycomb made him so Maycomb is where he’s going to stay (and so on), but she isn’t listening. With Hank in pursuit, she makes her way towards Atticus’s office. He can hear the row from inside.

So he’s next. She says everything that any modern anti-racist would be proud of, leading up to the admirable-sounding realisation that she was brought up colour-blind. She speaks to the man she has looked up to all her life as though he is as much a racist as the bigot who spoke at the meeting the day before (yes, it’s still only Monday) and, being Atticus, he appears to receive it with equanimity. She confronts him with his membership forty years earlier of the KKK. She confronts him with his willingness to share a platform with bigots. She confronts him with… I can’t remember now, but it’s spoken with righteous anger that is only fuelled by his unwillingness to argue back. ‘As you please,’ he says mildly after a particular atrocity, and she spits it back at him. ‘You double-dealing, ring-tailed son of a bitch! You just sit there and just say “As you please” when you’ve just knocked me down and stomped on me and spat on me…. ’ And so on.

He hasn’t done any of those things, of course. But what he has given her is a lesson in what, to a modern reader, are the highly unpleasant truths of 1950s Realpolitik. He joined the KKK to find out who the enemy is. He doesn’t call them that, and he seems to think that all the KKK does is make itself look foolish. He shares a platform with bigots for the same reason: better to let a fool speak for himself than to waste time on trying to argue.

And as for the ‘Negroes’… he comes out with exactly the arguments, all too familiar to a modern reader, that white colonialists in Africa made when there were first calls for independence on that continent. ‘You realise that our Negro population is backward, don’t you?’ (She does.) ‘You realise that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities, and why?’ (She does.) ‘But you want them to have all its privileges?’ Her response is predictable, and sounds childish. Harper Lee wants it to sound childish: ‘God damn it, you’re twisting it up!’ And Atticus can get no further. He argues that, if given the vote, soon ‘[the] county won’t keep a full board of registrars,’ because there would be ‘Negroes in every county office.’ Atticus, to give him his due, does seem to envisage a slow transition towards something like equality, but ‘Negroes’ just aren’t ready. For the foreseeable future, the whites have to be in charge and what is needed is separate development. She wouldn’t want white schools filled up with ‘Negroes’, would she?

This is difficult, because I don’t know whether Harper Lee simply wants us to agree with him. I suspect she does: he is a good man, one who never allows himself to be served before an African American ahead of him in the line, and one who, famously, will defend one against a white woman in a rape trial. But his view is limited – and Lee makes sure that Jean Louise says things that are indisputable, especially concerning the everyday humiliations of being an African American in the South. A reader who, like me, is not only living in a different century but on the other side of the Atlantic can’t begin to gauge the balance between these two. For us, Jean Louise’s remote New York view is the correct one. We know about Selma, the march on Washington and the appalling acts of violence against African Americans that took place shortly after this novel would have been published.

I’ll have to draw a line under that, because I’m not going to solve it. Where the novel moves now is back, firmly, to the story of the emotional journey of Jean Louise. She flounces out of Atticus’s office and makes preparations to leave. As she throws clothes haphazardly into her suitcase – perhaps not the most original metaphor of a character’s state of mind – her Aunt tries to reason with her. Mistake. She’s never seen Alexandra cry before, but she does now. And, reader, it makes her look like other people. Whoa. To the car, where Jack arrives – he’s been keeping in touch with Atticus by phone – to knock some sense into her. Literally. Because instead of punching him back, Jean Louise realises that she’s been hasty. Not only that, but Jack has been trying to make her see that she has never learnt to be mistress of her own conscience. She’s never really grown up.

If this sounds shockingly glib, well, it is. As he bathes her swollen lip – I’m not making this up, either – Jack makes her see an important truth: ‘Jean Louise, every man’s watchman… is his conscience. There’s no such thing as a collective conscious.’ What the last couple of days have proved, to him and to Atticus, is that she’s finally come to terms with the idea that Atticus isn’t in charge of her conscience. She is.

So that’s all right. From the moment he hits her she’s started to see sense, and soon she begins to realise that nothing Atticus has said or done while she’s been in Maycomb has made him evil. He’s just a man, that’s all. And, as she gets her head around this, Jack tells her that so is Hank. He also tells her what Lee would have us believe she already knows: she can’t possibly marry him, even if he, like Atticus, is basically sound. She’ll have to ‘let him down easy,’ won’t she? (She asks Uncle Jack, and he confirms it.) ‘He’s not your kind,’ he says, and that’s that.

Next. A couple of pages at Atticus’s office to confirm that she still loves him and he still loves her. It’s like the end of a Simpsons episode, and all that tricky racism stuff was just a sideshow. I love you, Homer. I love you, Bart.


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