A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Harper Lee’s “new” book starts out wonderfully. Its young author had a sure touch and a light hand. It is entertaining, vivid, funny, dry. It begins to come apart a bit, but gains in intensity, about halfway through, when it hits its real subject: A person imbued with the highest ethical standards is faced by a radical immorality in her society, in which her family and friends are complicit.
Reviews that describe the Attticus of Watchman as having become a racist, or being revealed as a racist, by clinging to the idealized Atticus of Mockingbird may miss the point of Watchman. Atticus hasn’t changed. We saw him through his young daughter’s eyes as faultless. Now, seen by his grown daughter, we can see him as imperfect: a good man who, being fully committed to living, working, and having friends in an unjust society, makes the compromises and performs the hypocrisies required of its members. He’s a lawyer — not a judge — with a lawyer’s complex relationship to justice.
Watchman isn’t free of childishness — its author was still pretty young — but its goals are adult ones: to show how hard it may be for a daughter to see her father as a fellow human being, and how hard it is to rebel completely against the injustice of your own people. Merely to be less racist than most of the people around you can be quite an accomplishment. I think that by seeing Atticus as first saint, then demon, we refuse to let him be a man, and also refuse to hear what the author was trying to tell us about being a Southerner.g
So, the daughter returning home on a visit finds her father, her model of clear thinking and courageous honesty, is siding with the bigots; her boyfriend, her model of brotherly kindness, is siding with the bigots. What’s she to do?
The answer from outside is quick and easy: of course she rebels. She rises in wrath, denounces, disowns, and departs.
That’s what Scout (now Jean Louise, 26, on a two-weeks visit home from New York) almost does. It’s what I would have imagined her doing, and believed it absolutely necessary for her to do, before I married into a white Southern family and lived with them some years.
If you love and respect people who live in and obey the rules of such a society, and I loved my father and mother in law, and they deserved all my love and respect — if they love and respect you, as they did me — if you have family feeling or rational sense of decency, you do not and cannot arise in a halo of self-righteousness at every instance of race prejudice, denounce, disown, and depart. Depart where? You live there. These are your people. You are a member of this kind, upright, affectionate family. You live in this society with its tremendous, ingrained prejudices — racial, religious, and other.
You find how to evade showing approval of injustice, and how to avoid practising it, as well as you can. You meet the endless overt bigotry with silent non-acceptance, perhaps with a brief word or two reminding the bigot that not everyone shares, or admires, his opinons. Now and then, when Cousin Roy gets to ranting on about the niggers, and you’re about to leave the room because you’re feeling sick, your mother-in-law says very quietly, I don’t like such talk, Roy. And Roy shuts up.
Oh, it’s all so much more complicated than it looks like from outside, to people who don’t have to consider how love and loyalty constrain you, to people from Outside the South, where of course no such injustice is ever practiced, no such bigotry exists.
It may seem implausible that a person can, like Jean Louise, grow up without race prejudice in a society so profoundly racist as the small-town White South. It is in fact a miracle, but not an uncommon one. I can attest that my husband and two of his cousins, raised entirely in that society, grew up entirely without race prejudice. But unlike Jean Louise they were intensely aware of their anomaly, the complex discomfort of their position. They were all among the first in their families to go to college; they all sought and found a non-racially prejudiced community of people within Southern society, or else left the South altogether. What is implausible to me is not that Jean Louise is, as she says, “colorblind,” but that she’s somehow managed to blind herself all her life to her difference from her people.
The time is early in the Civil Rights movement; customary behaviors are becoming the object of discussion, deep-rooted injustices are being challenged. On her visit home, Jean Louise realises that her boyfriend and father are active in anti-NAACP organisations. She feels utterly betrayed. Her naivety may be incredible, but her denunciations are fine, her diatribes fierce. They soon get the wind taken out of them, however, by unshaken arguments from the boyfriend, an erratic uncle, and (most importantly) the beloved father, who, with a mixture of Christian meekness and lawyerly aplomb, permits her to say unforgivable things to him, while gently setting her straight about practical realities, the impossibility of immediate change, the importance of avoiding violence — all the persuasive and predictable justifications for moving very, very, very slowly towards righting the wrong.
Jean Louise has arisen and denounced, unsuccessfully. Does she depart?
We’re never told what she’s been doing in New York City. She never thinks about the place, any person there, or her work, whatever it is. A small town in Alabama is the entire cosmos of the novel. I think it must have been the cosmos of the author’s life. Jean Louise is going to go back North, but we don’t know whether to stay there or not. My guess is that what she was doing in New York was being a writer; and she’ll make a go of it, and come back South to stay. Not a very hard guess to make.
It appears that the New York editor who handled the book was uninterested in the human and moral situation the author was attempting to describe, or in helping her work through the over-simplifications and ineptitudes of that part of the book. Instead, she apparently persuaded Lee to enlarge on the very charming, nostalgic early parts of the book, when Jean Louise was Scout. Lee was encouraged to go back to childhood, and so to evade the problems of the book she wanted to write by writing, instead, a lovable fairytale.
I like to think of the book it might have been, had the editor had the vision to see what this incredibly daring first-novelist was trying to do and encouraged and aided her to do it more convincingly. But no doubt the editor was, commercially speaking, altogether right. That book would have found some admirers, but never would it have become a best-seller and a “classic.” It wouldn’t have pandered to self-reassuring images of White generosity risking all to save a grateful Black man.
Before Watchman was published, I was skeptical and unhappy — all the publicity made it sound like nothing but a clever lawyer and a greedy publisher in cahoots to exploit an old woman. Now, having read the book, I glimpse a different tragedy. Lee was a young writer on a roll, with several novels in mind to write after this one. She wrote none of them. Silence, lifelong. I wonder if the reason she never wrote again was because she knew her terrifyingly successful novel was untrue. In taking the easy way, in letting wishful thinking corrupt honest perception, she lost the self-credibility she, an honest woman, needed in order to write.
So I’m glad, now, that Watchman was published. It hasn’t done any harm to the old woman, and I hope it’s given her pleasure. And it redeems the young woman who wrote this book, who wanted to tell some truths about the Southern society that lies to itself so much. She went up North to tell the story, probably thinking she’d be free to tell it there. But she was coaxed or tempted into telling the simplistic, exculpatory lies about it that the North cherishes so much. The white North, that is. And a good part of the white South too, I guess.
Little white lies . . . North or South, they’re White lies. But not little ones.
Harper Lee was a good writer. She wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades.