I had a lot of good reasons for not wanting to read this book. Even before all the pearl-clutching reviews came out bemoaning the racism of a beloved character, before the stories that pointed out how we’ve always misunderstood the race component of To Kill a Mockingbird [TKAM] anyway, I suspected that a sequel to a classic novel was bound to disappoint. And the strange circumstances of its publication, after decades of the author and her sister saying it never would be, further dampened any interest in reading Go Set a Watchman [GSAW]. But then a friend read it, loved it and encouraged/hounded me into reading it. I will admit, I found it far more interesting than I had expected it to be, but it was also sort of aggravating.
Go Set a Watchman, set in the mid-50s South, is a coming of age story that features disillusionment, disappointment, elitism, and racism. Miss Jean Louise Finch, aka Scout, has returned home to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit. Jean Louise has lived in New York City for a few years since graduating college (although details of her life there remain a mystery). During her short stay back home, her entire world is turned on its head. Within days, Jean Louise discovers that her childhood friend and perhaps fiancé Hank and her father Atticus are active in the Maycomb County Citizens Council, a group comprising most of the white men from the area. The council was formed in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education for the purpose of “defending” Maycomb against blacks, the NAACP, integration, etc. Jean Louise is disgusted to the point of becoming physically ill when she hears what the white supremacist speaker at their meeting has to say. Her disillusionment and feeling of alienation from her community and family are exacerbated by conversations with her Aunt Alexandra and with the young women of her social circle in Maycomb. Alexandra is shocked to find that Jean Louise has visited their former housekeeper Calpurnia (who gives Jean Louise a formal and chilly reception); white people do not visit Negroes. Alexandra says,
… we’ve encouraged ’em to better themselves, they’ve gotten civilized, but my dear — that veneer of civilization’s so thin that a bunch of uppity Yankee Negroes can shatter a hundred years’ progress in five….
No ma’am, after the thanks they’ve given us for looking after ’em, nobody in Maycomb feels much inclined to help ’em when they get in trouble now.
At the morning coffee that Alexandra hosts for Jean Louise’s return, one of the young women Jean Louise knew from their school says that she and her husband visited New York and didn’t know how Jean Louise could stand it; she actually ate sitting next to a black person in a restaurant! Jean Louise, who considers herself “color blind” when it comes to race, responds that it’s really not a problem for her:
You aren’t aware of them. You work with them, eat by and with them, ride the buses with them, and you aren’t aware of them unless you want to be.
On the face of it, this is supposed to show that Jean Louise is far more liberal minded and progressive than Maycomb folk, but I cringed when I read it. Jean Louise’s statement reveals not so much an admirable color blindness as an obliviousness. Jean Louise does not have and has not had friends who are people of color. She does not know their struggles in a direct way. She doesn’t understand that even with Calpurnia, the housekeeper who was like a mother to her, the relationship was one-sided. Calpurnia met the Finches on their territory and terms. While Cal loved Jem and Scout, they didn’t know much about her family at all. Jean Louise believes in the equality of all people and supports integration, but that fight is not part of her life, it’s abstract and not concrete.
Jean Louise’s obliviousness extends to class issues as well. Hank, whose roots are “white trash,” has to explain to her that there are different rules for privileged folk like the Finches and the rest of Maycomb. Hank has worked hard to succeed, but as he explains to Jean Louise, if he wants to live and work in Maycomb, he essentially has to go along to get along; he has to be involved in the Citizens Council if he wants to win elected office and he doesn’t think it’s such a big deal.
Sometimes I just don’t vote my convictions, that’s all.
The one character who seems to understand Jean Louise’s turmoil is her Uncle Jack, Atticus’ brother. Jack is an eccentric who enjoys bringing obscure literary and historical references into his conversations with his niece. While there were elements to their relationship that I found annoying, Jack is the one character who seems to share views similar to Jean Louise’s (and I suspect that the Atticus of TKAM is a mix of Jack and Atticus from GSAW). The final blow-out involving Atticus, Jean Louise and Jack was rather simplistic. Some very complex family issues seem to get resolved quickly and easily, and the characters seem flat at the end. This is a shame because one of the things I liked in the body of the novel were the flashbacks that fleshed out Jean Louise’s relationships with all of these people; the reader could sense why Jean Louise felt such strong bonds with her community and deep love for Hank, Atticus and Jack and why she felt so devastated by their later actions. I suspect the reason Harper Lee’s editor suggested she write about Jean Louise’s youth is because of the warmth and depth of those flashback passages.
Setting a coming of age story against the backdrop of racism is a tricky business, and Lee was more successful at it with TKAM than with GSAW. Certainly, her story telling is much better and more polished with TKAM. Yet what strikes me as a 50-year-old (and did not as a 16-year-old reading TKAM for the first time) is that none of Lee’s main characters in either of her books are black. They are peripheral figures in both of her novels, passive and usually voiceless. The main white characters talk a lot about race and “negroes,” and in GSAW Atticus gets Jean Louise to concede that blacks are “backward” in an advanced civilization. While the child Scout’s cluelessness about race is understandable, the adult Jean Louise’s (and Harper Lee’s?) obliviousness is alarming, especially when Jean Louise, a white character, self-identifies as “color blind.” I don’t think white folks are in a position to make the judgment as to whether they are color blind. If nothing else, Go Set a Watchman demonstrates that conversations about race relations continue to go nowhere when white people do the talking instead of listening.