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The Last Agonizing Birth Pang of the South

The Last Agonizing Birth Pang of the South

By Don Noble

This is a book review, a description and evaluation of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman, read on a Kindle. With an important book like this I would normally be reading an ARC—Advance Readers Copy—or a review copy, but these were not distributed. This novel had all the publicity it needed and the publishers obviously felt there was nothing to be gained and perhaps something to lose by letting reviewers see it.

Insofar as possible I will not comment on whether this manuscript was ever indeed lost, exactly when and under what circumstances it was “found,” how the decision was reached to publish it (even though Ms. Lee repeated a hundred times over 50 years that she did not want it published), the authenticity of the prepublication press releases concerning Watchman and a number of other issues, all of which have attracted national media attention.

The time and circumstances of the manuscript’s composition, however, are relevant. Ms. Lee wrote this novel in the middle 1950s, submitted it and had it rejected with the advice that she instead write a novel expanding on the flashback sections, with six-year-old Scout and her friends in 1935. That was excellent advice.

Set in 1955, Watchman opens with Jean Louise Finch now twenty-six years old. After college at a girls’ school in Georgia, she moved to New York to pursue a career as a painter, although we learn nothing about this effort, and this is her fifth annual visit home to Maycomb, described as still poor and “cut off from the rest of the nation.”

We are told, rather abruptly, that her brother Jem dropped dead of a heart attack on the courthouse square. Henry Clinton, who meets her train, is in love with Scout and indeed proposes unsuccessfully many times during the story. Scout cares for Hank, but declares that “For the present she would pursue the strong path of spinsterhood.”

Jean Louise, no longer quite a tomboy, dresses now in loafers, white blouse, and gray slacks, much to the dismay of her still-prissy prissy Aunt Alexandra.

A first effort, Watchman is, understandably, not a very good novel. Indeed I will be looking for the review that says it is. Lee commits the cardinal sin of too much telling and not enough showing, with a lot of exposition and summarizing. The 1955 scenes of confrontation are monologues, diatribes, and packaged history lessons.

There is no Boo Radley or Tom Robinson, but the best scenes, fresh and entertaining, are the flashback scenes: Scout recalling imaginative Tom Swift games played with Jem and Dill, a humorous faux baptizing scene in a local goldfish pond, her terror at fourteen thinking a kiss had made her pregnant, her chagrin when, at a dance, her falsies slip.

Dill, Charles Baker Harris, “the friend of her heart,” modelled as we all know on Truman Capote, we learn had served in the U.S. Army in Europe and is now living in Italy.

During her visit, Jean Louise endures a coffee klatch with local young women and is bored to death. Their lives seem empty, meaningless to her. Their husbands assure them communists are behind the civil rights unrest and the communist mother nest is in Tuscaloosa.

Aunt Alexandra complains that Negroes have been displaying “open insolence” and that “keeping a n[…] happy these days is like catering to a king.” What Scout learns for herself is that the old intimacy with blacks is gone. Even beloved Calpurnia, now retired, is distant. Described as truly color-blind herself and utterly saddened, Scout fears the past was all an act and asks: “Did you hate us?”

Saddened by her meeting with Calpurnia, Scout quarrels fiercely with Uncle Jack, Atticus’ brother. He explains the current civil rights situation as a second Civil War: white Southerners, then and now, are tribal and will not be dictated to by outsiders. They are fearful of losing their Anglo-Saxon individualism and freedom to the United States which they see as an intrusive, corrupt, welfare/socialist state.

This argument might have had some interest, even been inflammatory in 1957, had the novel been published then, but seems mighty tired now, warmed over and served again and again by organizations who have failed to notice the changes in the last sixty years.

Uncle Jack says the civil rights movement is the “last agonizing birth pang of the South,” as it moves into the modern age.

Watchman is a novel of Scout’s painful disillusionment, with her hometown, her family and the South. She learns her father is head of the Citizens Council. He explains: the Council is actually a service to blacks and the NAACP, serving as a warning to them to go slow and thus not invoke the wrath of the KKK, the true bad guys, which he had joined forty years earlier.

Atticus is scornful of the Supreme Court decision “Brown v. Board.” It was the justices’ “bid for immortality,” he says sarcastically. They are unconstitutionally activist. Jean Louise has violent quarrels with Atticus who declares African Americans a “backward people,” a race “still in their childhood as a people.” He challenges Scout: Negroes “can’t share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship but you want them to have all its privileges.”

Jean Louise reacts, indeed over-reacts, and might have been cast into a state of cynicism and alienation from which she would never recover, but there is some reconciliation when, with Uncle Jack’s help, she realizes she had so idolized Atticus he was, to her, Jesus. What would Atticus do? she had asked herself. In Watchman, Atticus is a flawed human being, a decent man, a man all-too-much of his time and place, but not a superhero and certainly not a saint.

Jean Louise, in these encounters, very narrowly escapes the fate of Young Goodman Brown, hero of the Hawthorne story which Lee surely read as an undergraduate. Believing his wife, Faith, to have secretly danced in the woods with the devil, Brown’s life is blighted forever. Having thought his wife perfect, he now thinks her utterly corrupt and a hypocrite.

Despite the knowledge available in Genesis and in Paradise Lost, it is still a shock for youths to discover that the world is not perfect, and the people in it flawed. Healthy individuals recover from this trauma, which is severe in proportion to how much one idolized the others, usually a parent.

There has been talk of what this novel might do to the reputation of Mockingbird. Readers need to be grown-ups about this.

Mockingbird is a separate artistic entity. Nobody thought Across the River and Into the Trees is a masterpiece, but it should not affect one’s opinion of The Sun Also Rises.

Watchman is, admittedly, a trickier case, since Atticus is the same character in each novel, but he is just that, a fictional creation. If Mockingbird changed your life, alerted you to racial injustice, set you on the road to law school, fine. There is no need to faint with horror over Watchman. You can get through the shock, especially if you believe the novel’s stated denouement that Jean Louise comes to understand the experience as the birth of her independent self, with her own conscience, no longer an acolyte/shadow of Atticus. She becomes tolerant of him and recognizes she has been smug and must learn sometimes to see things from someone else’s point of view. If a daughter can make that adjustment vis a vis her beloved father, readers can decide to continue to adore Mockingbird.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show Bookmark and the editor of A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama. This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.

Photo of Don Noble by Elizabeth Limbaugh