Allthatsleft Book Club #15: Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman

by Ray_North on August 1, 2015

Unknown-2I managed to avoid most of the reviews of this book – a sequel (in case you didn’t know, but, of course you did), to the wonderful To Kill A Mockingbird – instead saving it as a treat to myself to be purchased at the airport and read on a sun lounger in Greece during my recent sojourn.

Of course, I wasn’t completely in the dark, I hadn’t managed to avoid the controversy that surrounded the decision to publish the novel in the first place, and the apparent transformation of the seminal character Atticus Finch from the superb liberal lawyer who, in Mockingbird, defends the young black man charged with rape with the clarion call, that ‘all men are born equal’ condemning the ‘maddog of racism that changes the humanity of a man,’ into a defender of Southern racism and the disgusting views of the Klan and all those who opposed the Civil Rights Movement.

But, despite the rumours, I had hoped that much of what I’d heard had been exaggerated. I hoped that Atticus Finch would once again take on the small minds and the bigots and that I would, in my mind, once more hear the voice of Gregory Peck speaking the wonderful words of Harper Lee.

There was no exaggeration.

In Go Set A Watchman, Atticus Finch, a character who has inspired three generations, has been changed into an apologist for the worst, most insidious racism imaginable – the type that believes undeniably in the superiority of one race over another, the type that mocks people it believes to be inferior in a way that is utterly feeble. In Mockingbird, Finch was strong and heroic, whereas in Watchman, he is weak and confused. And, it left me feeling miserable.

The story was based twenty years after Mockingbird and the trial of Tom Robinson, Scout, now living in New York, returns to Maycomb for a two week holiday to see her father (who is now 72 and struggling with arthritis) and her would be fiancee, Hank, who is a lawyer in Atticus’ firm.

At first, the narrative is based around Scout coming to turns with the way in which her home town has changed and how she finds the parochialism of the people she grew up both reassuring and frustrating. She acknowledges the tension between the ‘negroes’ and the rest, but, at first, doesn’t give it much thought, as far as she is aware, she and her family are better than that, she is comfortable in the way she believes she was brought up, to see everyone and treat everyone the same, regardless of their colour.

Then, a couple of things happen to shatter her view of her world, first, a black youth is arrested after running over and killing an old white man. To her horror, Scouts listens to her father and ‘boyfriend’ discuss the suspect with contempt; then, she finds a pamphlet entitled ‘black plague’ which spells out in the crudest way the case for racial separation. Scout, now rushes to the Town Hall where there is a meeting of the ‘Citizens Council’ where her father introduces the racist O’Grady, who gives a vile speech about the ‘negro threat.’

Scout is so shocked by what she hears that she is physically sick – she vows to leave the South immediately and cut all ties with the father she once adored.

The rest of the family now do their best to reassure Scout that actually she is the one who is in the wrong and that actually, the racism that they are condoning is perfectly acceptable as it is an articulation of the traditional Southern view that being dictated to by Federal Government is unconstitutional and unethical – it is rubbish and confused defence of racial intolerance wrapped up in semantics and weasle words.

At the end of it, you just want Scout to say, ‘well bollocks to that,’ and get on her train back to New York and leave them all behind. In fact as I sat there on my lounger, afternoon lager in hand, I yearned for this – but, alas, it doesn’t happen.

Did I enjoy this book? Yes. The prose is great, and it is without doubt, a book of historical and literary import.
But did I wish that it was written – no.

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