Title: Go Set a Watchman
Authors: Harper Lee
Publisher: William Heinemann
Price: Rs 799
The pre-publication media blitz about Harper Lee’s second novel has ensured that Go Set a Watchman will never be judged on its own terms; its literary stature and socio-historical re-contextualising of Lee’s old characters from Maycomb, Alabama, will not be dissociated from To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s place in the canon was established in 1960 with the appearance of the book that gave the world Atticus Finch, and although her disappearance from public view made her literary America’s greatest “one-book-wonder” for the next half-century, Mockingbird would become a school textbook, and Atticus a household name. Setting aside the story about the discovery of the manuscript of Watchman — since such stories are almost always a part of the myth-making tailored to push a “sequel” — and the reasons why 89-year-old Lee felt the urge to destroy her own legend, this is, indeed, the original draft of Mockingbird. As such, Watchman cannot but be read in constant reference to its famous predecessor. But therein also lies every danger Lee is challenging her reader to confront.
Reading Watchman, which is loosely edited, one appreciates the call taken by Lee’s editors in asking her to abandon the draft and re-conceive the story from the perspective of a young “Scout” Finch, pushing back the timeline to the Depression-era South. This was not the case of a Gordon Lish creating a Raymond Carver. Mockingbird captured a socio-individual battle at a moment in time and in a particular context that not only left a hero in its wake who would be appropriated by the civil rights movement and a larger reading public in a changing country but also universalised small-town Alabama’s story into that of the national struggle.
The publicity about Watchman has also ensured that the reader comes to the book fully aware that her hero has been morally shrunk into a bigot, who subscribes to every prejudice of the world he lives in — Atticus, at 72 in Watchman, is also struck by rheumatoid arthritis. But bigot is a strong word, and given that Watchman was written before Mockingbird — at least the essential text — albeit set 20-odd years later, in the 1950s, we may ask ourselves if this is Atticus as originally imagined by Lee. In which case, it is not a question of how and why the author chose to make him degenerate and embittered, but how she turned a man fully defined and limited by his times into a saint who said “equal rights for all, special privileges for none”, in defending a handicapped black youth against the false accusation of raping a young white girl.
That leads us closest to the key to read Watchman intelligently, even with Mockingbird peering over our shoulder. The two Atticuses and the two books should not be conflated but allowed to exist as fully independent works. Once H.L Mencken had damned the intellectual fallowness of the South in his 1917 essay “The Sahara of the Bozart”, writers of the Southern Renaissance in the 1920s-30s had to abandon the post-Reconstruction South’s Antebellum nostalgia and address, head on, its burden of history and memory. These writers also understood that the jettisoning of romance did not imply a complete literary divorce with tradition. The South’s history and its reality were too complex to justify a thorough Mencken-like dismissal. No society changes overnight; and literature can seldom afford the risk of tying itself up in knots trying to advance the arrival of one yet to be.
Where Watchman succeeds is in bringing us to adulthood, conditioned as we were by the sharper but black-and-white insight of young Scout. The maturing of character and reader works itself into the details. Scout now uses her real name, Jean Louise. Her brother Jem is dead. Her love interest is a new character called Henry Clinton, her childhood friend and Atticus’s assistant. In many ways, Watchman does to Mockingbird what The Catcher in the Rye did to American self-perception. A young Holden Caulfield was Huck Finn arriving at middle age, with no territory to light out for. We are where we must be.
Twenty-six-year-old Scout’s shocking discovery of Atticus in old age, committed to segregation and sharing town council space with vitriolic racists, in whose study she finds pamphlets arguing the inferiority of the negro race taking recourse to every pseudo-science and non-science including phrenology, ties in with Henry’s defence of her father: “Have you ever considered that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?”
Atticus, as conceived in Mockingbird, was not a liberal ahead of his times. He was a southern traditionalist. He didn’t seek out Tom Robinson to defend him; he was assigned the case by court. His sympathy for the white neighbours Scout now calls “trash” was apparent too. But even without reading Atticus 2.0 back to Mockingbird, Atticus is a flawed, and therefore fuller, human being in Watchman. The benevolent racists of the Deep South often took a line similar to William Faulkner’s warning to a friend in a letter, urging that something be done for black dignity, otherwise there would be a social price to pay, for “no tyrant is more oppressive than he who was oppressed till yesterday”. Atticus is far worse than a benevolent racist. If this is a transmogrification of a beloved character, he is now tragically heroic. If this is how he was meant to be, he is only more believable. After all, there is a certain pre-determined pathos to writing from the South — the hero, a la Faulkner’s Joe Christmas, emerges from the ditch only to return to the ditch.
It is far more rewarding to delight in Scout’s refusal to be “churched to death, bridge-partied to death”. Notwithstanding the burden of tradition placed “especially” on men, this Scout of New York, despite being a weak creation compared to Mockingbird, is still a “howling tomboy” at heart, keeping her own head on her shoulders.