I read Go Set a Watchman last night in one gulp and it’s all I can think about today. I think I dreamed about it last night. Since I seem to be the only person who has loved it, I feel I have to write about it.
First the controversy. There are conflicting accounts of course about whether Harper Lee wanted this published. And I have conflicting opinions on that. Alice Lee and “Nelle” Harper Lee were like Cassandra and Jane Austen — the older sister protected and curated the younger sister’s writing and reputation. Cassandra Austen burned most of her sister’s letters after Jane Austen’s death. When I tell students that in class, they are horrified. “Didn’t she know how important those letters were?” they often demand. Yes. But she complied with her sister’s wishes to the great loss of the literary community. Personal versus public, private versus literary history… it’s all very complicated. Emily Dickinson hid her poetry during her lifetime and publishing it was a violation of her privacy, but who wants to imagine a world without the poetry of Emily Dickinson? William Faulkner once said that “the ‘Ode to the Grecian Urn’ was worth any number of old ladies” meaning that literary immortality is worth more than personal privacy. I go back and forth on that. But when I read this book, I felt more that the publication was authorized. This is a novel written by an angry young person, hidden away by an older, wiser person, then published by an elderly, dying woman who has nothing to lose.
Now, the actual novel. The book is true Harper Lee-style though a bit looser than the tight To Kill A Mockingbird. I laughed out loud in several places, smiled in recognition in others. Some jokes and references may make no sense to people who didn’t attend old-style Baptist and Methodist churches in small, south Alabama towns (a jokey reference to Fanny Crosby was a personal favorite of mine). All is genial, small town stuff until Scout secretly attends a Citizen’s Council meeting and learns that her father and her almost fiance are both segregationists. The realization makes her physically sick then angry and leads to an eventual blow-up with Atticus. Scout has to decide if she can love her family even when they themselves do not express love for people unlike them, a decision many a white Southern liberal has had to make.
Because, like Scout, we have grown up with Atticus the Saint (embodied in our minds as Gregory Peck), many people are so shocked by Atticus’ racism that they don’t want to read the novel. It’s not a book for everyone, and that’s okay. But it spoke to me. Even though this book is set in fictional 1950s Maycomb, AL, I recognized my 1980s small town of Opp, Alabama (70 miles east of Lee’s Monroeville). Many of the voices, sentiments, daily activities, and racial slurs/injustices were exactly the same as the ones in my town thirty years, and even sixty years, later. Like Scout, I left my small town and went to college, and, in my case, graduate school, then moved away. Like Scout, I return for two week visits to Alabama every year. And like Scout, I’ve had to face the fact that I don’t belong, that home is not home.
The most heartbreaking scene in the book is not the confrontation with Atticus. It’s Scout’s visit to Calpurnia. While talking to Cal, Scout realizes that Cal is using her company manners with her. She cries out to Calpurnia, begging her to see her as Scout, her baby. But now Cal sees her as a white woman. In the last few weeks, so many people have tried to explain the difference between systemic racism, white supremacy, and individual views on race. Not all white people are racist, but all people live in a racist society. All white people participate in privilege and white supremacy even if it’s not a personal belief. The scene with Calpurnia illustrates that distinction. Scout loves Cal. Cal loves Scout. But in 1950s Alabama one is a white woman and one is seen as less than human. Cal cannot forget that.
It is a book, sadly, for our times. For many white people in the South, this book is still current. At a cultural moment when the Lost Cause mythology still runs rampant, when the Confederate flag comes down in South Carolina but is flown on the back of pickup trucks and on the fronts of houses, when a hashtag is seen as radical because it proclaims the basic truth that black lives matter, we can still see Maycomb everywhere. And many of us are still Scouts who struggle to love the people who should be the closest to us but are often so very far away.