The literary event of the summer season has been the publication of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s second novel, about the Finch family of Maycomb, Alabama, the first being the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960.
Thus, fifty-five years separate these two publications, yet Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel in the usual sense of the word, as it was the first written of the two books. One cannot speak of the latter publication without speaking about the former, but perhaps first we should discuss the life of the author herself, Harper Lee. She was born in 1929 and grew up in the Deep South, in Monroeville, Alabama, where, as it turned out she was a close childhood friend of Truman Capote, who would come to Monroeville every summer to stay with his aunt.
The characters in both books are patterned after her own family and the people of her home town. Like Atticus in the books, her own father was a lawyer, and her mother, who was mentally unstable, died young, leaving Lee and her brother to be raised by their widowed father.
She attended Huntington College in Montgomery during 1944/45 and then studied law at the University of Alabama from 1945 to 1949, and then she moved to New York City to work for an airline. Like Capote, her foremost desire was to be a writer.
First she wrote Go Set a Watchman, but she was unable to publish it as it was seen as a series of anecdotes rather than a fully conceived novel. Perhaps she was cutting her teeth on this book, in preparation for the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, which when published in 1960 rapidly became so popular that it won the Pulitzer Prize; and in 1962 was made into an equally popular movie with Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus.
Now, all these years later Lee and her publishers have seen fit to publish the earlier novel, some of which contents may have been the reason for the lag in its publication.
To Kill a Mockingbird takes place during the Great Depression, during a three-year period of time, from 1933 to 1935. Six-year-old Jean Louise (Scout) Finch lives with her older brother Jem and their father Atticus, a lawyer. Jem and Scout’s friend is Dill, who is patterned on Capote. Atticus is now fifty years old.
Lee created a wonderful cast of characters in To Kill a Mockingbird: another family member is Alexandra, Atticus’s fussy and conventional sister. There is their reclusive neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley, and their beloved black maid Calpurnia, who takes exceptionally good care of her charges. At the heart of the story is Atticus’ defense of a black man named Tom Robinson, who has been accused of rape.
Judge Taylor appointed Atticus to defend Robinson, accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell. The trial takes place in this small town in the Deep South during the 1930’s; this was before the Civil Rights movement, before Martin Luther King Jr. stirred up black Americans to demand their rights.
Many of Maycomb’s citizens disapprove when Atticus agrees to defend Tom. The town’s children taunt Jem and Scout for Atticus’ action, calling him a “nigger-lover.”
Atticus faces a group of men, intent on lynching Tom. Danger is averted when Scout, Jem and Dill shame the men into dispersing by forcing them to view the situation from Atticus’ and Tom’s points-of-view. Nevertheless, sad to say, despite Atticus’ admirable defense, the jury convicts Tom, who’s shot and killed while trying to escape from prison.
In Go Set a Watchman twenty-two years have passed. Scout is 26 years old. She lives and works in New York City and has returned to Maycomb to visit.
I love the first paragraph of this book:
"Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, with its tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surround by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose."
The year is 1955; the NAACP has a growing influence in the lives of black Americans; they are beginning to rise up against their oppressors. Scout lives in New York City. Atticus is 72 years old. He still works and is seen after by his sister Alexandra; he is somewhat incapacitated by arthritis. Jem died of the same heart condition that killed their mother, and Atticus has taken on a young man named Henry as his protégé.
Henry is bright and capable, but doesn’t have the Finch family pedigree. He would like to marry Scout, but she has other ideas. Atticus’ brother, Uncle Jack, a physician, plays a more prominent role in this book. Calpurnia has retired and lives in her home in the black section of town. A growing estrangement between the white and black citizens of Maycomb has been taking place.
No writer is better at evoking the world of children than Harper Lee. In this book she recalls several amusing incidents from Scout’s childhood: the story of when she, Jem and Dill were playing Revival and she stripped off her clothing in order to be baptized, just when the minister and his wife appeared for lunch—Atticus excuses himself so that he can go out on the back porch and laugh.
Then there’s story of Scout thinking she was pregnant after Albert French French-kissed her. Rather than suffer the shame of having a child out-of-wedlock, she plans to commit suicide.
There was resistance to publishing Go Set a Watchman because in it Atticus, who for all these years has been seen as a defender human rights, now, his dotage, has become a racist!
Go Set a Watchman might have remained a series of anecdotes and not a novel were it not shaped into a full-fledged, fully-realized novel by the narration of several incidents, the first being Scout’s visit to Calpurnia and the second her argument with Atticus.
When Calpurnia’s grandson runs amuck with the law, Scout takes it upon herself to visit Calpurnia to reassure her that Atticus will do his best to help. She is taken aback by Calpurnia’s coldness:
Calpurnia was wearing her company manners.
Jean Louise sat down in front of her. “Cal,” she cried, “Cal, Cal, Cal, what are doing to me? What’s the matter? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?
“’As long as I’ve lived I never remotely dreamed that anything like this could happen. And here it is. I cannot talk to the one human who raised me from the time I was two years old…it is happening as I set here and I cannot believe it. Talk to me, Cal. For God’s sake talk to me right. Don’t sit there like that!’
She looked into the old woman’s face and she knew it was hopeless. Calpurnia was watching her, in Calpurnia eyes was no hint of compassion.
A few minutes when Scout is sitting in her car, she thinks, “She loved us, I swear she loved us. She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me; she saw while folks. She raised me, and she doesn’t care.
“It was not always like this. I swear it wasn’t. People used to trust each other for some reason, I’ve forgotten why. They didn’t watch each other like hawks then. I wouldn’t get looks like that going up those steps ten years ago. She never wore her company manners with one of us…when Jem died, her precious Jem, it nearly killed her…”
Scout’s experience may be part of a national phenomenon—because of the agitation for desegregation, there is a greater distrust among the two races.
Assuming that he believes in equal rights, special privileges for none, Scout confronts Atticus, and finds that he is as threatened by desegregation as are most of his compatriots.
Atticus calls himself a Jeffersonian Democrat. He says, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia? … Look at it this way. You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You know the full implication of the word ‘backward,’ don’t you?
“You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?
”The population in nearby Abbott County is almost three fourths Negro…and, if the Negro vote edged out the white, you’d have Negroes in every county office…
“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the south were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ‘em? Do you want this town run by—now wait a minute—Willoughby’s a crook, we know that, but do you know of any Negro who knows as much as Willoughby? Zeebo would probably be Mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money? We’re outnumbered, you know.”
Keep in mind that the year that Atticus supposedly mouthed these words is about 1955, 60 years ago. Since then the Civil Rights movements, and, because of Lyndon Johnson’s insistence, desegregation has been achieved. It’s become a fact of modern life that people of all races can attend schools, ride on buses, and dine in restaurants. A “Whites only” sign has become an antique.
Giving Atticus the benefit of the doubt, we can see just how threatened white people of his class were by desegregation, afraid to put into practice the ideal that all people are created equal. It would have been beyond Atticus’s wildest imagination that “a Negro,” not only might be elected the Mayor of Maycomb but to our country’s highest office, the President of the United States.
That fact alone indicates that in spite of the still-troubled relations between whites and blacks, as witnessed in this summer’s turmoil over the shooting of unarmed black people by white policemen, progress has indeed been made. So, we can be grateful to Harper Lee for her honesty, for showing just how far we have come.
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