October 8th, 2015

To Set a Watchman

I hadn’t intended to read what will probably be remembered as Harper Lee’s other novel, but Dad had a copy so what the heck.

I think once the dust has settled, “Go Set a Watchman” will be seen as an interesting book from an anthropological stance, a way of looking into the mindset of intellectual American Southerners in a particular time of history.

The structure is interesting. The author divided it into various parts but there really are only three: making the main characters likeable, giving you good reasons not to like most of them, and then trying to explain why you should like them anyway. The third part failed to be as convincing as Lee apparently intended (having been warned of the dubious parts about race issues, the most shocking part for me was when Scout was slapped by her uncle and Lee seemed to think that would bring her heroine around; nothing like adding a measured dose of male dominance to a novel about race), but the first two were an interesting illustration of how a person could react to having illusions about family and community ripped away. Scout had never realized what a bubble she had lived in, a bubble created by Atticus and we all know about from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” That was, for me the realistic part of the novel.

We just didn’t know that Atticus would be fighting a two front war, one against individual acts of racism and one against the expansion of federal powers intended to push back systematic racism. Today Atticus might have been one of the conservatives who would vote for Colin Powell or Ben Carson for President and yet be against policies that would help more African Americans achieve their success.

I did feel a little sorry for Hank Clinton. He was right on one important point: in such a narrow minded town it really would have been career suicide for someone of his precarious social position to stand up for civil rights. What Hank didn’t realize, or apparently Lee, was that it only proved all the more that his neighbors were wrong. What Hank sees as justification for his actions is really further condemnation of his society.

So really for me, the benefit of reading “Go Set a Watchman” is as a study in moral and intellectual compromises. We all make them, and many times when we live in them it is like navigating a foggy night. Just earlier this week I was called a hypocrite because I wrote on the Internet that I was more comfortable in a Confucian/Taoist culture than a capitalist/Christian culture. I did like living in China where spending more money on books than beer made me ‘cool’ (to the graduate students who were the majority of my friends, anyway) and family values is really about family and not code for being against gay rights, yet the advantages and disadvantages of capitalism are ever present; the publishing houses that sell us trash also sell us books condemning the trash. I was posting my mild criticism of capitalism on Facebook. You can’t out run capitalism, you have to compromise with it, which can be compromising.