In his preface to The House of Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne addresses the difference between the novel and the “romance.” The novel “aim[s] at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience.“ The writer of romance, in contrast, “may so manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights, and deepen and enrich the shadows, of the picture.” If Harper Lee’s newest novel is “guilty” of anything, it is of leaning in the direction of romance rather than novel; but if we pronounce it guilty, that sentence must come with two caveats: first, that her previous book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is guilty of precisely the same offense, and second, that if it was good enough for Hawthorne….
Jocelyn McClurg’s review for USAToday seems indicative of most feelings about Go Set a Watchman. While noting that it has its charms, she gives it two stars out of four: “Is it a great or even very good novel? No.” She goes on to say that it lacks Mockingbird’s “riveting courtroom drama, its page-turning pacing, its genius structure.” (Adam Gopnik, writing for The New Yorker, likewise calls the book a “failure as a novel.”) In a related article USAToday felt compelled to consider the question of whether Lee “has all her marbles.” And in a Facebook post I came across yesterday, someone suggested the actual title should have been “My Excellent Caretaker Deserves My Entire Fortune.”
In most reviews, the central complaint seems to have less to do with the novel’s “structure,” and more with its treatment of the man whom Mockingbird turned into perhaps the most heroic figure in all of American literature, Atticus Finch. “Distressing” and “Disturbing” seem the words of the day:
Go Set a Watchmen is not a perfect book by any means. It does, as Kakutani suggests, rush the ending. Its messages are sometimes couched in too much dialogue, where Mockingbird’s are allowed to unfold through the action. But it is likewise filled with delightful character sketches, charming reminiscences from Scout’s youth, and a thorough portrait of Maycomb (though Maycomb at a very different moment in its history than that in Mockingbird. Consider, for example, the discussion of television that occurs here). And if it doesn’t have a court case to sensationalize the drama, it does have a very workable structure involving Jean Louise coming to terms with her role as a woman, a Southerner, and a daughter, all three strains coming together nicely in her struggle with her father’s racism.
Do we mourn the loss of Atticus as a hero? Perhaps. Yet this version of Atticus is perfectly in line with the Atticus we knew before – a white Southern lawyer working in the South during the Depression. It would be far more unlikely, in fact, if he were anything other than what he is in Watchman. I can think of no white figure during this time period who fought unequivocally for white equality, and very few Southerners of political stature who have done so since. Not FDR. Not Kennedy. Not Johnson. The Atticus of Mockingbird believes in justice and kindness, believes in them so strongly he puts his children at risk to fight for them. And we chose to believe for all those years that these principles were enough to make him a symbol for civil rights. But consider the novel’s central metaphor, the mockingbird itself. Atticus defends the bird by noting, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” A stirring metaphor in some ways, but not one that credits the mockingbird for more than singing and staying out of trouble.
In fact, in correcting our assumptions, Go Set a Watchman may make of the pair a more interesting work of literature than we had before. For if we are to really understand Lee’s intention in publishing this second novel (beyond the possibility that she has lost her marbles), we must see the two as part of a whole. Mockingbird is written through the eyes of a child (to be sure the child telling it is now an adult, and we hear her voice both chiding and loving Scout throughout, but it remains the child’s story). The novel tells not just of how Atticus defends Tom Robinson from spurious accusations, but how Scout and Jem discover their father’s value as a man. In the opening scene, for example, we find Jem complaining that his father – an older man in comparison to Jem’s friends’ fathers – won’t play football. Miss Maudie steps in to remind Jem that her father has other talents – in short, he is the protector of justice and the law. Over the course of the novel, the children come to idolize their father as he demonstrates these qualities. Go Set a Watchman offers the other side of Atticus Finch, the side that has chosen to use another law, the tenth amendment, as a battering ram for protecting his way of life. But not only does the publication of this second novel demonstrate the law has multiple sides, it neatly bookends Mockingbird by presenting us with an adult Scout who must – as all children must – undo the overblown image of her father she first created all those years ago.
Along the way, Lee presents us with a story that is about more than race. It is equally about a young woman who establishes herself as separate from her father, her brother, and her schoolgirl crush; it is about what it means to grow into adulthood, to separate from your own parents and your own home and yet carry them still within you; it is about that struggle that many Southerners face when they leave home, between recognizing the deep flaws in the place you call home, and feeling called on to defend things you despise because it is, in the end, your home.
Faulkner addressed this last motif in more sophisticated ways than Lee. Near the end of Absalom, Absolom, Quintin Compson, sitting in his cold Harvard rooms far from home, is goaded by his northern companion: “ ‘Tell me one more thing. Why do you hate the South?’ ‘"I don’t hate it,“ Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; ‘I don’t hate it,’ he said. I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!" Quintin’s confusion about his own home carries more pathos than Jean Louise’s. Yet Lee’s novel manages to confront us with the very same difficulty. To some extent, her acceptance of her father’s bigoted opinions at the end of Watchman, her willingness to allow him to hold opinions different from her own frustrates us more than those bigoted opinions themselves. We want easy answers – simply reject racism as an evil. We continue to search for similarly easy answers now – “terrorism is wrong”; “the Civil War was about slavery.” Jean Louise’s initial rejection of her father’s racism, however, comes at the price of rejecting her own family (a kind of re-enactment of the dilemma faced by Southerners during the Civil War). She, like many of us, ultimately cannot make that rejection, but must find a more complicated space to inhabit.
So Watchman may not be quite as sophisticated as Faulkner. But in the end, perhaps that comes down to the whole question of “popular culture.” One complaint about the popular is that it telegraphs its messages, makes its points a little too obvious. It gives us simple metaphors like a mockingbird, or a sensational case to keep us paying attention. It may paint its picture in broad strokes. But then maybe Watchman is, in the end, a romance in the sense Hawthorne meant it. And maybe so is Mockingbird, or, for that matter The Scarlet Letter or My Antonia, or The Great Gatsby.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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