Sunday, July 26, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Go Set a Watchman AND To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

All right, my literary-minded friends, it's time. Not only am I about to throw down my thoughts on one of the most beloved American novels of all time, I'm also going to weigh in on what was probably the most anticipated literary release since the seventh installment of the Harry Potter series.

I'm about to review BOTH To Kill a Mockingbird AND Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

I'm going to start with the book that I and most others read first, To Kill a Mockingbird. But before I dive in I'd like to say a few words about what my review will and will NOT do:

(1) My review will discuss the singular and comparative literary merits of both of Lee's novels,
(2) My review will discuss the positions of both novels within the cultural and socio-political landscape of the U.S. in general and the South in particular,
(3) My review will not speculate about the sudden emergence of Harper Lee's first novel, Go Set a Watchman, and what that might mean. In my opinion, far too much has already been written about how and why this book has suddenly come to light. (This is the most recent article I've read on the subject. It's also the one I find the most interesting.) Many of the 1000+ reviews on the novel's Amazon page touch on the controversy.

I'm not here to talk about the controversy. I don't have anything meaningful to add to that argument, and, more importantly, I feel it is irrelevant. To Kill a Mockingbird is more than just a literary masterpiece: it is an important American cultural artifact. And Go Set a Watchman, in addition to its own merits, adds to Mockingbird's legacy.

Here we go!
I didn't read Mockingbird--ever, in my life--until earlier this month. According to my running list of Books I Read in 2015 I finished the novel on July 7, and if my memory serves it took me about three days to read it. 

Before you ask, yes I read it in advance of the July 14 release of Go Set a Watchman.

I feel I was probably one of the last--if not THE last--Americans over the age of 30 who had not read Mockingbird. Unlike many I wasn't required to read the book in high school, and though I have always been an avid reader it just never occurred to me to read Harper Lee's book.

 I grew up in Silicon Valley in California in the 80s and 90s completely unaware that racism continued (and continues) to be a reality. As a child I was surrounded by people of every hue and ethnicity, and every linguistic and religious background imaginable. To me, people were people and that was that. If there were divisions to be drawn (and I felt that was mostly unnecessary) than I would have put those dividing lines between the Haves and the Have Nots. I grew up poor and the older I got the more keenly I felt the differences between me and the children of means. Other than that, though, why categorize people at all?

For those (and other) reasons, I simply wasn't interested in a book I knew to be about Southern racism set in the 50s. Southern racism wasn't my or California's problem, especially since I believed it to be, like slavery, a thing of the past.
Gregory Peck depicts Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird

Boy was I wrong! I moved to Pennsylvania in 1994 at the age of 18. I settled in State College, which is the home of Penn State's Nittany Lions and was also the site, the week before I arrived, of a cross burning at the home of a local black family. 

A cross burning. In 1994. At first, I was too shocked to be horrified or angry. I said to my friends: "That still happens? That's so old school!"

And then came the anonymous death threats to the president of Penn State's Black Student's Union, which said something to the effect of: "This is a white school in a white state in a white nation and by God it will stay that way."

My naive world view was shattered. Many years later I moved to Tennessee, and it was there I realized that although the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow are over, when it comes to race relations in America, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I lived in Middle Tennessee for about twelve year, first in Nashville and later in Murfreesboro, which is about an hour's drive from Pulaski, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. The football team of Middle Tennessee State University, where I received a BS in sociology and an MS in mass communication, is called the Blue Raiders and many buildings on campus are named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, celebrated confederate general and founding KKK member. 

In fact, there is an infamous statue of Forrest off I-65 outside Nashville that is surrounded by U.S., Tennessee, and confederate flags. 

I could go on and on. The fact of the matter is, though much of the nation views slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow as issues of our distant past, they remain right at the forefront of Southern memory. (By way of example, read this news article from Memphis about contentions surrounding his gravesite and a different commemorative statue.) And for the first time in my life, I was learning that there are very real divisions between people in our country. And there are still a whole lot of otherwise normal, well-mannered people who don't view all people the same.

So I'm glad that I waited until now to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Because a lot of it would have been lost on me if I read it before living in the South.

As a piece of literature, Mockingbird is genius. Told from the point of view of a young girl (Scout is poised to start school at the beginning of the novel), the tone manages to capture the innocence of childhood and yet remain mature enough to be accessible to readers. Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, the narrator of the book, thinks like a kid and speaks like a kid (as the excerpt below will show) but somehow Lee manages to impart the grander points of the book anyway.

Enjoying a summer twilight with their neighbor Miss Maudie, Scout asked her about the reclusive Boo Radley:

"'Miss Maudie,' I said one evening, 'do you think Boo Radley's still alive?'
"'His name's Arthur and he's alive,' she said. She was rocking slowly in her big oak chair. 'Do you smell my mimosa?' It's like angels' breath in the evening.'
"'Yessum. How do you know?'
"'Know what, child?'
"'That B--Mr. Arthur's still alive?'
"'What a morbid question. But I suppose it's a morbid subject. I know he's alive, Jean Louise, because I haven't seen him carried out yet.'
"'Maybe he died and they stuffed him up the chimney.
"'Where did you get such a notion?'
"'That's what Jem said he thought they did.'
"'S-ss-ss. He gets more like Jack Finch every day.'"

Can't you picture that scene? Can't you feel the sultry summer heat and smell Miss Maudie's mimosas? It's simply elegant prose.

Scout, Atticus, and Jem Finch from the film adaptation

But I chose to recount this scene for another reason: Scout Finch, as I have said, is the narrator of Mockingbird, and her central preoccupation throughout the story is Boo Radley. It's not racism. But ask anyone who has read the book what it's about, and they'll say "Racism." They might say Tom Robinson or the trial or Atticus Finch. The name Boo Radley may even be mentioned, but no one would claim that the story is about HIM. That is the genius of this book: the grand points, the themes that your English teachers yammer on and on about, are woven throughout an innocent and seemingly unrelated narrative. So what you end up with is a complete novel that manages to be BOTH a slice of Americana AND a politically charged tale. Nothing is lost, nothing is sacrificed, and nothing is rammed down the reader's throat.

And that, friends and book lovers, is why To Kill a Mockingbird will forever be known as a far greater work than Go Set a Watchman.

Assuming this "new" novel's provenance is true (though not everyone does. the July 27 2015 issue of the New Yorker makes an interesting argument for why it may not be) Watchman is the first draft of the first novel young Harper Lee ever wrote. It's the rough material out of which Mockingbird was forged. Given that, her writing is DAMN GOOD. Anyone who has ever written anything knows how bad first drafts typically are. First drafts are GARBAGE. In one of my own first drafts I killed the same character TWICE. I've read some pretty mean things said about the literary quality of Watchman, but it's not typical-first-draft bad. It's not kill-the-same-character-twice bad. It's simply not as good as Mockingbird. 

But you know what? Nothing but Mockingbird is as good as Mockingbird. So calm down, angry literary critics.

Even so, much of Harper Lee's famously artful prose is evident in Watchman, particularly in the first half. The novel opens with Scout (now the adult Jean Louise) on the train back to Maycomb County from her new home in New York:

"She had told the conductor not to forget to let her off, and because the conductor was an elderly man, she anticipated his joke: he would rush at Maycomb Junction like a bat out off hell and stop the train a quarter of a mile past the little station, then when he bade her goodbye he would say he was sorry, he almost forgot. Trains changed; conductors never did. Being funny at flag stops with young ladies was a mark of the profession, and Atticus, who predict the actions of every conductor from New Orleans to Cincinnati, would be waiting accordingly not six steps away from her point of debarkation."

Except, this time, Atticus was not there to meet her. Instead Hank, her childhood friend and sometime suitor, was waiting a quarter mile back, on the platform at the train station, and had to run to meet her. 

And there's your foreshadowing.

While Mockingbird was a Great American Novel that had a lot to say about Southern Racism, Watchman is a "novel" that seeks to make a point about racism. I put the word "novel" in quotes not to deride Watchman, because I enjoyed it and find it a worthy read, but because it simply cannot stand on its own.

In a very real sense, in order to understand and care about the events and characters in Go Set a Watchman, you must have first read To Kill a Mockingbird. I will link again here to the New Yorker article because they explain this better than I ever could. Suffice it to say, with the exception of Hank, who didn't appear in Mockingbird, the main players in Watchman aren't actually introduced to the reader. Rather, the text reads and feels like a return to Maycomb, which serves to place the reader firmly in Scout's shoes.

That is the strength of Watchman. The reader experiences the same shock and betrayal that Scout does. As her Uncle Jack says, Scout had deified her father, and so had we. She needed to see him as a man, and so did we. Atticus Finch IS a man: good, but flawed.

In the decades since Mockingbird was published, Atticus Finch has grown to eclipse superstar literary status. As a character, he has always been more than a man, but as a cultural artifact, he has become more than a character. He is a symbol for equality, for justice, and for a sort of quiet, respectable fairness held in the face of defiant opposition. Recall the way in which Atticus quietly held his ground when confronted by the mob that sought to kill Tom Robinson before his trial. He didn't shout at the mob, and he didn't threaten them, though they threatened HIM. All he did was hold his ground and the mob eventually thought better of its plan.

Cultural memory would have readers believe that it was the force of Atticus Finch's egalitarian personality that stopped the mob from killing Tom Robinson that night. But a re-read of Mockingbird will remind Atticus's apologists that the following morning he had this to say of an individual in the mob:

"'Mr. Cunningham's basically a good man,' he said, 'he just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.'
"Jem spoke. 'Don't call that a blind spot. He'da killed you last night when he first went there.'
"'He might have hurt me a little,' Atticus conceded, 'but son, you'll understand folks a little better when you're older. A mob's always made up of people, no matter what.'"

That scene curiously foreshadows an event in Watchman, when Scout discovers that he father and Hank have joined the Maycomb County Citizens' Council, a group composed of nearly every white man in Maycomb, and which existed entirely to oppose desegregation. Scout reeled when she discovered this, as did the rest of America upon the release of Watchman. (Read this People magazine article about the family who changed their infant son's name from Atticus to Luke after reading the book.)

Go Set a Watchman,  in my opinion, makes an even bigger and more nuanced point than To Kill a Mockingbird did. Where Mockingbird told Americans that racism exists and it's bad, Watchman asserts that racism not only exists--it's woven into the fabric of all of our lives. In Mockingbird, racism was something that existed outside of people who didn't agree with it. It could be fought against in court. In Watchman, racism is an integral part of the structure of our society. As Uncle Jack explains to an exasperated Scout, it has historical precedent in feudal England. It is foundational and cannot be changed without upsetting everything. 

When Scout argues that the time had come to do what's right by Negroes, Atticus counters that she doesn't know or mean what she says:

"'I mean every word of it.'
"'Then let's put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?'
"'They're people aren't they? We were quite willing to import them when they made money for us.'"

I think that exchange is as good example as any to demonstrate that Watchman is a novel that exists to make a point. Harper Lee had something to say about Southern Racism, and she sort of wrapped a story around the thing. That's why Mockingbird is a better story.

But I'm glad that I read Watchman and I'm glad that it came out when it did. Within the literary universe of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch had to grow up and realize that racism tainted every part of her life, her family, and her beloved Maycomb County. And within American culture, we all have had to grow up and realize that racism taints ALL of our history and ALL of our present. Whether or not individuals, like me, grew up naively assuming it was a thing of the past and Not Our Problems.

Atticus says something in Mockingbird that is curiously prescient. I read it in the breakroom of my workplace and cried out loud when I did. Decades after the book's publication, it could not be more relevant:

"Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. 'There's nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who'll take advantage of a Negro's ignorance. Don't fool yourselves--it's all adding up and one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it.'"

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