In Which We Agree At The Very Last Moment

Not Completely In Love


go-set-a-watchmanI am reluctant to write about Harper Lee’s new release, Go Set a Watchman. I’m not calling this a “new novel” because, though it may be new to us, it’s been hidden away for over fifty years in a safety deposit box. Watchman was Lee’s first attempt at writing a novel, and her publisher at the time advised her to rewrite the story with Jean Louise Finch as a child. To Kill a Mockingbird was born.

There has been considerable controversy surrounding the release of Watchman. Lee kept it from the public eye for so long, and for good reason: it reads like a first draft, perhaps a second. It is less a cohesive novel with good dialogue than it is, well, an attempt at one. There are those who claim that Harper Lee could not have decided to have Watchman published on her own. According to the Washington Post:

Harper Lee, 88, had a stroke in 2007. She is, by all accounts, almost completely deaf and blind. She resides in an assisted-living facility out on the Highway 21 bypass in this slow-moving town of 6,500, still not all that much different from how she immortalized it more than half-century ago.

Her current lawyer found the manuscript in the safety deposit box and read it. According to many news sources, Lee expressed her enthusiasm at the possibility of having Watchman published.

It’s a mystery. But these are details you have probably read about already.

It is important to read Go Set a Watchman independent of the beloved plot and characters of To Kill a Mockingbird. It is imperative to remember, also, that Watchman was an early draft of a later work; much was changed in Watchman to produce the masterpiece that was Mockingbird. It is more concerned with Jean Louise Finch’s disillusionment — and, dishearteningly, of her ultimate acceptance — of her racist community than it is about justice being served. She realizes, also, that she had been idolizing her father her entire life, as children often do: she sees that his views are not so different from others’ in Maycomb.

Jean Louise Finch (at twenty-six, it makes sense that she’s dropped her nickname, Scout) is traveling home by train to Maycomb County when the novel opens. Meeting her at her stop instead of her father is Henry Clinton, Atticus’s protege of sorts.

Since Jem died a few years previously of a sudden heart attack, Henry, a neighbor of the Finches from the time he was a child, has been a replacement son, learning the ins and outs of Atticus’s law practice. Jean Louise strings him along throughout the novel, telling him at times that she planned on marrying him, and at other times, denying him either because she’s “not completely in love with him” or because he’s a racist bigot.

The novel explores Jean Louise’s conscience as she observes the changes in her hometown’s community after the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education. Her father, along with her aunt Alexandra, uncle Jack, and even Henry Clinton, are all against integration. She rails against them at first, calling her father a “son of a bitch,” but he eventually compels her to see both sides of the argument. The ending of the novel is eerie:

Dear goodness, the things I learned. I did not want my world disturbed, but I wanted to crush [Atticus,] who’s trying to preserve it for me. I wanted to stamp out all the people like him. I guess it’s like an airplane: they’re the drag and we’re the thrust, together we make the thing fly. Too much of us and we’re nose-heavy, too much of them and we’re tail-heavy — it’s a matter of balance. I can’t beat him, and I can’t join him.

What we can glean from Watchman is a more realistic account of racist tension than Mockingbird. I had mixed feelings about the “lesson” she learns by the end of the novel, to say the least; it’s difficult to stomach, whether or not Mockingbird has been read first. Jean Louise’s journey is upsetting, it is discouraging. Her characterization is shaky: she possesses much of the same independent spirit that we know and love, but she wavers severely back and forth between conviction and acceptance.

The novel is dotted with flashbacks to some of her spectacularly awkward experiences: at one point, she wears fake boobs to a school dance and they fall out of place; she thinks she’s been impregnated as a result of a boy French kissing her and carries the secret around with her for nine months. Jean Louise learns some painful lessons: the father she once idolized is an imperfect man; the world she knew and loved as a child will never be the same. The house she grew up in was torn down and an ice cream parlor was erected in its place. It’s time to grow up.

Taylor Hine is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Asheville. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing for This Recording here.

“Always Back In Town” – Parquet Courts (mp3)

“Dear Ramona” – Parquet Courts (mp3)


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