Book Review: Harper Lee’s “Go set a Watchman”
a book for our times
Harper Lee’s “Go set a Watchman” remained in the author’s archive, and in the care of her older sister, awaiting publication until after her death. One could well say that it was buried by the weight of an ideology. The author’s first book “To Kill a Mocking Bird”, was the focus of much adulation as a humane, shining light of the US Civil Rights movement. The Liberal ethic of political and social equality within a nation state that it expressed transmogrified in time, across the Western World, into an ideology of the insignificance and irrelevance of cultural differences which was pursued in policies of multiculturalism and the free movement of peoples. Moral disapprobation, even legal sanction, was visited on expressions of caution or dissent. It would have been difficult for Lee to reveal, as she does in the second book, that Mocking Bird’s declaration of the black American right to equality was not so all-embracing as its readers assumed.
It now appears that racial equality, as it is now understood, was not the canvas against which her protagonist Atticus acted. “Go Set a Watchman” reveals it to have been the far more circumscribed one of “equality before the law”, and a commitment to the law’s methodology for achieving justice. His notion of rights did not accord equal quality and value to all cultures, nor imply a programme of integration of differentiable cultures even within a single nation. Specifically, it did not imply a program of integration of the black and white races in America.
Mockingbird is set in the South in the 1930s, before a Black Equality movement had assumed any strength, and its child protagonist, Scout, is about nine years old. Watchman is set in the early 1950s, when the Civil Rights movement had begun to stir, largely fuelled by middle-class northern black Americans. Scout is now in her early twenties, working in New York, and visits her home town only to find her father chairing an anti-civil rights meeting at which a speaker makes extravagant allegations of the racial inferiority of negroes. She is profoundly shocked, too shocked at first to challenge her father. The exposition of how this could be, in her revered (to the point of saintliness) father, on just this issue, devolves on his younger brother, John Finch, a doctor, who made a small appearance in Mockingbird.
Over a number of encounters, in an argument that grounds the white population’s history and temperament surprisingly strongly as a British heritage, he asserts that it is their reflex hostile response to any imposition from without, in this case by the Federal Government, that is a threat to their local culture – to being told what to do against their traditions. At the time of the Civil War, he says, thousands who had never even seen a slave rushed to take up arms simply in fury at the North’s dictatorial interference.
It is not until near the end of the book that we get a closer look at Atticus’s psychology, which is perhaps racist, though perhaps more culturist – he believed that negroes were then at a lower stage of the evolution of civilisation, and that to let them into white schools and other white institutions would inevitably degrade white culture. Scout rightly points out that the “white trash” admitted to her childhood school were far more savage than the decent negroes who were debarred, and reminds him of the domestic symbiosis of white families and their black servants; Scout herself was half brought up by the Finch family’s negro cook/house-keeper, Calpurnia.
At this point the book changes direction from a seemingly promised confrontation of racial politics (a side issue has been the spoiling of the warmth of black – white relations at the personal level. Calpurnia is now cold towards Scout, “her child”), to Scout’s personal challenge to grow up – to take her father off his pedestal, and herself become an autonomous human being. It transpires that he was aware of this need and readily forgives her furious abuse at his position, as the anger of disillusionment.
Looking back to Mockingbird, one realises that Atticus never actually said anything about social equality in explaining to Scout his defence of the negro Tom against the accusation by a white-trash father of sexually assaulting his daughter – he delivers only a characteristically-American dramatised waffle to the effect that if he didn’t he could never hold up his head again and would lose the right to tell his children what to do. Note too that the title of the first book foregrounds the story of Boo, and her father’s role in Tom’s trial can be seen, not as primary to the narrative, but as instrumental in the murderous attack on the Finch children by the girl’s father, which Boo defeats, thereby becoming a sympathetic as well as a tragic figure. The book then becomes a childhood idyll, not primarily a blow for black liberation, though the concern for justice, and contempt of vigilante violence, is certainly present.
Where is Harper Lee in all this? Testimony of contempories indicates that she wrote Mockingbird in the late 1950s, when what the civil rights movement would become by the late ’60s was not yet evident. If Watchman was written in the late 1960s, or beyond, when it had matured, it may be that by then she had discovered that an admired real life model for Atticus (her father) was not “colour-blind” as she had assumed, and as she asserts the older Scout to be, and it is an attempt to excuse and forgive him. Or is it an attempt to pull back on what she had thought to be her own position, now bolted far in excess of what she had anticipated. Or even just a plea for understanding of the people at the coalface of change, against the denunciations of the remote “Liberal” hegemony.
Lee may have been dismayed at the full-blown Civil Rights witness Mocking Bird was given, and Watchman is her testimony that “That is not what I meant at all”. No wonder then that, as things went on, she could not bring herself to pursue publication, and avoided all interviews, which would no doubt have expected her to display accord with, and pride in, her book’s effect.
Given that Lee allots far more space to John Finch’s than to Atticus’s arguments, the novel primarily raises the issue of the right to defend one’s culture against dilution by integration with another, quite independently of issues of comparative excellence – a plea that would probably resonate with British “Leave” voters under Brexit and with Trump’s supporters in the recent US Presidential election. In the light of Durkheim’s work on the anomie that can be an effect of cultural disruption, the resistance that in the current era has been called racism and xenophobia may be the healthy response of a robust culture, and need not imply chauvinism.
Watchman spells out the conflict between supporting access for aspiring outsiders (invoking human rights), whose intrusion will, for better or worse, irredeemably change a culture; and the also human rights of those who as a result experience loss of identity and community. The book has appeared when just this conundrum has emerged in Western societies generally as a result of imposed policy. For the last several decades multiculturalism has held sway. Consideration should surely be given to balancing these conflicting rights in place of simply asserting the one and obliterating the other. It’s Time to reassess the multifarious certainties of the Leftist dogmatism and the elevation of the abstraction of Rights above the more subtle particularities of a country’s evolving Laws.
Harper Lee’s gifts as a novelist are as fully displayed in Watchman as in Mocking Bird, and to them is added an intensity of argument and engagement that makes this a more demanding and fully adult work.