Then . . .
You author a lone book that’s a huge cultural icon, then never write another word and basically submerge for over 50 years. That’s Harper Lee’s tale. And so it was a bombshell when another book finally surfaced.
To Kill a Mockingbird was a heck of a good story, with great characters, and of course a powerful message.
. . . now
Published at the civil rights movement’s nascence, it was, for its time, remarkably open and compelling about southern race relations. Hence its impact.
Go Set a Watchman is a sequel of sorts, though it was actually written first. Lee’s putting it aside at the time, to write a different book instead (though still a “race” book), was inspired. Mockingbird is a great book. Watchman is not.
In it, Scout has grown into 26-year-old Jean Louise, living in New York, returning to Alabama around 1955, to visit her ailing father Atticus, now 72.
Then . . .
The bombshell was not just the book’s existence, but that Atticus Finch – Mockingbird’s great moral hero – was a racist. (Though we must remember he’s fictional, and not necessarily the same character in both books. He was given a reversed evolution, from the man of Watchman to the earlier and better man of Mockingbird.)*
. . . now
His racism isn’t just incidental to Watchman, it’s the book’s hub. It’s a bombshell to Jean Louise herself, when she witnesses Atticus participating in a “citizens council”** meeting and abetting the vilest racist talk. To a New Yorker now, this is culture shock, she freaks out, and curses out her dad. But helped by emollience (and a literal slap in the face) from his eccentric but lovable and wise brother, she winds up (spoiler alert) reconciled, more or less. And that’s the book.
Its set-piece racist ranting, and Jean Louise’s set-piece reactions thereto, seemed canned and didactic – violating (unlike Mockingbird) the cardinal writing rule, don’t tell, show.
And the efforts of Atticus and his brother, to make Jean Louise see things from their point of view, just aren’t very convincing. We get the old trope that the civil war was not really about slavery, so much as states’ rights and people fighting for their tribe, their personal identity. (There’s a grain of truth in the latter, inasmuch as few southern whites owned slaves. Yet still, no slavery, no war.) And of course whites hating outsiders, who don’t know their situation, telling them what to do. And the customary denigrations of blacks’ readiness for full citizenship – but whose fault was that?
I thought Jean Louise’s riposte that the South should have a “Be kind to the niggers week” was a killer, spotlighting that for all the excuses and rationalizations, southern whites acted just plain horrible to blacks. Yet Atticus and his brother are still sympathetically portrayed; and, perhaps trying to make more plausible her eventual stand-down, the author has Jean Louise herself berate the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, as violating the Tenth Amendment*** – which I found simply bizarre.
In the end, it was hard to tell what exactly Lee was trying to say. Maybe merely that southern whites, though dead wrong, were understandable human beings. Or maybe she just couldn’t let Jean Louise turn her back on her father.
The 1954 Brown ruling was, as the book does illuminate, a watershed. Until then, a stasis persisted; now it was like a frozen river suddenly thawing. One can in fact see things from Atticus’s point of view, and understand how southern whites felt, to have their whole world, in which they’d been comfortable, all their eternal verities, being changed on them. I’d like to think I would have had an enlightened outlook. But if you grow up immersed in a culture, you internalize its fundamental assumptions, and questioning them is hard and unusual. It took a few years in New York for Jean Louise’s enlightenment.
Even before the change could unfold, the mere threat of it made people change their behavior. The change among blacks was already becoming visible, and disturbing, to whites. They responded not by trying to meet change half way, but rather with a heightened belligerence to stave it off. Whereas before, they didn’t even need to think about race matters, now they did. It was like a fault line in the Earth with two tectonic plates pushed up against each other, immobilized by constrained tension for eons, until finally it bursts with an earthquake.
That was the moment in time whose beginning Watchman captures. Had it been published when written, in the mid-50s, this would have been a very brave and provocative book, since nobody else was then confronting the race issue quite so squarely in literature. Indeed, what seems didactic now would have been a shock then.
The moment passed. The tide could not be held back, perhaps because most Southerners were in fact – as most human beings are – basically reasonable people. The cultural change, over what was really a relatively short time, was immense. Remember this when someone tells you people can’t change.
True, we still have racial issues today; but not like then. Today’s are the relatively feeble aftershocks of an earthquake; the reverberations of a Big Bang.
* Mockingbird’s narrative is hardly present in Watchman even as backstory. The rape case is barely mentioned – with Robinson acquitted, unlike in Mockingbird.
** Often called white citizens councils, these organizations sprang up in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education to defend segregation.
*** “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”