Wednesday, August 05, 2015

497 (2015 #54). Go Set a Watchman

by Harper Lee

I'm not going to try to do an analysis or critique of this book.  Others have done a far better job of that than I ever could.  Let me just sum up with a few points:

1) I had to read Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (henceforth known at TKaM) in eighth grade and I LOVED it.  I had the opportunity to play Scout in a short reading from the book on my school's then-brand-new (this was 1971) closed-circuit TV system, and I adore Gregory Peck (who played Atticus Finch in the movie), so I've got all that baggage of having read and loved TKaM.

2)  Despite all that, I am VERY glad I read Go Set a Watchman (henceforth known as GSaW) and plan to re-read it a number of times.

3)  That's also despite all the controversy about its publication (those saying 89-year-old Lee was taken advantage of, versus those who say she intentionally wanted GSaW published now, so many years later, with the increasing racial tensions in this country).

4)  TKaM is the better book, as it should be.  GSaW is NOT a "sequel," despite the embarrassing (and confusing, for the unknowing) marketing attempts to describe it as such.  Rather, GSaW is Lee's first attempt at the story that was rewritten into TKaM, when an editor suggested she concentrate on the well-written childhood recollection scenes in GSaW and instead develop those into a novel - which is what became TKaM.

5)  There are a lot of identical or nearly-identical passages in the two books, which will become wonderful fodder for English classes studying these novels in the future, along with the opportunity to analyze other facets of the evolution of a piece of writing.

6)  The theme of GSaW is disillusionment.  Jean Louis Finch is 26 in the mid-1950s, and quite different from the six-year-old Scout of TKaM in 1933-35, who idolized her father, Atticus Finch.  She's returned to Maycomb, Alabama, for a visit with the now-72-year-old Atticus, from her home in New York City, where she's become quite independent and somewhat liberal.

7)  I was not at all surprised by the "different" Atticus in GSaW.  I think a careful re-reading of TKaM will show that, and recommend doing so ideally before reading GSaW, or else immediately afterwards.  The reader needs to keep in mind that both books were written in the 1950s, and that Lee's own life parallels Scout's in many (but not all) ways.

8)  GSaW's title comes from Isaiah 21:6:  "For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth."  It appears on page 95 of the book, when Jean Louise is at the Methodist Church with her family, and it's the verse the minister chooses to preach upon.  More interesting in this scene is an attempt by the choir director to have the congregation sing a well-loved hymn in a different way that he learned from a New Jersey music instructor at a choir camp.  Atticus' brother Jack comments, "apparently our brethren in the Northland are not content merely with the Supreme Court's activities.  They are now trying to change our hymns on us." (page 97).  Jack and the choir director agree that the hymns should not be changed.  This is a good illustration of how many Southerners at the time (and today) felt about outsiders trying to tell them what to do.

9)  A few other comments:  A quote from Jean Louise, VERY relevant to a situation in my hometown, from page 167:  "Why doesn't their flesh creep?  How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up?  I thought I was a Christian but I'm not."

And from page 181-182:  "I never thought to look into people's hearts, I looked only in their faces,  Stone blind...Mr. Stone. [the preacher]  Mr. Stone set a watchman in church yesterday.  He should have provided me with one  I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour.  I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference.  I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is."

And from page 229, a quote from Jean Louise's beau (and Atticus' partner) Henry:  "Mr. Finch has no more use for the Klan than anybody.  You know why he joined?  To find out exactly what men in town were behind the masks.  What men, what people.  He went to one meeting, and that was enough."

And from page 265-266, a quote from Jean Louise's Uncle Jack Finch:  "Every man's island, Jean Louise, every man's watchman, is his conscience.  There's no such thing as a collective your, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father's. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God.  You never saw him as a man with a man's heart, and a man's failings - I'll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes 'em like all of us.  You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers....When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience - your conscience - you literally could not stand it....Our gods are remote from us, Jean Louise.  They must never descend to human level."

10)  My conclusion?  Read GSaW but realize it is NOT a sequel.  (Re-)read TKaM too, preferably before GSaW.  I also plan to read at least one good biography of Harper Lee.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public Hood County Library.]

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