July 22, 2015

Scout, Atticus, and Harper Lee Abide as “Mockingbird’s” Companion Volume Finally Arrives

book rev“Why is it that everything I have loved on this earth has gone away from me in two day’s time?” wonders Jean Louise Finch a little over halfway through Harper Lee’s long-awaited (to put it mildly) Go Set a Watchman (Harper Collins $27.99).

To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout has grown up, is living in New York City, and has returned to her Alabama hometown, Maycomb, during what might be called the post-Brown v Board of Education era. Her cry from the heart follows a shattering encounter with Calpurnia, the black woman who raised and loved her and her brother Jem, and is now a remote figure on the other side of the racial divide the color-blind Jean Louise is struggling to comprehend. There the old woman sits, “in a haughty dignity that appeared on state occasions … wearing her company manners,” her face “a million tiny wrinkles, and her eyes dim behind thick lenses … no hint of compassion” in them, even as Jean Louise begs her, “I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?” 

Looking for Atticus

If you believe the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, who says nothing in her July 11 review about the crucial, stunning scene with Calpurnia, the main thing you need to know about Go Set a Watchman is the damage it does to the world’s shining image of Atticus Finch, “the ideal father” and “principled idealist, an enlightened, almost saintly believer in justice and fairness” familiar to millions as “the perfect man” played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film. Says Kakutani, Watchman is “a lumpy tale … a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech” unlike its predecessor, “a redemptive novel associated with the civil rights movement.” The fallen hero has become a “bigot” with “evil views,” “a racist who once attended a Klan meeting” — true enough, except that his motive was to see who was hiding behind the hoods.

Looking online for a wiser alternative to Kakutani, I found The Guardian’s Mark Lawson, who sees in Watchman “a revelation and genuine literary event, akin to the discovery of extra sections from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or a missing act from Hamlet hinting that the prince may have killed his father.” The reference to Hamlet is a stretch, but it comes closer to what’s actually going on in the new novel than Kakutani’s overstated mourning of “the ideal father.” Unlike Hamlet, who at least tries to determine if his spectral father’s message is legitimate, Jean Louise Finch jumps to the darkest conclusion and works herself into a frenzy denouncing the 72-year-old arthritic Atticus on the strength of his presence at a “citizen’s committee” meeting where the guest speaker is a fire-breathing racist. After grilling him on his benighted view of “the Negro problem,” she ends by calling her father “a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant,” no better than Hitler and “that crowd in Russia.” Shaken by the scene (“God in heaven take me away … God in heaven take me away from here”), she comes down to earth with the help of her Uncle Jack, who seems to be an earthly surrogate for the Biblical watchman of the title she needs to lead her around and tell her “this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice” and make her “understand the difference.”

Still Atticus

Imagine how it would have been to read Watchman before Mockingbird (as might have happened had the manuscript been published as first submitted), to go from Jean Louise’s loss of everything that she loved to Scout’s childhood to learn why she felt so outraged, so betrayed, and to see Atticus the avatar of gentle wisdom and tolerance rising from the ashes of his adult daughter’s despair.

Now at last the whole story has been told, both sides, Go Set a Watchman being not so much a prequel or a sequel as a companion volume, one half of a late-in-coming whole. And if you do justice to the new novel, if you let the Watchman lead you, you’ll see that Atticus is still the man he was in Mockingbird, 20 years older and stoically ailing, perhaps no wiser, the aura of his finest hour long gone, but he’s as far as he ever was from, as Kakutani sees it, “evil views.”

“As You Please”

What finally unhinges Jean Louise is the way Atticus remains in character throughout the inquisition, responding to her accusations with his customary quiet steady courtroom demeanor. The “ideal father” abides, profoundly human, fallible, steadfast, undaunted, as his daughter provokes and lectures and insults him. His response to the absurdity of the Hitler remark is to smile and say, “Hitler, eh?” When she says “You’re the only person I think I ever really trusted and now I’m done for,” he says, “I’ve killed you, Scout. I had to.” (Think of Hamlet’s ghost appearing in Act Five and saying “I’ve killed you, I had to” to his dying son.) This curious statement leads her to accuse him of “double-talk” and then to declare “I despise you and everything you stand for.” His response is, “Well, I love you,” which further infuriates her. Two phrases from Atticus are particularly devastating. When she vows she’s going away and never coming back, he says, “As you please,” inspiring her to revert to Scout’s language (“You double dealing, ring-tailed old son of a bitch”). After twice being called a son of a bitch, Atticus says, “That’ll do, Jean Louise.” This is when she flees the scene, thinking “That’ll do, his general call to order in the days when she believed. So he kills me and gives it a twist.” She comes back to the thought as the next chapter opens: “I love you. As you please. Had he not said that, perhaps she would have survived. If he had fought her fairly, she could have flung his words back at him, but she could not catch mercury and hold it in her hands.”

Time for the watchman, Uncle Jack, to come to the rescue, but instead of gentle guidance, he gives her “a savage backhand swipe full on the mouth” that draws blood and jerks her head “to the left to meet his hand coming viciously back.” In the state she’s in, the blow delivered by philosophical old Dr. Finch does more than awaken her, it brings her back to life.

Still Scout

The qualities that endeared Scout to readers of Mockingbird are still present in the new book, where she’s remembered as “a juvenile desperado, hellraiser extraordinaire,” an “overalled, fractious, gun-slinging creature.” It’s still her story, still her ins and outs, hits and misses, highs and lows that concern and engage us. It’s her sense of humor, her sense of person and place, that keeps us smiling, reading, caring, and feeling for her.

There’s a glimpse of grown-up Scout from her father’s point of view early in Watchman, before her loss of faith. When she talks back to the forever uptight Aunt Alexandra, Atticus raises his eyebrows “in warning” as he watches “his daughter’s daemon rise and dominate her: her eyebrows, like his, were lifted, the heavy-lidded eyes beneath them grew round, and one corner of her mouth was raised dangerously. When she looked thus, only God and Robert Browning knew what she was likely to say.”

Clearly Atticus knows his daughter’s ways, her limits, her excesses, and how much he and she have in common. When he tells her “That’ll do, Scout,” using the term that will disarm her in their confrontation at the end, she smiles because “when registering disapprobation he always reverted back to her childhood nickname.” Near the end, after her daemon subjects him to a cross-examination, like some prosecuting attorney from the North, it’s “That’ll do, Jean Louise.”

Bloom’s View

I wonder what that great Shakespearean watchman Harold Bloom would make of the Guardian’s Hamlet analogy. Introducing the essays collected in his guide to To Kill a Mockingbird (Infobase 2010), Bloom observes after rereading the novel that Scout “retains much of her charm as a classic American tomboy” and wonders whether the book, “like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye,” is “a legitimate descendant of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, our classic romance of American childhood.” He finds that “Scout is indeed Harper Lee’s book, being not only its narrator but much of its most interesting consciousness. Yet her deepest relation to Huck Finn, from whom she derives, is that, like him, she essentially cannot change.”

It’s almost as if Go Set a Watchman was finally released in response to Bloom, showing that, for better or worse, Scout does change, with some help from the watchman.

Anyone who reads the new book all the way through to the healing final chapter will know that the character of Atticus has been deepened, not diminished, and that his daughter loves him even more than she did before, an enlightened love, learned in battle with the father she “tried to obliterate and grind into the earth.” Her rationale for wanting to “stamp out all the people like him” is to think “they’re the drag and we’re the thrust, together we make the thing fly. Too much of us, we’re nose-heavy, too much of them and we’re tail-heavy — it’s a matter of balance.”

New Salinger Next?

Fifty-five years ago Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published. Fifty years ago J.D Salinger’s last work of fiction, Hapworth 16, 1924, appeared in the pages of The New Yorker and was scheduled for a 1997 publication by a small press in Virginia, until Michiko Kakutani pounced (see “J.D. Salinger’s Letter from Camp Returned to Sender,” Town Topics, Sept. 13, 2006); no doubt Ms. Kakutani is waiting in the shadows, ready to inflict her agenda on the promised new work by Salinger, which, should it actually appear, would make 2015 a year of landmark literary revelations.