Sunday, August 2, 2015

Book Review: " Go Set a Watchman (2011) by Harper Lee," Book Reviewed by Rick Howard, 1 August 2015

Executive Summary

In Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch as a young woman discovers that racial tensions in the south are not as black and white as she thought they were when she was a young girl, Scout, in To Kill A Mockingbird. Her father, Atticus Finch, is not the paragon of virtue she thought he was either and is in fact a “segregationist,” a “gentleman bigot,” and affiliates “with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies.” The story pivots on Jean Louise’s discovery of her father’s flaws, her shock at that revelation and the process she goes through to reach a sort of acceptance around the dethroning of her father. Atticus Finch has been my hero since Gregory Peck played him in the 1962 movie. He has always been the literary example I aspired too whenever I encountered my own moral conundrums. This takedown of the character by Harper Lee is a shock for sure. But in the end, Atticus Finch is still my hero. It is kind of a relief to know that even our heroes are not perfect in every way; that you can still admire and emulate a person even though you might not agree with everything he or she believes. This novel makes him more human and I guess I can live with that.

Introduction

Atticus Finch has been my hero since I first saw Gregory Peck portray the character in the famous movie, To Kill a Mockingbird released in 1962 [1] The scene in the courthouse where all the white people have left the room but the local black people are still in the balcony waiting on Mr. Finch to leave still brings tears to my eyes to this day even after numerous viewings. Atticus’ two kids, Scout (Jean Louise) and Jem, had snuck up to the balcony so as not to miss the show and sat next to the town’s black reverend during the festivities. When Atticus finally gets his things together and begins to walk out, he is oblivious to the black people in the balcony. He does not register that they have all stood up in quiet respect for what he is doing; defending a black man who is accused (wrongly) of raping a young white woman. Scout, Atticus’ daughter, is the only person in the balcony who did not stand as Atticus begins to walk out of the courtroom. The black reverend turns to her urgently and says, 

Miss Jean Louise. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. You’re father is passing. [1]

Bill Walker, the actor who played the reverend, captured completely in just 12 words and silent facial gestures the sentiment of the movie; that Atticus Finch was a great man, an honorable man and a man whose example we should all aspire to. Gregory Peck himself said that Bill Walker’s small but beautiful performance wrapped up the Academy Award for him. [2] 

But it was not until I read Harper Lee’s book when I was much older that I understood the significance of Atticus Finch as a character and as a hero. [3] 

One of my favorite scenes from the book captures his essence. The next-door lady, Miss Maudie, is talking to Atticus’s son about the significance of the court case to the town and to his father.

“I simply want to tell you that there are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them.” 

“Oh,” said Jem. “Well.”
 

“Don’t you oh well me, sir,” Miss Maudie replied, recognizing Jem’s fatalistic noises, “you are not old enough to appreciate what I said.”
 

Jem was staring at his half-eaten cake. “It’s like bein’ a caterpillar in a cocoon, that’s what it is,” he said. “Like somethin’ asleep wrapped up in a warm place. I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world, least that’s what they seemed like.”
 

“We’re the safest folks in the world,” said Miss Maudie. “We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.” [3]

Atticus Finch has been my hero for as long as I can remember. When I run into moral decisions in my own personal life, I have always asked myself, “What would Atticus Finch do?” I don't always follow his advice, but after and without fail, I realize that I should have.

When the word started to leak out that Harper Lee had written a sequel, Go Set A Watchman, [4] and that she reveals that Atticus Finch is really a closeted racist, I was floored. How could she? How could it be possible that the man she painted so vividly and so beautifully as the modern example of what a man should be -- what men should aspire to be – could become such a hated thing?

Impressions

The title of the book comes from the bible: Isaiah 21:6.

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. [5]

According to Wayne Flynt, a minister and one of Lee’s longtime friends,

'Go Set a Watchman' means, somebody needs to be the moral compass of this town.” [6]

In the original, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is exactly that. Scout as a young girl admires everything about her father and only a few within the town -- Miss Maudie, the sheriff and the judge – understand the full ramifications of that. To a young Scout, he is a paragon of virtue in everything that he does and every moral question that he confronts is precisely black and white.

In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus still sits at his post as a guardian of the town, but Jean Louise, now a young woman, discovers that he is not the perfect paragon that she had built him up to be. He is a not a god, he is a man; a really good and decent man but he is a man all the same with all the flaws that go with the territory and an understanding that there is a lot of grey area between those two black and white poles. Jean Louise discovers that her father does not actually believe that the black man is an equal to the white man, at least not in the negro’s current state at the time of book. Atticus is a “segregationist,” a “gentleman bigot,” and affiliates “with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies,” [7]

During an interview with David Green on NPR, poet Natasha Trethewey said that Atticus believes

“… in a kind of limitation of African-Americans, that they are and were at that time a people in their infancy, the idea that we had to go slow because these people weren't really ready for it. They weren't really ready to vote. They weren't really ready to go to school with white children.” [8] 

The plot of Go Set a Watchman pivots on Jean Louise’s discovery of that notion about her father, her shock at that revelation and the process she goes through to reach a sort of acceptance of that dethroning of her father.

Conclusion

I am not sure how I feel about the idea that Atticus Finch is not perfect. On the one hand, it was easy for me to point to his literary example as a barometer for what it means to be man. On the other, it is kind of a relief to know that even our heroes are not perfect in every way; that you can still admire and emulate a person even though you might not agree with everything he or she believes. In the end, Atticus Finch is still my hero. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman makes him more human and I guess I can live with that.

Sources

[1] "To Kill a Mockingbird (8/10) Movie CLIP - Your Father's Passing (1962) HD," Movieclips, posted 27 May 2011, Last Visited 1 August 2015,

[2] "Bill Walker Biography," IMDB, Last Visited 1 August 2015,

[3] "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee, Published 1960 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics , Last Visited 1 August 2015

[4] "Go Set a Watchman (To Kill a Mockingbird)," by Harper Lee, Published July 14th 2015 by Harper, Last Visited 1 August 2015
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24818632-go-set-a-watchman 

[5] "King James Bible: Isaiah 21:6," The Official King James Bible Online, Last Visited 1 August 2015, 

[6] "'Go Set a Watchman': What does Harper Lee's book title mean?," by By Greg Garrison, AL.COM, 5 February 2015, updated 13 July 13, Last Visited 1 August 2015,

[7] "Harper Lee, Atticus Finch and Go Set a Watchman: What the world is saying," by John Hammontree, AL.com, 20 July 2015, Last Visited 2 August 2015,

[8] "The Meaning Of A Hero Cast In Shadow, In Harper Lee's 'Go Set A Watchman,'" by DAVID GREENE, NPR, 14 July 2015, Last Visited 2 August 2015,

2 comments:

  1. "When the word started to leak out that Harper Lee had written a sequel..." Watchman is not a sequel. Harper Lee wrote it as an aspiring novelist. Her publisher encourage Lee to instead write a novel based on the flashbacks in Watchman, and Mockingbird was the delightful result. Lee thought Watchman was lost until it was found in 2011.

    It's important to keep in mind that Watchman was written by Lee before she had fully mastered her craft, when she had no acknowledged intention to write Mockingbird, and that it was essentially rejected by the initial publisher that purchased the rights.

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    Replies
    1. Point taken in that Harper Lee wrote the entire thing all at once. But, in chronological and publishing sense, the Watchman is a sequel to Mockingbird.

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