The man who has lived by truth leaves you with nothing

When Harper Lee’s manuscript Go Set a Watchman, the story to which her novel To Kill a Mockingbird was written as an extended prologue, was published early this summer, I realized that I, unlike virtually everyone else who graduated from a high school in the USA in the last three decades, had never read To Kill a Mockingbird. So I borrowed the copy my wife’s tenth grade English teacher gave her and read that before our copy of Go Set a Watchman came in the mail.

I’m glad I read them back to back.  The key passage in Go Set a Watchman is an imaginary conversation Jean Louise, a.k.a. Scout, Finch has in her head with her friends in New York after she comes home to Alabama and discovers that her adored father is the head of Maycomb County’s white supremacist Citizens’ Council:

New York.  New York?  I’ll tell you how New York is.  New York has all the answers.  People go to the YMHA, the English-Speaking Union, Carnegie Hall, the New School for Social Research, and find the answers.  The city lives by slogans, isms, and fast sure answers. New York is saying to me right now: you, Jean Louise Finch, are not reacting according to our doctrines regarding your kind, therefore you do not exist.  The best minds in the country have told us who you are.  You can’t escape it, and we don’t blame you for it, but we do ask you to conduct yourself within the rules that those who know have laid down for your behavior, and don’t try to be anything else.

She answered: please believe me, what has happened in my family is not what you think.  I can say only this- that everything I learned about human decency I learned here. I learned nothing from you except how to be suspicious.  I didn’t know what hate was until I lived among you and saw you hating every day.  They even had to pass laws to keep you from hating.  I despise your quick answers, your slogans in subways, and most of all I despise your lack of good manners: you’ll never have ’em as long as you exist.

The man who could not be discourteous to a ground-squirrel had sat in the courthouse abetting the cause of grubby-minded little men.  Many times she had seen him in the grocery store waiting his turn in line behind Negroes and God knows what.  She had seen Mr Fred raise his eyebrows at him, and her father shake his head in reply.  He was the kind of man who instinctively waited his turn; he had manners.

Look sister, we know the facts: you spent the first twenty one years of your life in lynching country, in a county whose population is two thirds agricultural Negro.  So drop the act.

You will not believe me, but I will tell you: never in my life until today did I hear the word “n****r” spoken by a member of my family. Never did I think in terms of The N*****s.  When I grew up, and I did grow up with black people, they were Calpurnia, Zeebo the garbage collector, Tom the yard man, and whatever else their names were.  There were hundreds of Negroes surrounding me, they were the hands in the fields, who chopped the cotton, who worked the roads, who sawed the lumber to make our houses.  They were poor, they were diseased and dirty, some were lazy and shiftless, but never in my life was I given the idea that I should despise one, should fear one, should be discourteous to one, or think that I could mistreat one and get away with it.  They as a people did not enter my world, not did I enter theirs: when I went hunting I did not trespass on a Negro’s land, not because it was a Negro’s, but because I was not supposed to trespass on anybody’s land.  I was taught never to take advantage of anybody who was less fortunate than myself, whether he be less fortunate in brains, wealth, or social position; it meant anybody, not just Negroes. I was given to understand that the reverse was to be despised.  That is the way I was raised, by a black woman and a white man.

You must have lived it.  If a man says to you, “This is the truth,” and you believe him, and you discover what he says is not the truth, you are disappointed and you make sure you will not be caught out by him again.

But a man who has lived by truth- and you have believed in what he has lived- he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing.

I think virtually the whole of To Kill a Mockingbird can be explained as an attempt to clarify this passage.  Throughout Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise’s father Atticus Finch is described as the perfect type of the Southern gentleman, truthful, courageous, gallant, modest, unfailingly courteous. Yet he does almost nothing in that book.  To Kill a Mockingbird gives these words the force of actions that match them.  And so, having read To Kill a Mockingbird, when in Go Set a Watchman Jean Louise reacts to Atticus’ addressing her as Scout with the furious thought that he had forfeited all right ever to use her childhood nickname, the reader’s heart breaks as it would not were Atticus merely the list of adjectives piled up next to his name in Go Set a Watchman.

What Jean Louise describes as “the way I was raised” by her father Atticus and their housekeeper Calpurnia sounds pretty dreary from some perspectives. Atticus lived by truth in that he, unlike other whites of his class and time, waited his turn when African Americans were in line ahead of him at the grocery.  His African American neighbors may have appreciated the courtesy, but it certainly did not cost him much, and to reward him for it by citing it as evidence of his superiority to his “grubby-minded” white neighbors sounds almost like a joke.

Moreover, that Atticus and Calpurnia raised Jean Louise to be courteous to everyone who had been placed at a disadvantage to her, including African Americans, and to cite this as evidence that the Finches were better than were the ill-bred whites who exploited their advantages and whom she was therefore taught to despise is to accept as a simple fact that is not subject to change that African Americans are and ever will be at a disadvantage to whites in regard to “brains, wealth, or social position.”

Compare the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman who teaches Jean Louise that her obligations towards African Americans are rooted in their status as her inferiors and that she has the same obligations towards her white inferiors as she has towards her black ones with the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird saying that the lowest of all creatures is a white man who takes advantage of the ignorance of a Negro.  In both cases, Atticus is teaching that whites are to regard themselves as noble by comparison with African Americans, that nobility creates obligations, and that the most profound moral failure is a failure to meet those obligations. In both cases, Atticus conceives the great moral drama of life taking place among white men, with white women as spectators and African Americans as props.

Seeing this in the abstract, as it is presented throughout Go Set a Watchman, despite the book’s many hilarious, touching, and gorgeously crafted stories of Jean Louise’s childhood, is to remain in the position of Jean Louise’s New York friends, looking down on her as an unconscious racist.  If that were the only position the book allowed us to take, it would in fact be what some critics said To Kill a Mockingbird was, a Southern novel for people who hate the South.  Coupled with To Kill a Mockingbird, however, we can see that this attitude, the very thing that put Atticus Finch at the head of the Citizens’ Council in the mid-1950s, was what led him to defend Tom Robinson in the mid-1930s.  Indeed, the portrayal of Dolphus Raymond in To Kill a Mockingbird, and to some extent the portrayal of Atticus’ brother Dr John Hale Finch in Go Set a Watchman, suggest the man who could have emerged as an ally of the African American freedom struggle in the 1950s might not have been any more use to anyone in rural Alabama in the 1930s than was Atticus in the 1950s.  Perhaps all of us are like that, heroes or villains as circumstances call for, and the lucky ones are those who rise to the occasion when circumstances call for the heroic side of their personalities.

Many have faulted Go Set a Watchman for its obvious lack of editorial revision; one review was titled “Go Get an Editor.”  There are some parts where this lack is a serious problem.  For example, when Jean Louise goes to call on Calpurnia on the occasion of Calpurnia’s favorite grandson’s arrest on a manslaughter charge that is likely to ruin him and blight the whole family’s prospects, she is shocked to find that Calpurnia and her family are looking at her, to whom Calpurnia was virtually a mother, and not seeing her, but seeing only “white folks.”  That’s a poignant moment, and should be one of the centerpieces of the novel.  However, the conversation between Jean Louise and Calpurnia is so jaggedly narrated that it is difficult to tell who is speaking to whom, and so abruptly phrased that it all collapses into Jean Louise’s regard for herself and her own feelings, feelings that apparently lead her to forget all about  Calpurnia’s grandson and the rest of her family almost immediately upon noticing that Calpurnia isn’t particularly excited to see her.  The rest of Go Set a Watchman doesn’t have trouble assigning lines to characters and doesn’t depict Jean Louise as a bizarrely self-absorbed person, so I’m sure that a rewrite would have straightened that scene out.

The ending of Go Tell a Watchman is quite disturbing, letting Atticus and the Finches off the hook almost completely.  That’s a shame for a novel that faces up to so many of the challenges of the period, but it is no different from To Kill a Mockingbird.  At the end of that book, Atticus has had some unpleasant afternoons, but he is reelected to the state legislature without opposition, still practicing law, still living in the same house, still welcomed by the same friends.  I do wonder if people who claim that the sensibility of Go Set a Watchman is less progressive on race than is that of To Kill a Mockingbird were quite honest with themselves when they read To Kill a Mockingbird, or if to them it really was just a Southern novel for people who hate the South.

I wonder about some other things.  Around the time Harper Lee was deciding to put Go Set a Watchman in a drawer and to write a novel about the childhood of its main character, Edmund Wilson was criticizing William Faulkner’s later novels for devoting too many pages to long speeches in which wise but flawed old men defend segregation, speeches which are supposed to make an international audience understand and respect the viewpoint of the white South, but which because of their length and because nothing in the plots of the novels highlights any of the weaknesses in their reasoning seem very much to reflect the author’s own views.  The horror with which Jean Louise reacts to her discovery that Atticus is the head of the Citizens’ Council distances her and Harper Lee from Atticus’ and Dr John Hale Finch’s pro-segregation speeches, but the ending of Go Set a Watchman, together with the length of the speeches, does give it something of the same problem, and because the worst things Jean Louise learns about the Citizen’s Council are the speeches and writings it promotes, it would be quite a challenge to make Atticus and his brother understandable characters without giving them long, largely unrebutted speeches in self-defense.  So perhaps one of the reasons she set the prequel in the 1930s was that the tacit understandings of that time would make such speeches unnecessary, and another part was that the 1930s were Faulkner’s heyday, at least in terms of critical acclamation, and a Southern novel set in that period might not raise the suspicions of Edmund Wilson the way a novel with a contemporary setting would.

Amasa Coleman Lee, who was not universally regarded as a Gregory Peck lookalike

Ms Lee’s decision not to publish Go Set a Watchman after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird  is not so hard to explain.  Atticus Finch was pretty clearly based on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee.  On the set of the film version of To Kill a MockingbirdMs Lee saw actor Gregory Peck made up as Atticus Finch and was moved to tears, saying “Oh Gregory, you’ve got a little pot belly just like my Daddy.”  To which Peck, with the film star’s consciousness of his appearance, rather stiffly replied, “No Nell, it just looks that way because of my acting.”  Anyway, having introduced her father to the world as the prototype of a character so beloved that thousands of boys would be named “Atticus” in his honor, it would take quite a bit of chutzpah to turn around and publish a novel in which she made it clear that whatever her father’s virtues may have been, his vices included a racism so disgusting that at times she couldn’t bear to hear him say her name.

So, if you read either book, I recommend you read them both.  Treat To Kill a Mockingbird as an extended prologue to Go Set a Watchman, and the two books together will shatter complacencies you didn’t know you had.

Advertisements
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: