When I wrote my earlier post
comparing Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird
with her just-released earlier novel, Go Set a Watchman
, I was relying on a number of reviews and analyses I had read about the new book. I hadn't gotten my own copy yet. Since then, I've read Watchman, which reinforced the perspectives I got from others and added to them. Watchman isn't a great book—it probably isn't even a very good book in its published form—but it's an intelligent book with sharp analyses of attitudes in the south during the 50s, specifically after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The contrast between the versions of the south and the pervasiveness of racism portrayed in the two books is what most resonates for me—the glossy, airbrushed version in Mockingbird versus the wrinkles-and-all version in Watchman. My general takeaway from the contrast between the two books is, we need to grow up about the way we perceive racism in this country—how substantial it is, how much it underlies the way we as individuals perceive the world and the way our society functions. We need to look racism directly in the face, acknowledge it and do whatever we can, not to eradicate it completely since that's impossible, but to lessen its impact by working to correct its most destructive aspects.
Genuine spoiler alert: I'm going to be talking about Watchman in some detail, so if you plan to read the book and don't want it pre-summarized and analyzed, this is a good time to stop reading.
In Watchman, a 26-year-old woman who is living in New York returns to her home town in the south for a visit. At the beginning of the book, the town and its inhabitants appear to be as she remembered them, especially her father Atticus Finch whom she idolized as a child and continues to idolize as a young adult. In her eyes, Atticus was a man who transcended his time and place, someone who saw beyond race and class, whose judgement was absolutely fair and even handed unlike most white inhabitants of the town, including some wonderful but flawed adults she knew growing up.
As the book continues, she begins to see that Atticus isn't the man she believed he was. To her horror, she finds he's a segregationist and something of a bigot. He's against school integration and making it easy for southern blacks to vote—or he's against doing those things right away, anyway. He wants changes to happen in their own sweet southern time, not on the timetable set by the Supreme Court and the N.A.A.C.P. To paraphrase one of today's much-used phrases, for Atticus, White lives matter, but Black lives — or at least the quality of black lives — don't matter nearly as much, especially if improving their lives has a negative impact on the privileges he and other southern whites have come to expect as their birthright.