Friday, December 9, 2016

Harper Lee's Controversial Swan Song

Lee awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom,
November 5, 2007, The White House (Photo by Eric Draper)
 Sixty years after it was written, Go Set a Watchman was published amid controversy over whether its author, Harper Lee, approaching age ninety, had desired its publication or had been taken advantage of by her attorney.[1] Her only other novel is the now-classic To Kill a Mockingbird, which was written after Watchman.
               Harper Lee’s work is typical of New South authors such as William Faulkner, addressing the issue of race head-on. In this story, the young woman Jean Louise Finch returns to her home town in Alabama to discover her family and friends are part of a society determined to slow down the progress of racial equality. Her father, uncle and would-be fiancĂ©e attempt to explain to her the subtleties of New South sociology, leaving Jean Louise questioning her own identity and place in the only real home she has ever known.
               Structurally, Go Set a Watchman has some serious flaws. The time frame skips from the main timeline to Scout’s (Jean Louise’s) early childhood, back to the main, then to her awkward adolescence, and back again. This kind of flashback style is certainly acceptable when it brings the pieces together at some point, but that is not the case here. Also, the speaker shifts without warning, making some sections confusing. The early childhood sections became the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird, which worked nicely, childhood clarity bringing a power to the narrative, especially the vicious actions of some adults. But there is something about Watchman that I think is missing in Mockingbird.
               The “subtleties” I mentioned earlier are a catalyst to thinking about race in the New South. Not in the stark way that is presented in To Kill a Mockingbird, with an innocent black man being pursued by a mob of white supremacists and defended by an elite hero. No, there is a gray-ness about the town of Maycomb presented in Go Set a Watchman. Jean Louise is aware of a backwardness in the black population around Maycomb. The only appearance of blacks in the novel, apart from servants, is a bunch of joyriding kids making a lot of noise.
There is an appreciation of the history of the Southern people since The War, and a rarely-seen perspective. Atticus, his sister Alexandra, and their brother John, are aging, in their seventies. Signs of wisdom to a student of narrative such as Lee. They present the fact that the people who fought the War were not slave owners and most had never seen one. There was a different principle at issue for these men. Reconstruction came, then more wars, and now a change has come from the U.S. Supreme Court, most likely the one in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka and subsequent related desegregation cases.[2] In the opinion of Lee’s sages, this could usher in a new Reconstruction, with blacks in charge instead of Yankees.
Vague? Gray? Perhaps not in our twenty-first century minds. We want to sympathize with the outraged Jean Louise. But there is an attractive spirit of independence in the attitudes of her ancestors just one generation removed. Though the idea of keeping a whole race in submission is not attractive at all, the idea of keeping an entire region—all races included—in submission, in effect rendering all slaves, is deplorable. Has this happened, or do we still retain the freedom of self-determination? Upon this topic, I think much thought and discussion is warranted. And Go Set a Watchman does as good a job of stimulating it as any 1950’s Southern novel could.

[1] Joe Nocera, “The Harper Lee ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Fraud,” The New York Times, July 24, 2015, accessed August 27, 2016,
[2] Richard A. Schwartz, “1950’s Civil Rights Developments,” Florida International University, accessed August 27, 2016,