Go Set a Watchman- Harper Lee
‘Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth…’
In the midst of the current and tempestuous outcry I intend to dive right in. I do not want to wait until the water grows placid and the angers are expended or turn, as they might, to a consensus of disappointment.
I will try to explain why I found the book mesmerising. For you to understand I need you to know where I come from, so that you can decide whether my opinions have any relevance for you. It may temper your judgement. I grew up in that most reviled racist country, South Africa, where my grandfather seemed a kind of Atticus Finch, only he nursed the ambition to undermine the justification for racism ( the image of Africans still immersed in innocent childhood, unready for the world) with his dogged dedication to African education. He was determined to make them ready. If you are interested I wrote about him earlier HERE. He started at six in the morning and we never saw him except for meals.
I was at a school where our priest was Trevor Huddleston, the man who was remembered by Mandela for raising his hat to a black woman, cleaning on her knees. So my childhood was spent not unlike that of Scout. My heroes were those brave and determined to defy the prevalent racist attitudes. It did not stop them employing cooks and cleaners ( and getting cross with them) or inviting black Professors to dine. If you are colour-blind then other distinctions determine decisions and the company you keep.
I have lived with Mockingbird all my life, as the perfect novel integrating the personal with the political, the pinnacle of the moral absolute, as well as the most evocative account of my own childhood. My second mother Milly was Calpurnia, and Jem the brother I longed for. One of my daughters is called Jem for that reason. So why am I not indignant that Watchman strips away that perfect Atticus and renders him mortal, complex, and ambivalent?
It is a different time and the time for me to grow up too. Along with this book. Black and white are no longer the absolutes they were. Once dilution happens grey is the new black, and the new white. I cannot say very much without introducing spoilers for the reader in the context of the book, except in general terms. Scout’s need to confront the shining knight of her now frail, but no less loving, a father is also my need to re-evaluate my own innocence. When you are imprisoned by prejudice and fighting to honour your own ‘Watchman’ things are kept simple; they have to be.
I don’t want to summarize the book, or quote what will distort surprise. It is a journey best not described.
I do not think Watchman as perfect a construction as Mockingbird, it is not an outer story of event, but an inner one towards the messy limits imposed by Scout’s outgrown needs of her father at just the point when what HE needs is her.
It is still rare to read deeply psychological novels that deal with the damage that can be done by children to their parents, or the recognition in a parent that only time will endow the qualities they hoped to impart, while time is running out.
I cannot help feeling that Harper Lee regains her own Watchman by this publication. I refuse to find significant all the conjectures surrounding its publication. Those will be forgotten and do not matter.
It must be difficult to write the most regaled novel of the century, to be richly rewarded financially without expressing your misgivings, your qualifying caveats, and do so by restoring both Atticus and Scout to humanity. ‘ Leave me be wontcha’
I truly salute her courage, not to want to die before re-stating her independence and restoring the noble Atticus to pre-eminent and frail humanity by stripping away the image imposed upon him.
If the public is not adult enough to grow up but wants to retain only black and white and the simple lines of easy virtue they have not begun to understand either of the books, or this compassionate author. Yes there are the odd grammatical infelicities, and occasional clumsy constructions that a less respectful editor would have ironed out. Few books flow immaculate from the pen, for me, in this case, I applaud them. It means Harper Lee is still one of us. I feel rejuvenated by her small and unimportant faults.
That brings me to what will provide the next post: an examination of this injunction of what a writer owes their reader. This has become the new conformity. Behave as you are expected to behave, write what we expect to read.
It is deadly, and it kills the desire to write at all. Books are gifts, not obligations, and words and ideas are dangerous. We must fight to keep them so. We owe readers nothing but the gift of ourselves. I have just remembered that, and Watchman’s influence may see me through, as Mockingbird once did.