Saturday, March 5, 2016

Readings: Go Set a Watchman ~ Harper Lee

I just finished reading Harper Lee's long-suppressed novel, Go Set a Watchman. I found it disturbing. I did not read the novel with the intention of writing about it; the mixed reviews, and the history of its road to publication (with the suggestion that a semi-senile Harper Lee was coerced into allowing it to be published under less than scrupulous circumstances) were off-putting enough that I had pretty much decided to take a pass on it. I don't now recall what changed my mind. It would be dishonest of me to say that there were not parts of it that I very much enjoyed. The novel had moments that brought a lump to my throat. It kept me reading, (although I found it slow to get moving) and I finished it rather quickly.

I suppose Go Set a Watchman would have seemed quite enlightened as the work of a Southern lady in the mid-1950s, when it was written. But having not been published at that time, it probably would have been better to leave it residing quietly, with the rest of Harper Lee's papers, in the archives of a library somewhere. It is a profoundly conservative work, in all the worst ways. Its ideas are paternalistic, segregationist, pro-states' rights in the Dixiecrat sense, and subtly, but unmistakably, racist.

Because I had no intention of writing about Watchman when I picked it up, I was not taking notes as I made my way through it. Its racist elements are for the most part, as I say above, subtle, and it would require quoting long passages with added explication to highlight the underlying bigotry. That said, the first truly cringe-worthy passage that I came across occurs on page 156. Jean Louise Finch (Scout), home on a visit to Maycomb, Alabama from New York City, has gone alone to the house of Calpurnia, the beloved black maid/nanny who helped raise Scout after the death of her mother. As Zeebo, a member of Calpurnia's family, leads Scout into her home, we get this:

"She followed him into a dark parlor to which clung the musky sweet smell of clean Negro, snuff, and Hearts of Love hairdressing." [emphasis added]

The "smell of clean Negro"...Really?

A less blatantly offensive, but still indicative, thing that popped out at me as I read further along, occurs in a flashback.  Here we accompany a nervous fourteen-year-old Scout Finch on her first big date, with Henry, the boy who is to become her presumptive spouse later in the plot::

"She was sensible enough to sit out jitterbug numbers and avoid music with a South American taint, and Henry said when she learned to talk and dance at the same time she'd be a hit." [emphasis added]

Why does something "South American" so immediately possess a "taint" rather than a "flavor" or a "complicated rhythm" or anything else non-pejorative? 

Now for all of you contemporary gals out there who refer frequently to your misogynometers, I will add that what it takes in this book to bring Jean Louise Finch back to her senses concerning all of the above, after having been corrupted by Northern liberals in evil New York City, is a hard backhand to the mouth, delivered by her loving Uncle Jack for all the "right" reasons. And this is the denouement of the novel's plot.

So I found this to be a flawed work; and only partially because it is anachronistic and was left that way by its contemporary editors. Much of the flaw clearly resided in Harper Lee herself. 

There is, however, one other passage of which I made note, and I will close this review by quoting it. The line is delivered by Scout's loving Uncle Jack--the man who popped her a good one in the paragraph above:

"Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends."

I like that.