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“Go Set a Watchman” threatens the status of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and makes it harder to teach. And this is a very good thing.

July 23, 2015

Atticus

Sorry to be so slow with my 2 cents worth.  I’m sure the whole issue of how to read this “new” Harper Lee novel has been all clevered out by cleverer folks than I by now. But I’ve a few thoughts.

I’ve been slow because before I could start reading Go Set a Watchman, I felt I had to reread To Kill a Mockingbird -something I haven’t done in a great many years.  There’s something about its extraordinary ubiquity as a secondary school set text that has long made the idea of rereading it seem profoundly off putting.   Having to carry such an immense quantity of pedagogic baggage has been a sad, sorry and unfair burden for any book to carry.  It’s been taught in so many schools for so long, it is a wonder that there is any life left in it at all, that it hasn’t just become a machine for producing respectful essays.  So I set myself to rereading it with no very great enthusiasm.

But here’s the magical thing.  Because I don’t live in a bubble, I knew a fair bit of the Atticus Finch controversy generated by Go Set a Watchman before I started to reread To Kill a Mockingbird.  And just knowing something of this controversy turned the Mockingbird into a more refreshing read.  For the first time, To Kill a Mockingbird seemed strange and uncertain.  Atticus Finch was not longer oracular within his book.  He was no longer giving me the answers.  He was no longer a transcendental signifier.

Now there have been challenges to Atticus Finch’s oracular wisdom before now.  Most notably, it’s been pointed out that the way he undermines witness testimony is, to say the very least, cognate with a sinister tradition of undermining rape testimony.  But this necessary line of inquiry lacked the mass media attention that only an “event” could organise.  The peculiar publication of Go Set A Watchman is this very event.

Go Set A Watchman is not, of course, an intended sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.  Rather, To Kill a Mockingbird is a successful prequel to the unsuccessful Go Set a Watchman.  Written before To Kill a Mockingbird, it was presented to a publisher who was unsure of its coherence but liked the flashback sequences set during the narrator’s childhood. The publisher was right.  Inside Go Set a Watchman there was a far superior novel trying to get out.  But Go Set a Watchman had to be put to death (back in the 50s) if To Kill a Mockingbird was ever to be given life.

By any known literary standard Go Set a Watchman is a far inferior book to To Kill a Mockingbird.  It doesn’t have much of a plot, it has far less atmosphere, it is wordier and more gauche.  Some of it collapses into cliche and too much of it is ruined by worse than cliche – the over studied avoidance of cliche.  Much of the book consists merely of arranging the lighting and sweeping the stage for some set piece political debates towards the end, and the political debates are not very impressive or illuminating.  Only rarely does the prose achieve what To Kill a Mockingbird does pretty much all the time – employ words and sentences that are strange and startling yet natural and inevitable at one and the same time.

It’s an eerie read.  A book that was intended to introduce readers to Maycomb Alabama is instead a book that is read by people who are sure they already know it.  And when Jean Louise (Scout no more) feels betrayed by Atticus and his literal place on a racist platform, she’s sort of speaking for all of us.

The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever  known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a  gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.

There’s nothing worse than feeling mugged by Gregory Peck.

Of course, there’s some controversy as to whether Go Set a Watchman represents any kind of intended or authoritative part of an extended narrative.  We know that this 1950s manuscript has been published with no sort of revision and there has been some dispute as to whether this 2015 represents anything that can be considered a conscious artistic choice on the part of Harper Lee, who is no longer with us, and who was no longer giving interviews by the time this pseudo-sequel was published.

Leaving the vexed question of authorial intention aside, however, there is the question of whether the racist Atticus of the 1950s can be extrapolated from the “liberal” Atticus of the 1930s.  And I would contend that he can.  I would read Go Set a Watchman as a possible future for Atticus, though not an inevitable one.

Because most significantly, Go Set A Watchman forces the reader to acknowledges the limitations of 1930s Atticus.  We are reminded of how 1930s Atticus is unfailingly patient and polite to racists in To Kill a Mockingbird.  We note the lack of any urgency in his own modest attempts at anti-racist engagement.  If Atticus was to be essentially the same character in the 1950s as he was in the 1930s, he would not be a civil rights activist.  If 1930s Atticus had been around in the 1850s, he would not have been an abolitionist.  1930s Atticus was caught up in a moment and played his part well and memorably, but if political progress ever depended on 1930s Atticus Finches, the cause of Civil Rights would have been glacial in its progress, possibly creeping as far south as North Carolina by the second decade of the twenty-first century but getting nowhere near Alabama. Generations would be lost.

(Perhaps an easier way of distinguishing the Atticuses – or Atticii – would be to refer the 1930s Atticus as Gregory Peck and the GSAW Atticus as Tommy Lee Jones, as it seems a moral certainty to me that Tommy Lee Jones will play Atticus in the film version of Go Set a Watchman)

Let’s be honest, is it at all plausible that a man who was relatively liberal in the 1930s (but who nonetheless asserts that it’s impossible to try and change people too quickly and you need to just leave people be for most of the time) could, by the 1950s, confronted by an urgent political movement such as the NAACP, become a defensive reactionary and segregationist?  Could a man who tried to save Tom Robinson in 1935 be convinced twenty years later that Tom Robinson’s family were insufficiently evolved and adult to exercise full citizenship?  Of course it could happen.  Of course it did happen.  Gregory Pecks became Tommy Lee Jones with commonplace frequency.

So,  to answer the nagging question.  Has this troubling and inferior novel, Go Set a Watchman, in some sense, besmirched To Kill a Mockingbird‘s status as a classic work of literature?

You bet it has.

And a good thing too.  I there’s one thing that classic works of literature need, it’s besmirching.  Thanks to Go Set a Watchman, To Kill a Mockingbird is harder to revere, harder to love, and yet far more exciting and demanding to read.  The success of To Kill a Mockingbird as a school text is, in truth, inseparable from its calcification into a collection of pious orthodoxies.  From now on, it will be harder to feel that quoting Atticus is the fail-safe means of acquiring a passing grade.  Tommy Lee Jones haunts Gregory Peck from now on, and the shadow of the inferior book now haunts a literary masterpieces forcing the reader act as her own judge.

Go Set a Watchman is a zombie novel.  It has returned from the dead but it does not “live” as such.  It’s purpose is to restore To Kill a Mockingbird, restore it from heavily capitalised “Literature” to complicated life itself.

As Dr Finch (a “new” character remarks to Jean Louise)

… no you, Miss, born with a your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s.  As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God.  You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings…  You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.

Daddy’s gone and he’s not coming back.  Gregory Peck is very dead.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Gregory Peck was born 100 years ago today – so I’m re-blogging this.

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