A Return to Maycomb

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For thus hath the LORD said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
Isaiah 21:6

The above passage from the Book of Isaiah is where the title for Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman comes from. The title itself tells us much about the book. The twenty-first chapter of Isaiah for tells the fall of Babylon because of its wickedness. Babylon had once been a shining city admired by all, but it was filled with wickedness: decadence, liars, manipulators, and all sorts of other evils. For Lee, Babylon symbolizes the South. While the watchman would tell of the fall of Babylon in the Book of Isaiah, the Supreme Court has ruled that the South must change in its decision Brown v. Board of Education. The old South can no longer stand and its old principles of “separate but equal” must end. Thus the South follows the fate of the fall of Babylon. Nothing will ever be the same.

Like Isaiah, who is an outsider in Babylon, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is an outsider to her home in Maycomb, Alabama. The twenty-six year old Scout has been away for eight years, first to college then to New York. When she returns to Maycomb in the summer of 1954 or 1955, at first she thinks Maycomb has changed, but not as drastically as it really has. She merely sees the cosmetic changes of an ice cream parlor where the house she grew up in once stood. Her Aunt Alexandra is the woman of he house, not Calpurnia, the black maid who helped raise her and is now too old to work. As all people who go away and come home again, she thinks she knows more than everyone and is more enlightened, though she feels that her father is as enlightened as she is. Atticus is her idol, as he is for all who ever read To Kill a Mockingbird.
Then her world crashes around her when she discovers that her father is part of Maycomb’s Citizens Council. For those of you unfamiliar with the White Citizen’s Councils of the South, they were social organizations similar to the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, but with the sole purpose of maintaining segregation. They formed throughout the South in the aftermath of the Brown decision. When she sees Atticus and her fiancé Henry sitting idly by listening to a speaker deliver a hate filled speech, she becomes physically ill. She feels betrayed by her father and all she thought she held dear. The first half of the book is introducing us to Maycomb after a decade or so has passed since To Kill a Mockingbird; the second half deals with the fallout of Scout’s discovery.
First let me address the provenance of the book, the official story is that Go Set a Watchman was the original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird submitted to the publisher. According to the story, Lee was told that the editor liked the flashbacks to childhood, and she should rewrite the book and focus only on the childhood. Lee did this and it became To Kill a Mockingbird, while Go Set a Watchman was placed in a safety deposit box and basically forgotten until Lee’s lawyer came across it a year or so ago. Others have speculated that this was a failed sequel, which I do not believe and let me tell you why. First of all, while it may read like a sequel, there are parts of this book in which the passages are nearly identical to those in To Kill a Mockingbird. I can see Lee using passages from a first draft in a rewritten final draft, but I cannot see Lee using passages from a first book in the sequel. That would be far too lazy and completely out of character for Lee. I don’t think the question should be “Is this books first draft or a failed sequel?” but should be, “Did Lee’s lawyer manipulate the then 88 year old Lee into publishing a book that she had not wanted to be published?” Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s longtime lawyer, protector, and and sister, is dead, and her young partner is now Lee’s lawyer. Alice, who died in November 2014, wrote in 2011, that Lee “can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” In February 2015, the State of Alabama, through its Human Resources Department, launched an investigation into whether Lee was competent enough to consent to the publishing of Go Set a Watchman. The investigation found that the claims of coercion and elder abuse were unfounded, and, according to Lee’s lawyer, Lee is “happy as hell” with the publication. I not so sure that Lee wasn’t coerced or tricked into publishing the book, but we have to hope it wasn’t against her wishes. There will always be questions surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman, and I doubt we will ever know the truth.image
Second, let me address the nuances and changes of racial attitudes in the book. This has been one of the major criticisms of Go Set a Watchman, that Atticus is a racist in the book but was a champion of black people in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus was a champion of fairness and the law, but there is no doubt he had prejudices. He was a rural white southerner and a product of his times. Remember that Atticus was a legislator during To Kill a Mockingbird. In Alabama in the 1920s, few politicians were elected who were not members of the Klan. I’m not saying it was right, but most of the people in the Klan of the 1920s thought of it as being members of a social club or civic organization, much like the Masons, the Kiwanis, and Civitans. Hugo Black, a Supreme Court justice and champion of civil rights on the bench had been a member of the Klan. Furthermore, most white southerners felt a paternalistic relationship with blacks during the early 20th century, but southerners have always been conservative which means they don’t like change to come quickly. Southern men like Atticus Finch would have felt that southern blacks were not ready for full equality or for desegregation. He would have felt they needed more time. One of my pet peeves is for people to place modern beliefs and ideas on their interpretation of the past. We can look back and say something is wrong and backwards by our way of thinking, but we also must put ourselves in their mindset. To Kill a Mockingbird is very frank about racial attitudes of the South, and the good guys are champions for southern blacks, but Go Set a Watchman is a far more complex and insightful book on the realities of race in the 1950s. Not everything is cut and dry like in To Kill a Mockingbird.


Go Set a Watchman
may never be seen as the masterpiece that To Kill a Mockingbird was, but it has a historical significance far greater than its literary significance. Go Set a Watchman allows us to see the nuances of racial attitudes in Alabama in the 1950s. Whether that is how Calpurnia is portrayed, how Atticus is portrayed, or how Jean Louise is portrayed, the realities and subtleties are portrayed quite vividly. In Go Set a Watchman we get an almost firsthand account of what it was like for Harper Lee to return to Alabama after living in New York City. Jean Louise thinks she has become enlightened through her education and her time in New York City, but the big question is: has she? We get to see her real attitude, and we are fortunate to have Uncle Jack Finch guide us through the subtleties of southern racial attitudes. We like things to be in black and white, but in reality they never are. And that’s what makes Go Set a Watchman a true masterpiece.

I had planned on discussing the parallels of race in the 1950s to gay rights in the 2010s but I’m not up for writing that right now. Hopefully, that will be a post for next week. In the meantime, go out and buy Go Set a Watchman if you haven’t, and give it a chance. I think if you read it objectively and with an open mind, you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. I look forward to a day when someone collects the writings of Harper Lee from the newspapers and journals she contributed to as a student at Huntingdon College and the University of Alabama. I’m not sure that will be anything soon because of copyright and legal issues, but maybe some day. And there has always been the rumor that there really was a second book, Harper Lee’s great race novel, that Lee has refused to allow anyone to see because she was afraid she could never live up to To Kill a Mockingbird again.


P.S. I personally think she already did live up to it with Truman Capote’s
In Cold Blood, which I believe she wrote as she had the talent for it and Capote did not. It was well known that Capote, a childhood friend (Dill in TKM and GSW) was jealous of the success of TKM, and I’ve always suspected that Lee actually wrote most if not all of the book but let Capote put his name on it because she had already decided she wanted out of the limelight.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

7 responses to “A Return to Maycomb

  • PBB

    Having grown up in South Alabama, in the 1950-60s, I think you have done a marvelous job of capturing the differences between the books. I also think that GSW is being much more favorably received now because of the success of TKAM, than it would have been in 1960. There is truth in both books but GSW is much more complex and it tells its truth much more harshly. Excellent post, I have not commented before, but you are thoughtful man and a skilled writer. Thank you for sharing with us.

    • closetprofessor

      Thank you for commenting and for your kind words. I think one of the reasons the book was turned down back then was because it was too honest. It would not have sold many copies or been as popular as TKAM because it is more harsh.

  • jacki perrette

    Oh, man! Your last paragraph! (the PS) I’ve read TKAM with both adults and teens and we ran across the exact opposite…something to the effect that Truman wrote TKAM and that was why Harper never published another novel. I’m not a reader of either of the authors. So, you believe it’s the other way ’round based on your reading?

    I have a few random thoughts generated from your discussion. I agree, that an older Scout as narrator would be less effective. I think the reason TKAM works so well is *because* it is told through the eyes of a child. That allows an objective perspective that an adult would not be capable of. It also is an effective juxtaposition of innocence and worldliness – in the form of the ugliness of hate and prejudice. That perspective also places the reader firmly in the stream of unbiased reasoning. And when Scout is attacked by the villain who precipitated the whole incident in the first place, we couldn’t be more solidly bound to that point of view. It is a perspective that is thrust upon the reader, but so subtly, that we don’t see the magic in it. We feel a sense of nostalgia and a deep sorrow at the senseless loss – both of human life and of Scout (and Gem’s) innocence.

    I’m not sure I could stand to see Atticus’s feet of clay. He is a hero to me – and all the more so because of Gregory Peck’s portrayal in the film. I don’t want to see him fit into the framework of his era. He’s on a pedestal in my mind with labels such as forward-thinking, righteous, rational, and loving carved into the stone.

    So, I’m not sure I will be able to read the new book. But I think it would be obvious who wrote it. The beautiful language and detail Harper wove into TKAM is rich and an intrinsic aspect of the story itself.

    It’s a shame if someone took advantage of Harper. It seems to be an effect of the vagaries of old age. People will readily abuse and take advantage of older adults. Some do become childlike and lose the ability to see things objectively and comprehensively. Despite the cloud over the path this document took to publication, it is still a worthy contribution to Lee’s legacy.

    And now a weird and very random thought. There is a word that springs to my mind every time I think of TKAM – don’t ask me why – and I knew the word before I read it – but nonetheless, here it is: scuppernongs. Very southern and having an authentic, regional sound. No one I know ever uses that word for a variety of grapes. Muscadine, yes, but scuppernong, no.

    Best wishes for another productive week!

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