Monday, July 27, 2015

Why It's Really All About Scout: On Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchmen

In the hubbub of conversation at the publication of Harper Lee's novel, Go Set a Watchman, a majority of the attention has been on Harper Lee's authorial intentions--did she want the book published or not? Any other attention seems to have been or the racism of Atticus Finch--how could he possibly be one?!

Personally, I think these are not the primary questions, and certainly not the most interesting focus. But I'll return to that in a bit, because first, I need to make a confession.

Here's the confession. I did not read To Kill a Mockingbird in my youth. It was not assigned in any literature class I can remember. As a college English major and a reader of novels, I have always been slightly embarrassed by this lacunae in my reading history. 

So mid-July, on a long family road trip from Northwest Arkansas through Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi, I listened to Lee's first novel, read by Sissy Spacek.  The novel is a revelation. It is by turns perfect, haunting, devastating, and truer than true. I don't know how I would receive it as a reader now if this were my second time reading it, the first time reading it as a youth, but I do know as an adult reader of fiction, it immediately jumped into that baker's dozen of the best novels I've ever read, alongside Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and ???

As soon as I finished reading TKaM, I started in on Go Set a Watchmen. One immediately notices that some of the novel does read like a first draft of TKaM. The [Aunt Alexandria] is identical in both novels. Some summary retrospectives are the same. And so on.

But the most noticeable aspect of this novel, from my perspective, is one seldom remarked on at least in the early reviews of the book.

Here's the thing: Both books are all about Scout!

Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is the protagonist and narrator of both novels (although periodically GSaW shifts to limited omniscient). The center of the books, both of them, is Scout's emotional and intellectual response to the world she lives in. In the first novel, everything we know about Atticus Finch, our opinion of him as a father and as a lawyer, our sense of his culture and intellect, is colored by Scout's youth. Scout is in the process of growing up, and her world forces it on her more quickly than many, but nevertheless, we do not get Atticus in total, from his own perspective, we only get Atticus described by way of his daughter.

I don't know why so much of the commentary on GSaW focuses on Atticus. Perhaps pop culture is always more interested in the flat complexity of men than the complex complexity of women. Quite a bit of cultural analysis would likely bear this out, including examples like the Bechdel Test, which shows how infrequently popular movies include two women who speak to each other. 

One could make a rather compelling argument, I believe, that both of Harper Lee's novels are much more about women than they are about race, or if they are about race, they are novels about the female experience of race in particular. Scout, for example, is a perfect narrator to inhabit the middle ground of racial tensions in the novels. She is a tomboy of sorts, continually maladjusted to the societal norms for white southern women. In TKaM, she is allowed space, at least for a time, to exercise her eccentric ways, but only because she is still a child. Over the course of the novel, gender norms are increasingly foisted on her.

And although TKaM includes incredibly winsome and compelling male characters, such as Boo the heroic recluse, summer friend Dill (inspired by Harper Lee's friend and neighbor Truman Capote), and of course Scout's adventuresome brother Jem, ultimately the most complex and challenging characters are the women: Calpurnia, the Finch's African-American servant, surrogate mother to the children and matriarch in the African-American community; Aunt Alexandra, the morally upright ; and Scout herself.

Scout joins us in our disillusionment. If we are disillusioned in this new novel at the revelation that Atticus has bought into racist propaganda, it is only because Scout herself is disillusioned. In a crucial scene, Scout sneaks into the county courthouse on a Sunday afternoon and observes her father and potential fiancee seated on both sides of a speaker spouting vile racist rhetoric. She can't believe her eyes or her ears.

This is when this second novel really does "pop" as a sequel to TKaM. No one can ever forget, having read it, the dramatic court scene in TKaM. There also, Scout sneaks into the courtroom, in that first novel in order to watch her father defend an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, accused of rape. Scout and her brother sit in the balcony, with the "colored folk," in fact right next to the African-American preacher. 

In this novel, Scout is alone in the balcony, peering over the edge at a roomful of Maycomb's men. Her response to her discovery is visceral. She grips the railings so hard they sweat, and when she finally gets away and to an ice cream shop nearby, she vomits in the courtyard, then goes home and takes to bed sick.

Scout had been raised sideways in a sense, the product of Atticus's chivalrous eccentricities. In the middle of the racist screed spoken in the courthouse, presided over by her father, she remembers a voice from her not so distant past, her father's voice, saying, "Gentleman, if there's one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none."

So, for all of us who grew to love Atticus and his bravery and uprightness in TKaM, this news, that people change, that sometimes people take a turn for the worse rather than the better, feels like a betrayal, even if it is a betrayal by revealing something we already knew. What is violated is not our knowledge of the world, but rather the last shattered innocence of Scout, an ironic innocence born of her worldly journey to New York.

it is as if, for all her sojourning and cosmopolitan experiences in the big city, it is only by coming home to the parochial and local that she finally comes to know the world in all its disappointing capaciousness. Betrayed by her father, by her fiancee, she races to the one last filial connection, Calpurnia, her surrogate mother, and is then and there, in perhaps the most poigant moment of the whole novel, disappointed by her as well.

Calpurnia's own family member has recently killed a pedestrian in an auto-accident. The promising young African-American driver will now have to go before a court, and Atticus promises to defend him, but two things are different. First, he is guilty rather than innocent. Second, he is going to be defended not by the Atticus of Scout's childhood, but the Atticus of the present. 

So Calpurnia, always so open in her affections with the children in TKaM, willing to let them in on the world of the African-American community, is in this scene guarded in the extreme. It's hard to know if she is angry, or despairing, or afraid. For whatever reason, when Scout goes out to Calpurnia's home to visit and hopefully console her, Calpurnia puts on her "company manners." She speaks to Scout as if she were any white Southern woman. Scout cries, "What are you doing to me?" To which Cal replies, "What are you all doing to us?"

In that moment, Scout realizes she is included in the category she had never considered. She is white. Calpurnia treats her not as her child, but as a white woman. It is movement backwards, rather than forwards. It is sad to the point of weeping.

All the promise of TKaM, of which there was a little, a seed, a hint, is killed by the revelation that racism has become in the Maycomb of the 50s not so readily exercised but just for that reason even more vehement. It has escalated, gone underground, viral, ferile. 

Perhaps the reason so much of the conversation around Harper Lee's new novel has focused either on Atticus or Lee is precisely a kind of distraction or misdirection. If we talk about these things, we can avoid the truths that Lee's new novel reveals. If I were to say what those were, I'd say they are two. First, the truth is our culture still doesn't know how to hear the feminist experience of race well. Second, we do not like to imagine that race relations in our nation can move backwards rather than forwards. We are a nation that believes in progress, after all. How dare Harper Lee's new novel illustrate our own backward leanings to us?

Just today I saw the Pew study of racial diversity by religious group, and peering over the edge of the balcony at the results, I feel just about as sick as Scout did at that meeting. My own denomination sits smack at the bottom, less diverse than almost any other group. I can't look at this list and blame others. I'm completely complicit in it. I have primarily served as pastor at churches that look exactly like the demographics cataloged in it. I grew up in one also. If I am sick, it isn't because of a specific betrayal, but because of a communal drift this chart illustrates. 

Like Scout, it has taken me this long to even begin to see how white I actually am, and how unaware I have been of these implications. Like Scout, it means I'm tempted to flee, or go home, as if both those impulses, to run to the house that no longer exists, or abide in a far away I can't create, were the same impulse.

And in the meantime, I find Scout in both novels a worthwhile companion for this particular kind of Anfechtung, and great pleasure and thankfulness in the opportunity to continue to journey with her.

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