Faith Works 8-15-15
"Go Set a Watchman" Asks Us To Look
Harper Lee's long awaited second novel takes its title from Isaiah 21:6: "For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth."
The church in Maycomb where Jean Louise Finch returns, a young woman of 26, is where she hears these words, but not where she finds clear vision. As happens today in many churches, including where I preach, the Bible may speak to a listener entirely separate from where the sermon goes… and that's fine. Sometimes it's even better.
"Go Set a Watchman" is, to sum up my own reaction, a remarkable production of a first time novelist. Yes, I said this was Harper Lee's second novel, as published. Apparently what we received this summer was her first full-length written fiction, of which Tay Hohoff, her editor in 1957, said "the spark of the true writer flashed in every line."
That is a true statement. It is also true that Hohoff felt there was an even better book in Harper Lee, and led her through repeated drafts, which culminated three years later in "To Kill a Mockingbird." What could confuse is that the earlier novel, published second, takes place later than the setting of the first.
I think many reviewers have overthought that complication. If "Go Set a Watchman" had come out ten years (or twenty, or thirty) after "Mockingbird," and to be perfectly fair had received a bit more loving attention from a Tay Hohoff or other thoughtful editor in the last third or so, I think it would have been welcomed as a worthy and equally weighty follow-up. The two books together read well as a unit, something I wanted to do before writing anything about the one.
It had been a very long time since I'd read "Mockingbird," and I was acutely aware of the presence of Gregory Peck and Mary Badham and Robert Duvall across the printed pages. The 1962 classic movie version of the story has, for many of us, swamped our recollections of the book.
I'd never tell you to forget the movie, and we can't. It was a very important movie for many of us in the 1960's, in darkened school auditoriums or late night rebroadcasts, helping Americans think about racism and community in new and personal ways. The town of Maycomb is quintessential Alabama, but also recognizable in almost any corner of the country; what happened there in the story, film and novel alike, helped make connections between what the nation saw in newspaper headlines and TV footage, and the places where we live.
But the moral heroism of Atticus Finch was also what many of us "white Americans" deeply desired to see writ large, for ourselves and for all of us. An admirable, principled lawyer and politician who taught children to think about what it meant to walk in someone else's shoes, and who said when asked why he did the unpopular thing that "I do my best to love everybody."
That lovely, loving man is present as Scout's father in the book, but he is intensified and magnified in the film. Gregory Peck is saintly and confident in his goodness in ways that the Atticus Finch on the page is not, quite. And the lines between the middle aged father Atticus in "Mockingbird" and the elderly leading citizen Mr. Finch in "Watchman" are, to me, quite clear, and compelling.
The older Atticus is burdened with years, with physical pain, and with concern for his community. He is also a racist.
As am I. As are most of you reading this. If we make, consciously and unconsciously, assumptions about individuals based on stereotypes about groups, if we have sweeping generalizations in our hearts and minds that tend to be the first layer we see of people in front of us, we're dealing with racism. In 1957, Harper Lee wanted Alabamians and Americans to see this, and talk about it.
"Watchman" probably couldn't have been published in 1957. She and her editor worked back to a younger Scout, and a story more in keeping with the needs of 1960, and we got "Mockingbird." The fact that she wrote the more burdened and weary Atticus first, to my mind, only heightens Harper Lee's achievement.
Atticus says things in "Watchman" that are both racist, and utterly in keeping with who he is said to be: a man who wants justice in his community, equal treatment before the law for everyone regardless of race, and as to people of other races… well, some of the quotes most disturbing to folks who say they don't like the idea that this, too, is Atticus Finch: they're things that Abraham Lincoln said, too.
We should take both Abe and Atticus in sum, and see them in full. They are, for good or ill, who many of us are at our best. And who should want to do better.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about books that have helped you see more clearly at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.