Saturday, August 08, 2015

'Go Set a Watchman' Tells a Human Story

"She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex,'What would Atticus do?' passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him."

Harper Lee, "Go Set a Watchman"

It has been said that the moment of both a child's greatest joy and greatest sorrow is the moment when he/she bests a parent at something for the first time — and, in the process, learns the parent is imperfect. I think it also applies to learning something about the parent that wasn't known before.

Perhaps it is when a boy beats his father at arm wrestling or some other physical competition, but, many times, that moment is when the child beats the parent at some kind of game, a game of cards perhaps or a board game. That's what it was with me. My father taught me to play chess when I was little, and he routinely beat me as I was learning the game. I remember the first time I beat him; to this day, I am not certain if I really did beat him or if he permitted me to win. At the time, though, I believed I had won fair and square — and it really did create a tremendous conflict in my young mind.

I was maybe 8 or 9 at the time, and I had always regarded my father as infallible. I know now, of course, and have known for a long time that he isn't, but I didn't know it then. I suppose that is part of being a child and making that transition to maturity — going from believing that your father can do no wrong to understanding that he is a mortal man with strengths and weaknesses like everyone else and that, if you haven't already, the two of you will disagree about some things. That doesn't make him any more or less what he was before — except in your mind.

I was thrilled to have beaten Dad — and profoundly sorry as well — and I think that is the point of Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman." Well, it's one of the points. Let me explain.

First of all, I won't assume that you already know the circumstances surrounding this book so I'll try to briefly go over them for you. This was Lee's original book, the one she submitted to her publisher first. The publisher said it would be more effective if she wrote from the children's point of view so Lee wrote a new book set in the 1930s — at the time that the main female character's father, Atticus Finch, was defending in court a black man who was accused of raping a white woman.

If you are familiar with "To Kill a Mockingbird," it won't be hard for you to recognize Lee's style — and reading "Go Set a Watchman" will make it easier for you to see the influence Lee's editor had on the final product of "To Kill a Mockingbird." I can almost see Lee and her editor working together, her editor recommending a word or a phrase that softens or hardens a passage.

Lee created the book, but it was the editor who really polished it. We owe as much to her as we do to Lee for "To Kill a Mockingbird," which has long been regarded a classic of American literature. I know you already know that, but it is the kind of thing that cannot be said too frequently. Its hero, Atticus, has taken on almost mythical qualities. It is for that very reason that "Go Set a Watchman" has evoked such an emotional response.

But "Go Set a Watchman" tells a very human story.

Nearly everyone from "To Kill a Mockingbird" was there, only it was a couple of decades later. Many things had changed. Jean Louise (also known as Scout) had been living far away, but she was back in her Alabama hometown for a vacation visit and clearly still idolized her father. Her discovery of Citizens Council literature in his home caused a crisis for the adult Jean Louise and the child Scout (who happened to inhabit the same body simultaneously) — who had once believed, the reader learned, that she thought she became pregnant because she French–kissed a boy.

NPR's Maureen Corrigan writes that "Go Set a Watchman" is "kind of a mess" that will "forever change the way we read a masterpiece."

That isn't how I see it.

Half a century ago, Lee wrote a masterpiece, and no one thought we would ever see another book with her name on it. Now we have been given another chance to read something new from her, an opportunity to get caught up with the characters who became like old friends for a generation of readers.

In our supercharged, hyper–politically correct environment, I'm certain there will be some people — probably many people — who will be upset that, in "Go Set a Watchman," Harper Lee's sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird," Atticus Finch's attitude about blacks appears to have changed.

And I realize that is a difficult thing for some readers to accept. But accept this: These are Harper Lee's characters. She created them — no matter who inspired them or how much real–life truth was included in her books, it is up to her to do with them as she pleases. It is her story. You may disagree, but what is done with them is not your decision to make, just as it is not your decision which colors an artist uses on his canvas or which notes a musician uses in his composition. It is your decision whether to like it or not — but that is all.

Now, personally, I would prefer that people reach that conclusion on the basis of the book's merits, not what they have been told about it by others. But, unfortunately, you can't make people think for themselves.

I have always understood that Atticus was inspired by Lee's own father. In her original book, perhaps she was examining that moment in her life when she realized that her father was not living up to the standard she had set for him in her mind. In "To Kill a Mockingbird," we were permitted to see the life she had lived as a child and the things that had stayed with her. Was it idealized? Probably. Almost certainly. But, while it may not be a perfect reflection of reality, it is necessary if we are to take away a different lesson from Harper Lee's saga of Maycomb, Alabama, than the one we took from only the snapshot of Scout's childhood.

Few modern writers have been better at character development than Lee. Take, for example, her physical description of Scout's aunt: "There was no doubt about it: Alexandra Finch Hancock was imposing from any angle; her behind was no less uncompromising than her front. Jean Louise had often wondered, but never asked, where she got her corsets. They drew up to her bosom to giddy heights, pinched in her waist, flared out her rear, and managed to suggest that Alexandra's had once been an hourglass figure."

That is the kind of description that could have been written about many of the women I knew in the small Arkansas town where I grew up.

She also makes the fictional Alabama town of Maycomb a character. After a brief description of the town's history — and an explanation why the population hadn't changed much in a century and a half — Lee wrote, "What saved it from becoming another grubby little Alabama community was that Maycomb's proportion of professional people ran high: one went to Maycomb to have his teeth pulled, his wagon fixed, his heart listened to, his money deposited, his mules vetted, his soul saved, his mortgage extended." In a few sentences, Lee irrevocably established how vital the town was in the lives of everyone it touched.

Again, that reminds me of the Arkansas town in which I grew up. It had three colleges in it — all small by most college standards — but it gave the town a special status as a producer of college–educated folks. When I was growing up, it was almost assumed that, if someone local went on to college after finishing high school, it would be to one of the three colleges in town. I think it was that way when I graduated from high school. Even though my hometown has grown considerably, it's probably still that way to an extent.

All the time I was reading "Go Set a Watchman," I was reminded of an episode of "M*A*S*H" in which Hawkeye encouraged Radar, who had always looked up to Hawkeye, to go into Seoul to lose his virginity — and Radar was injured by a mine and wound up in the O.R. at the 4077th. Hawkeye, who operated on Radar, felt so guilty for putting him in that position that he got drunk and then got sick. The next day Radar told Hawkeye that he was disappointed in him, and Hawkeye blew up. "I'm not here for you to admire," he shouted at Radar. "I'm here to pull bodies out of a sausage grinder, if possible without going crazy."

Later Col. Potter was talking to Radar about Hawkeye — who had slipped several notches in Radar's eyes — and he pointed out that the 4077th was a rather small compound and the two of them were bound to bump into each other sooner or later. They might start out talking about the weather or the food in the mess tent and, before long, he would realize that Hawkeye was the same guy he'd been when Radar had Hawkeye on a pedestal.

In fact, Col. Potter said, things might be even better — now that they could see things more eye to eye.