Posted by: gdevi | July 22, 2015

Book Review – Harper Lee’s Song of Experience: Go Set a Watchman (2015)

The publishing industry’s build-up to the 2015 publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman pushed this unexpected second novel by Lee into the midst of several controversies, none of which are really that clear, evident, or relevant. There are ambitious agents in the melange; greedy family members, more agents, money, coercion, and somewhere in there, there is that old canard that Truman Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. None of these are important. None of the publishing industry hysteria will help you appreciate this simple novel. You can dismiss all of the scribblers and the talking heads, and you would not be missing anything. Really.

The facts that matter are as follows: Go Set a Watchman is not the second novel. It is the first novel. Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman in 1957. When she took it to her editor, Tay Hohoff at Lippincott, the editor told her that while the novel had flashes of brilliance in it, it was not, for various reasons, ready for publication. Fact: the novel was not ready for publication in 1957. However, Hohoff was particularly impressed by Lee’s narrative about Scout’s childhood memories. Hohoff advised Lee to write a novel about Scout’s childhood. Lee followed Hohoff’s advice, and after several drafts, the new novel (the second novel) To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Lee received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel the following year, in 1961.

Go Set a Watchman would indeed have been a difficult book to publish in 1957. To Kill a Mockingbird was better suited for 1957. Nothing much happens by way of plot in Go Set a Watchman. Jean Louise, as Scout is now called, is in her mid twenties, and comes home to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York to visit her father Atticus Finch and the rest of her family. Atticus is now in his seventies, and still practicing law. Scout’s brother Jem has died of a heart attack, and their friend, Dill (modeled after Truman Capote, a childhood friend of Harper Lee) has moved to Italy. Calpurnia does not work in the family kitchen. The old homestead has been sold, and Atticus now lives in a new house with new neighbors. It is the mid 1950s, we have to assume from internal textual evidence. (In other words, Lee’s original novel was historically contemporary and current.)

Atticus is assisted in his practice by Henry Clinton, family friend and a suitor to Jean Louis. The novel, reminiscent of a novel of manners, captures Jean Louise’s observations and interactions with her family members, which become increasingly fractious as days go on. It is a good read, though the text could have been better edited in places. Lee makes these conflicts surface organically throughout the scope of the novel, whether it is visiting the old Finch homestead with Henry, or helping Aunt Alexandra in the kitchen to put on a coffee for the society ladies.

All the minor off-moments come together in a big conflagration and ideological indictment in the resounding final chapters of the novel. It is the Freudian return of the repressed. Lee weights Jean Louise’s ideological and philosophical outburst with the emotional scarring and disillusionment of a child confronting the ugly contours of their favorite parent’s psyche. To see your father as a racist bigot late in your life and his life must be crushing to sensitive children.

We might think of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman as Harper Lee’s “songs of Innocence” and “songs of experience.” The English poet William Blake’s companion poems, The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience published in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, present two perspectives on humanity, both in our individual and collective consciousness. In the songs we sing in our innocence, we are not aware of corruption. In the songs we sing in our experience, we are aware of this corruption. Thus these are songs about two distinct states of mind.  In Blake’s poems, the songs of experience create a portal through which we can perceive the corruption in and around us. Thus, Blake says in “The Human Abstract” from The Songs of Experience, that the tree of knowledge, which caused humanity its fall from paradise is rooted in the human mind:

The Gods of the earth and sea

Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree

But their search was all in vain:

There grows one in the Human Brain

The contrastive states of innocence and experience might appear Manichean, in the best Christian sense of the term in Blake’s poems, but there it is: there is good and there is evil. In other words, what is Knowledge? It is the birth and awareness of a moral conscience. In Go Set a Watchman, the adult Scout perceives clearly for the first time the racist prejudice and bigotry of her family, the celebrated Finches: her father, Atticus Finch, the lone white lawyer who defended a black man in Maycomb, Alabama; her aunt Alexandra; her uncle Jack; and Henry, the relentless suitor.

The novel is Scout’s song of experience; a sobering and shocking polemic of disgust, disillusionment and discontent at the racist ethos of her community. This is why the book could not be published in 1957. Childhood memories are much nicer to read, if we are lucky, and Scout was. Lee took her title for her first novel (now, her second novel) from Isaiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

William Blake is mentioned twice in Go Set a Watchman. Its first occurrence is when Jean Louise is on the train back home to Alabama from New York, and tries to remember the lines to the confederate poet Sidney Lanier’s poem The Song of the Chattahoochee as the train crosses the Chattahoochee river. “Piping down the valleys wild?” (5), Jean Louise asks herself, and shakes her head negatively. These lines, as we know, belong to the poem that opens Blake’s Songs of Innocence, where a child nesting on a cloud instructs the poet to “sing thy songs of happy cheer,” much like Lee’s editor asked her to write about Scout’s childhood memories. The poet concludes thusly:

And I made a rural pen,

And I stain’d the water clear,

And I wrote my happy songs

Every child may joy to hear.

It is almost uncanny how Lee has analogized her predicament with Go Set a Watchman and the American literary establishment with this one throwaway allusion to Blake’s enduring postulations about the contortions of the human mind, and the publication history of this novel. In Lee’s case, Lee had begun with her song of experience, and was advised to change it to songs of innocence. The world was not ready for Go Set a Watchman in 1957. Is the world ready for Go Set a Watchman in 2015?  Are we ready to hear Jean Louise tell her father, Atticus Finch, “I despise you and everything you stand for” (253)? Yes, I think we are. For instance, this week, a federal grand jury charged Dylann Roof, the man who killed nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, because they were black with federal hate crime charges, many of them open to the death penalty.

Henry, Jean Louise’s suitor, makes the second allusion to Blake.  While driving back Jean Louise to Atticus’s house from the train depot, Henry reflects on his close professional and personal friendship with Atticus Finch. Atticus Finch had taken the orphaned boy under his wings, encouraged him to study law, and had made him an assistant in his law practice.  Henry explains his “claim” on Jean Louise by citing a legal clause about possession: Tom, Tom, the chimney sweep’s son. . . .The boy found a brooch” (53). Tom, the chimney sweep’s son is Tom Dacre from Blake’s poem The Chimney Sweeper from both Innocence and Experience. In the Songs of Innocence, little Tom Dacre allows his head to be shaved before they push him up the chimney so that the soot will not spoil his white hair. In the Songs of Experience, the little Chimney Sweep curses the parents who go to church to pray while enslaving him to a life as a chimney sweeper. Little Tom is the exploited child who is powerless to fight against the world of corrupt adults. But in a famous case in Britain that has set the precedent for possession laws, Armory v. Delamirie, a chimney sweep had found a jewel while cleaning a chimney, and the court ruled that the chimney sweep may keep the jewel if unclaimed by the owner.

The chimney sweeper allusion is most apropos of Henry, a poor white man trying to marry up in the class-conscious Maycomb society, which despises his kind. Jean Louise is his ticket, he thinks mistakenly, to the upper crust of the Maycomb society. But Jean Louise is no lost jewel in a chimney, and Henry Clinton does not possess her. Lee portrays Jean Louise as a morally upright, independent and ethical young woman who makes it categorically clear to Henry that she will not marry him after he defends his support and participation in Maycomb’s  segregationist agenda.

“Henry, how can you live with yourself?”

“It’s comparatively easy. Sometimes I just don’t vote on my convictions, that’s all.”

“Hank, we are poles apart. I don’t know much but I know one thing. I know I can’t live with you. I cannot live with a hypocrite.” (234)

Unlike Jean Louise, who finds the racism, bigotry, and hypocrisy of the Maycomb society immoral, Henry accepts them and wants a place in that very society.  Henry and Jean Louise represent two ways the white society responded to racist segregation in the south in the 40s and 50s: the poor whites who want a seat at the master’s table and will do anything to get there, and those who will not eat at that table, come what may, and become exiled as a result of that stance.

Lee’s descriptive powers, which made every stone and blade of grass in the Maycomb countryside come alive in To Kill a Mockingbird takes second place to unequivocal dialogues in Go Set a Watchman. Picturesque nostalgia is replaced by voice. Some of Lee’s finest writing is given over to Jean Louise’s observations about the women in her community; the women whose every word begins with what their husbands, the Johns and Jacks and Walters told them about world affairs; the coffee parties; the bridge parties; the character assassinations of those who don’t fraternize with them; the shabby affairs et al.  It is hard to say whether these observations would have been welcome in 1957.

In significant ways, then, Go Set a Watchman helps us understand the world in which To Kill a Mockingbird is set.  When we read the trial of Tom Robinson, the one-armed black man charged with violently overpowering and raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell, daughter of the town-drunk in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the horrific outcome of that trial in the community, we are naturally forced to conclude that while segregation and racism affected one portion of the white society in the south, there were also pockets where racial equality was honored.  Why else would Atticus Finch go against his entire community and defend a black man accused of the rape of a white woman?

We find the answer to this apparent contradiction in the final confrontation between Jean Louise and Atticus Finch. I am a Jeffersonian Democrat, Atticus Finch tells his daughter; do you know what that means?

“. . . so far in my experience, white is white, and black is black.  . . . What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’ll be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state government run by people who don’t know how to run ’em? Do you want this town run by–now wait a minute–Willoughby is a crook, we know that, but do you know of any Negro who knows as much as Willoughby? Zeebo’d probably be mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money?  . . . you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. . .  . They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of ’em voting than ever before. Then the NAACP stepped in with its fantastic demands and shoddy ideas of government–can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?” (246-247)

Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson at his rape trial because it was a good case, and not because he saw Tom Robinson falsely accused as a rapist by a desperate woman who wanted to leverage the racist prejudices of her society for her own ends.  African-Americans need White fathers; be it the Founding Fathers, or the Atticus Finches of the world–this is the ideological and philosophical ground that sanctions and maintains segregation. The autonomous, empowered black man or woman, or even such paths to autonomy or empowerment–NAACP, for instance–strikes at the root of this paternalistic structure of the old south. Lee’s novel is a tendentious exposition of this structural problem intrinsic to all segregated societies.

The title, Go Set a Watchman is a call to each one of us to align our conscience and respond correctly to what we see and perceive.  Jean Louise hears it in church, and her Uncle Jack explains it to her: “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.”  Lee winds down the resolution in the narrative in the direction of the family story and the conflict between Jean Louise and Atticus, rather than the social and historical issues of segregation raised by the novel.  Atticus Finch’s stature is shattered in Jean Louise’s eyes; the child will live with her own conscience now rather than the one bequeathed by her father. Henry is reduced to nothing as well in Jean Louise’s eyes.

Such a resolution must have been shocking in 1957, but the story Lee tells in this novel is not an old tale. For obvious reasons, 2015 is the most fitting publication date for Go Set a Watchman, because it lays bare slavery’s astonishing arrogance in denying a group of people their humanity, or, rather acknowledging their humanity only as a matter of law.

—————————————————————————

July 30th update: The short and sweet version for the local newspaper here.

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Responses

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this insightful post! I’m a huge Blake enthusiast and am the writer/illustrator of a graphic novel about Blake called “The Poet and the Flea” (http://thepoetandtheflea.wordpress.com). I was debating whether or not to read “Go Set a Watchman,” and this article might convince me to do so. 🙂 Thanks again, G. E.

    • You are most welcome. Lee’s book is a good read. I am in the midst of finishing an article with a crushing deadline, but I quickly reviewed your website, and your Blake work looks most beautiful and interesting. I hope to familiarize myself with your work more in the days to come. All good wishes– Gayatri.

  2. Gayatri,

    I enjoyed your review of “Go Set a Watchman.” I found the article informative,
    interesting, and the best real critical review that I have read on the book. Other reviews struck me
    as not book reviews at all, but were more like movie reviews. A common theme was that Watchman wasn’t as good as Mocking Bird. One terrible review (The Washington Post) was critical of Atticus like this was a news story not literature. It seems to me, that most reviewers got hung-up on subject matter and didn’t review the book at all. Not one, except you, reviewed Watchman on its own merits.

    Thanks for pointing out that Watchman was Harper Lee’s first novel. Knowing that Mocking Bird was second allows me to appreciate both more and Lee’s genius. She did it. She took the editor’s rejection, and crafted a Pulitzer Prize winner – amazing. The contrast you present in your review very insightful and interesting.

    A personal note, friends and family who have read Watchman have all enjoyed the book and it has sent a couple of us back to reread Mockingbird.

    Again, I enjoyed your review. Thanks.

  3. Thank you, Mr. P. I am glad you enjoyed the review. Take care. GD.

  4. Thank you very much for the review. I appreciate it as a translator and as a reader. “Watchman” may not be the greatest novel ever written but it certainly does not deserve the rough panning it experienced in media. I consider it deeper, more meaningful than “Mockingbird”. More difficult. Less polished. Less black and white (no pun intended), rather gray in the way it portrays the characters. And I like it.
    Thanks again,
    dmac

    • You are welcome; yes, less polished and more difficult is a good way to characterize the book. Thanks again. GD.

  5. Wow. I am writing a study guide for Go Set a Watchman and I am on Chapter 5. I recognized the allusion to Blake, but without my library with me (as I am on holiday), I looked up the Blake poem on the internet and bumped into your blog. Your analysis is insightful, deeply perceptive, well-supported, and one of the first fair-minded responses to the Watchman that I have happened upon. In fact, the reason I set out to write a free study guide was to encourage my friends and colleagues to study the book and keep an open mind to its value independent of Mockingbird as well as in relation to Mockingbird. I am going to post a link to your blog in my study guide for Chapter 5. The study guide (Chapters 1-4 so far) is found at http://gosetawatchmanstudyguide.com/chapters/
    Sincerely,
    Angelina DiLiberto Allen

    • You are welcome, Angelina. Please feel free to link to the review. I will check out the study guide; a useful idea. Take care. Gayatri


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