The heavily hyped appearance of Harper Lee’s new or very old, or, anyway, indistinctly dated, novel, “Go Set a Watchman” (HarperCollins), reflects an ambitious publishing venture—complete with slow, striptease-style press leaks and first chapters and excited prepublication surmise—in which all the other apparatus of literature, reviewers included, is expected to serve, and has. Not since Hemingway’s estate sent down seemingly completed novels from on high, long after the author’s death, has a publisher gone about so coolly exploiting a much loved name with a product of such mysterious provenance. It may well be that what the procurers of the text have said about it—that it is an earlier novel set in the world of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” only recently discovered, and published with the author’s enthusiastic assent—is so. But, if it is, the procurers seem oddly reluctant to be terribly exact about their accomplishment. The finished book that has now emerged, with a charming retro cover, showing a lonely engine on a twilight Alabama evening, has not a single prefatory sentence to explain its pedigree or its history or the strange circumstance that seems to have brought it to print after all this time, as though complete novels with beloved characters suddenly appeared from aging and reclusive and apparently ailing writers every week of the year. (This in a book that includes a fourteen-line note on the type.) And then the story that has been offered about it in the papers—a story that seems to change significantly as time goes by—presents certain difficulties to the reader’s understanding of the book.
The excitement is, in a way, a salute to America’s literary memory: in what is supposed to be an amnesiac society, the memory of a fifty-five-year-old novel burns so bright that an auxiliary volume is still a national event. Of course, the memory is assisted by the universal appearance of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in eighth-grade curricula, but most of what appears in eighth-grade curricula vanishes quickly from memory—has basic biology or beginning algebra ever held our minds as Scout and Atticus have? The reason for that extraordinary hold is made plain, at least, by the incidental beauties of the newly discovered book, which are real. Though “Watchman” is a failure as a novel (if “Mockingbird” did not exist, this book would never have been published, not now, as it was not then), it is still testimony to how appealing a writer Harper Lee can be. That appeal depends, as with certain other books of the time—“The Catcher in the Rye,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “A Death in the Family”—on the intensity of the evocation of coming of age, and of the feel of streets and summers at that moment. Harper Lee did for Maycomb (her poeticized version of her home town, Monroeville, Alabama) what J. D. Salinger did for Central Park—made it a permanent amphitheatre of American adolescence. One realizes with a slight, shamed start that we would now condescend to this kind of effort as belonging merely to a Y.A., or young-adult, novel. It’s not that we don’t have books like it anymore; it’s that we segregate their shelving—both John Green and Judy Blume have kept alive the tender evocation of an adolescent world, but they have been relegated to a smaller, specialized niche.
Though the new book is, to be blunt, a string of clichés, some of them are clichés only because, in the half century since Lee’s generation introduced them, they’ve become clichés; taken on their own terms, they remain quite touching and beautiful. The evocation of Maycomb, with which the new book begins, and which recurs throughout its pages, is often magically alive. There is a little set piece about the arrival of a train at a flag stop that makes one feel nostalgic for one’s Southern childhood even if one never had a Southern childhood:
The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful. . . . The train clacketed through pine forests and honked derisively at a gaily-painted bell funneled museum piece sidetracked in a clearing. It bore the sign of a lumber concern, and the Crescent Limited could have swallowed it whole with room to spare. Greenville, Evergreen, Maycomb Junction.
She had told the conductor not to forget to let her off, and because the conductor was an elderly man, she anticipated his joke. . . . Trains changed; conductors never did. Being funny at flag stops with young ladies was a mark of the profession, and Atticus, who could predict the actions of every conductor from New Orleans to Cincinnati, would be awaiting accordingly not six steps away from her point of debarkation.
The tone is right and lovely, and is just as right and lovely in other pastoral pieces, in the later pages (though almost exclusively flashbacks), about games played with the heroine’s brother, Jem, and the Truman Capote character, Dill. The other, less potent clichés are either the stage-dramatic clichés of the fifties—the kind of dramaturgy you find in an Elia Kazan movie, with neat “reveals” and passionate scenes in which people driven to a climax of anger suddenly tell one another long-buried secrets—or, more drearily, the clichéd rationales that liberal Southerners used for years to justify a social order that they knew to be unjust.
The story related is simple, and suspiciously self-referential—it’s difficult to credit that a first novel would so blithely assume so much familiarity with a cast of characters never before encountered. Scout, the child heroine of “Mockingbird,” now mostly called by her proper name of Jean Louise, comes back to Maycomb from New York, where she is engaged in some undefined career-girl enterprise. For most of the first few chapters, she is fending off her lowborn but well-meaning suitor, Henry Clinton, and fighting with her tight-assed and conventional aunt Alexandra.
Jean Louise then discovers that her father, Atticus, her hero and as close to a perfectly honorable man as she can imagine—“Integrity, humor, and patience were the three words for Atticus Finch”—has joined one of the marginally respectable Citizens’ Councils, a kind of less covert version of the Klan. Shocked, she confronts him, and starts on a series of static and prosy debates—first with her uncle Jack (a “character” who combines odd scraps of nineteenth-century English literary and religious knowledge with a bachelor doctor’s existence) and then with Atticus himself—about integration, the N.A.A.C.P., the Tenth Amendment, and other fifties-era subjects, all offered mechanically as set pieces, accented with oaths and “Honey, use your head!”s to make them sound a little more like dialogue. When the action moves to these abstract arguments about civil rights, the book falls apart as art—partly because today it is impossible to find the anti-civil-rights arguments anything but creepy, but more because any novel that depends for its action on prosy debates about contemporary politics will fail. A screenplay-style reversal (Uncle Jack, it turns out, was in love with Jean Louise’s sainted, long-dead mother all along!) jolts the action toward the end, and then, as in another kind of fifties movie, Jean Louise is urged to Come Home to Make Things Better—you can’t create a new South by hanging up there among the Yankees!—and it seems that she does.
That Southernness, however much it is now the material of cliché, is still the most pleasing thing about the book—the kind of easy, Agee and McCullers Southernness (as against Tennessee Williams’s more Gothic version) that was as much a part of the postwar American novel as Jewishness, of which it was the alternative construction. Jews (in Bellow, Malamud, early Roth) were urban, worried, and compellingly neurotic; Southerners (in Capote, McCullers, Harper Lee) were rural, carefree, and absolutely crazy. As always with such things, neither construction makes sense unless you see the missing central panel that both are reacting to: the Wasp ascendancy, only just about to be called so—that average American whiteness from which Southern drinking and Jewish schmalz alike could seem welcome refuges.
The element that intrudes for us now on these Southern vistas—where are all the black people, and why are the few we see treated the way they are?—was certainly a vital part of the story, but it was only a part of the story. Reëxperiencing this kind of Southern eccentricity is to be reminded how persuasive and touching it could be. The Southern Pastoral, in which the children play barefoot in the pastures and the summer is always called summertime, remains one of our strongest forms:
Calpurnia had placed three tumblers and a big pitcher full of lemonade inside the door on the back porch, an arrangement to ensure their staying in the shade for at least five minutes. Lemonade in the middle of the morning was a daily occurrence in the summertime. They downed three glasses apiece and found the remainder of the morning lying emptily before them.
“Want to go out in Dobbs Pasture?” asked Dill.
“How about let’s make a kite?” she said. “We can get some flour from Calpurnia . . .”
“Can’t fly a kite in the summertime,” said Jem. “There’s not a breath of air blowing.”
The thermometer on the back porch stood at ninety-two, the carhouse shimmered faintly in the distance, and the giant chinaberry trees were deadly still.
“I know what,” said Dill. “Let’s have a revival.”
The question is how to preserve this pastoral idyll, and that’s where things get sticky, in several senses. The view that both Uncle Jack and Atticus offer, and which Jean Louise/Lee doesn’t endorse but does take seriously, is that this superior civilization of the agrarian South is being stampeded by Yankee industrialists and the N.A.A.C.P.—all the Outside Agitators—into undue disorder. (One night, Henry Clinton and Jean Louise see a group of blacks driving a fast car, and Henry implies that this is what happens when you let the Supreme Court tell the South what to do.)
So the idea that Atticus, in this book, “becomes” the bigot he was not in “Mockingbird” entirely misses Harper Lee’s point—that this is exactly the kind of bigot that Atticus has been all along. The particular kind of racial rhetoric that Atticus embraces (and that he and Jean Louise are careful to distinguish from low-rent, white-trash bigotry) is a complex and, in its own estimation, “liberal” ideology: there is no contradiction between Atticus defending an innocent black man accused of rape in “Mockingbird” and Atticus mistrusting civil rights twenty years later. Both are part of a paternal effort to help a minority that, in this view, cannot yet entirely help itself.
Atticus is simply being faithful to one set of high ideals in the South of his time. “Jean Louise,” Atticus says in the midst of their argument, “have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?” Not long afterward, he adds, “Jefferson believed full citizenship was a privilege to be earned by each man, that it was not something given lightly nor to be taken lightly. A man couldn’t vote simply because he was a man, in Jefferson’s eyes. He had to be a responsible man.” Blacks are fully human, Atticus allows (nice of him), just not yet ready to vote. Elsewhere, Uncle Jack explains to Jean Louise the metaphysics of the Civil War, which supposedly had nothing to do with slavery or emancipation: didn’t she know “that this territory was a separate nation? No matter what its political bonds, a nation with its own people, existing within a nation? A society highly paradoxical, with alarming inequities, but with the private honor of thousands of persons winking like lightning bugs through the night? . . . They fought to preserve their identity. Their political identity, their personal identity.”
These were the ideas of the Southern Agrarians—that extraordinarily accomplished and influential set of writers and critics who embraced the modernism of Yeats and Pound and Eliot, exactly because it seemed to them a protest against modernization of all types, while they dreamed of a reformed “organic” society in the South, with that “identity,” that cult of “private honor,” still accessible. (It is good to be reminded of a time when “identity politics” belonged to the right.) Writers like Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren—though deluded about the concentration-camp society of the prewar South as it really was—had a worked-out and potent ideology, and one readily assented to by people who should have known better. Had they foundered, as their white-supremacist successors do today, in cheap nostalgia, they would not have had much influence, but they made a brilliant marriage with modernism, and that gave them immense academic authority at a time when little magazines moved big boulders, or seemed to. Theirs was among the most powerful intellectual movements of the thirties and forties, along with, predictably, the companion Jewish one in New York.
And so beneath Atticus’s style of enlightenment is a kind of bigotry that could not recognize itself as such at the time. The historical and human fallacies of the Agrarian ideology hardly need to be rehearsed now, but it should be said that these views were not regarded as ridiculous by intellectuals at the time. Indeed, Jean Louise/Lee herself, though passionately opposed to what her uncle and her father are saying, nevertheless accepts the general terms of the debate as the right ones. Asked her response to “the Supreme Court decision”—one assumes that Brown v. Board is meant—she says that she thought, and still thinks, “Well sir, there they were, tellin’ us what to do again.”
And it should also be said, out of human sympathy, that to demand that people reject their traditions and their understanding, however misconceived, of their own history—to insist that the Atticuses of this world go to reëducation camp—is foolish. The problem is not people who think wrong thoughts, since we all think what will, retrospectively, turn out to be wrong thoughts about something or other. The problem is people who give their implicit endorsement to violence or intolerance in the pursuit of wrong thoughts. And, as far as one can tell, Harper Lee never intends Atticus to be taken for that sort. Atticus’s central commitment is to the law, and that commitment is never questioned. We are meant to see Atticus as someone with skewed convictions about Jefferson, but not as someone who would participate in a cross burning or in fire-hosing protesters.
The Southern Agrarians—it was part of their complexity—didn’t see themselves as racists; quite the opposite. (Robert Penn Warren certainly more than made his peace with the civil-rights movement.) They saw themselves merely as cautious and watchfully conservative about the pace of change. That the pace of change had to be accelerated because it had been held back by terror for so long was not a truth that they wished to be told, or to see. Atticus’s attitude seems entirely authentic, his heroism and his prejudices, as so often with actual human beings, part of the same package. Credibility is the ethic of fiction, and he is a credible character.
In any case, as with most social upheavals that are allowed to work their way through a society, the things that Atticus and the Agrarians feared may have happened, but they didn’t happen because of the Supreme Court. Atticus and his friends vastly overestimated the power of liberal ideology and badly underestimated the power of their other enemy, capitalist commerce. The Monroeville Walmart Supercenter has doubtless altered Monroeville more than all the fiendish Yankee conspiracies to undermine the Tenth Amendment. Certainly the supremacists’ hysterical fears of anarchy, as much as the fondest hopes of civil-rights utopians, have been left unrealized. Hysteria about change is rarely earned by the change when it comes.
Yet here is where the questions of the book’s provenance begin to arise, and they, too, get a little sticky. The emotional force of “Watchman” depends entirely on the reader’s sharing Scout’s shock at the revelation of Atticus’s new friends and new affiliation, and, since Atticus is scarcely dramatized at all before his fall from grace, the reader already suspicious about the pedigree and the background of the book becomes doubly so. If you don’t know Atticus as a hero—and in this book you really don’t, except by assertion—why would you care that he seems to defect to villainy, however well he defends it? Taken as a composite from both books, Atticus may be a credible hero, but you have to read both books to know that. The charm of the flashbacks that ornament “Watchman” is real for those who know Jem and Dill and Cal from “Mockingbird”—but what effect could Lee have expected them to have on readers who don’t? Indeed, the book as a book barely makes sense if you don’t know “Mockingbird.” If “Watchman” is a first novel, even in draft, it is unlike any first novel this reader is aware of: very short on the kind of autobiographical single-mindedness that first novels usually present, and which “Mockingbird” is filled with, and very long on the kind of discursive matter that novelists will take up when their opinions begin to count.
It is, I suppose, possible that Lee wrote it as we have it, and that her ingenious editor, setting an all-time record for editorial ingenuity, saw in a few paragraphs referring to the trial of a young black man the material for a masterpiece. But it would not be surprising if this novel turns out to be a revised version of an early draft, returned to later, with an eye to writing the “race novel” that elsewhere Harper Lee has mentioned as an ambition. (The manuscript might then have been put aside by the author as undramatic and too abstract.) It is sad, though, to think that the preoccupations of this book, however much they may intersect our own preoccupations of the moment, might eclipse her greater poetic talents, evident here, and so beautifully fulfilled in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” There is a genuine dramatic climax, worthy of the writer’s gifts, offered and then evaded in “Watchman.” In the book’s toughest scene, Scout goes to visit Calpurnia, the black woman who brought her and Jem up, with infinite-seeming love, after Atticus agreed to defend Cal’s grandson from a charge of manslaughter. Scout is heartbroken to find that her beloved mother figure is cautiously distanced from her:
“Cal,” she cried, “Cal, Cal, Cal, what are you doing to me? What’s the matter? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?”
Calpurnia lifted her hands and brought them down softly on the arms of the rocker. Her face was a million tiny wrinkles, and her eyes were dim behind thick lenses.
“What are you all doing to us?” she said.
Then Scout asks, “Did you hate us?,” and Calpurnia shakes her head no. This is credible. But the scene, and the book, would have been stronger if she hadn’t. ♦