American Lit, Book Review, Fiction, Harper Lee, Race, Southern Lit

Thoughts: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

For a long time, Scout (Jean Louise) Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird reminded me of Huckleberry Finn. Just a kid from the American south, smart but crass, and willing to live by her own convictions. Interestingly, Go Set a Watchman has solidified this similarity for me. While reading, I repeatedly wondered: could Harper Lee be the love child of Mark Twain and Jane Austen? I know that sounds hilarious, especially considering how much Twain despised Austen’s work, but still. We have here a merging of regional American literature with a novel of assumed propriety and morality (Jean Louise, like many of Austen’s characters, often pokes fun at presumptions of ‘decorum’ or ‘class’). And Scout, like Huckleberry Finn, is often at a loss for what to do – questioning what is right and wrong, and wondering what is wrong with her when she feels that everyone else around her is mistaken about things like race. And, like Huck Finn, she’s willing to write-off her whole town for lost, striking out for New York City just as Huck lit out West.

I’ve heard and seen some say, “this book should never have been published.” Certainly, Go Set a Watchman is not without flaws, and those who loved To Kill a Mockingbird (and who adored Atticus Finch) are sure to be bothered by much of what happens here. But, ultimately, that doesn’t matter. This book shouldn’t be measured by how we felt about another book or about the same characters told from a different perspective (that of a child) at a different time (20 years earlier). While I can understand why the book is upsetting and how it basically pales in comparison to the original, I can’t agree that it shouldn’t have been published, and I don’t know what the point of that argument is, anyway. It has been published: Let’s deal with it.

So, where to start with this one? I would like to begin by saying that Go Set a Watchman is neither a prequel nor a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, despite what some blurbs and reviews would have us believe. It is the exact some book told from a different perspective and a different time. Even a number of the passages overlap, word for word. This is important. What is most important to note, I think, when deciding whether or not to read this, or what to think about it, is this: To Kill a Mockingbird was told though the eyes of a young Scout Finch, a tomboy who adored her father Atticus, and who could see only the best in him. On the other hand, Go Set a Watchman is the story of an adult awakening to her own individuality, claiming her own identity.

As the old adage goes, “we can’t go home again.” This is the lesson Jean Louise learns, with help from her eccentric Uncle Jack, who tells her that “it is always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along” (269). We readers, too, need to recognize that the Finch family, and Maycomb County, have changed in the twenty years of narrative time (or fifty of actual time) since we last saw them. The Civil Rights movement in America changed people, changed entire ways of life. Most of us would probably argue that this was good and necessary, but that still doesn’t mean the change was or has been easy, especially for those whose worlds were altered the most.

The first sections of the book tell of Jean’s visit home. There is some romance between herself and a man she’ll never marry. We meet Jean’s Aunt, again, and are treated to a host of delightful flashbacks from Scout’s childhood. This part of the book is like going home again, and it’s wonderful! But from the mid-point onward, we have a different story. Jean Louise is repeatedly struck by how different everyone seems, even her beloved Calpurnia. Her best friend is gone. Her brother is dead. There’s no one there to help her navigate the changing terrain.

Uncle Jack and Jean Louise spend the last section of the book discussing how Atticus had been Scout’s idol, her own self, really, for most of her life. Until now, the idea that she and her father would disagree on anything was completely foreign to her, unthinkable. But now Scout must “shake off a twenty-year-old habit and shake it off fast” (271). She has to be her own person, which means recognizing her own failures (that she is colorblind – not in the sense we might mean it now, but in the sense that she genuinely doesn’t see how people act, and are treated, differently, like it or not) as well as the failures of those most important to her, little Maycomb, Henry Clinton, and especially her father. There’s a painful break from childhood, and it’s going to be hard for those of us who were there with her, but that doesn’t mean the book is bad. It’s just hard. It’s a challenge.

I definitely think reading Go Set a Watchman is an exercise in suspending our egos. Which is ironic because Jean Louise has a similar task. For many of us, To Kill a Mockingbird was a special experience, and it holds a special place in the canon of American Literature. Atticus Finch is everything a good American should be: a stand-up guy who defends the less fortunate, who teaches his children to be who they are while also respecting others, who puts his own life and career on the line in his effort to ensure justice and a common good. What’s not to love about that? But, realistically, that was the young narrator’s perspective. That was the story told through memories of an adult looking back on her childhood from a nostalgic distance.

Go Set a Watchman is a worthwhile read for many reasons, one of which is for its intimate look at the many types of racism. It seems that every character in this book exposes their prejudices at some point, but each is also prejudiced, bigoted, in a particular way. Some of the characters simply hate black people. Others believe there’s some kind of natural, biological difference which elevates whites over blacks (and popular “science” of the time that explores this theme is referred to in the book). And still others seem reactionary: times are changing, and they respond with fear and resistance – there’s little real malice in this, just a personal anxiety of sorts.

The book is also interesting in how it addresses the Supreme Court’s integration decision, especially illustrations of how different people react to it; most of the southern characters disagreed with the decision, but some, like Scout, still found it necessary. There’s an intriguing look at the ideological differences between “States’ Rights” conservatives and “Federalist” liberals. Considering recent events, such as the newly-raised debates surrounding the Confederate Flag and “Southern Pride,” the release of this book is bizarrely serendipitous as it tackles the very same arguments going on right now. In reflection, it’s also incredibly scary (and disappointing) that these same conversations are still happening, half a century later.

One difficulty I have with this book, aside from my personal reactions to being disillusioned with the reality of Atticus (who, by the way, may be racist, but who is also still committed to justice and nonviolence) is the narrative construction. While Harper Lee’s prose style is still incredibly attractive, much of the book reads as compilations of scenes with fascinating and revelatory flashbacks, but which struggle to work together cohesively. It becomes very clear where, why, and how this book became To Kill a Mockingbird, but it also left me wondering what might have happened had that original classic developed into something twice the size, an epic spanning the length of time that is ultimately covered by the two works, and corrected accordingly. An interesting thought.

I can say that I think this is a fascinating, intellectually and emotionally challenging companion to To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of looking to Atticus as the hero of this novel, we’re going to turn to Jean Louise and, despite her own racism, try to applaud her courage in standing up to her family, empathize with her growing pains, and hope the best for her. Will she stay in Maycomb, where she might be able to do the most good (as Uncle Jack so presciently notes: “the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong . . . they don’t need you when they’re right”). Or will she go back to New York, where she can see people of other races as simply people?

Ultimately, I don’t think Go Set a Watchman works well without To Kill a Mockingbird, which is problematic; still, for those who know the originally or who will eventually read it, this one adds so much depth and reality to the story of Maycomb and the Finches. Lee wades into difficult, muddy, maddening terrain; she does it well, and with her own characteristic flavor.

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2015 TBR Pile Challenge, Book Review, Classics, Fiction, Korean War, Literature, Southern Lit, Walker Percy

Thoughts: The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy

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The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is loved by many with the same passion and intensity as books like The Catcher in the Rye are loved by others. And many readers find this one just as difficult to enjoy as The Catcher in the Rye, too. It is unlikely that one will get through a graduate program in American Literature without hearing this book mentioned at least a few (dozen) times. Yet, here I am, after four years of undergraduate study in English/American literature and another 5 years of graduate study in English/American literature, and I have just now read it.

The book won the National Book Award and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Best English-language novels. At the same time, it’s a darkly didactic, existential novel. Walker Percy was an enormous fan of Søren Kierkegaard, and that influence is recognizable in this work (although much more so in Percy’s later writing). Still, the heaviness is balanced, here, with a poetic narrative structure that gives some lightness to the rather despondent tone.

The Moviegoer is set in New Orleans not long after the Korean War. It tells the story of Binx Bolling, a stock-broker just about to turn 30 years old. Bolling is basically isolated from the world, though he holds a job and interacts with family and friends. Still, there is a willing distance brought on by family problems and his traumatic experiences in the war, but also by the general decline of southern tradition which is the underlying theme for the entire work.

To cope with his depression and anxiety, Bolling has taken to constant daydreaming. He enjoys routine and repetition, these are safe, and he finds meaning and comfort in movies and books rather than the real world, which is why he cannot manage to maintain any healthy or lasting relationships (even his most loving, meaningful relationship is rather disturbing).

At Mardi Gras, Bolling decides to break his routine and set out on a journey in search of his true self. This quest takes him on a rather directionless and ultimately pointless meandering around New Orleans’ French Quarter, down around the Gulf Coast, up to Chicago and back again. Although he interacts with people he meets along the way and has some insightful and poignant moments, these experiences essentially amount to little of substance. Bolling is making an effort, mostly unconscious, to maintain a vague existence. He wants to be open to life’s possibilities, or so he says, but he is basically unhappy, unsettled, and unfulfilled.

Still, though Binx is an oddball–mentally unstable, emotionally stunted, and intellectually uninspiring–he yet has a bizarre and unsettling charm, an eccentric and darkly humorous personality that is simultaneously off-putting and somehow familiar. His flaws, that he is homophobic, sexist, and racist, are not glossed; and yet, the honest depiction of this disturbed southern “gentleman” almost, almost, adds to the charm of his character.

In another place, at another time, it would be quite easy to fall head-over-heels in love with Binx and his story, for his disillusion and his complete willingness to admit that there’s just not a lot in the real world that is worth living for. We could fall for him as simply as teenage boys have, for decades, fallen for Holden Caufield’s antagonistic, self-indulgent cynicism. But, for me, I think that time has mostly passed – and for that, I am grateful. 

What is the nature of the search? Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.

Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: 21+

Interest: Southern Literature, New Orleans, American Existentialism, PTSD, Depression.

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1001 Books, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Coming-of-Age, Courtroom Drama, Events, Fiction, Harper Lee, Historical Fiction, MockingbirdReads, Read-Alongs, Social Drama, Southern Lit

Thoughts: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

2657To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 46

Harper Lee’s noted –and only- work, To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a classic piece of literature and a staple of American culture and southern history.  The narrator and protagonist, Scout Finch, along with her brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, begin the story as lighthearted, inquisitive and playful children who are fascinated by a mysterious neighbor named Arthur “Boo” Radley.  As the story progresses, they have a series of encounters with Boo, but they do not know it (until all comes to a head in the tragic and life-altering conclusion).  Jem and Scout’s father, Atticus, is the town (and county’s) best lawyer, and also a representative to the state legislature.  He is tasked with defending a black man against the charge of rape, and the task will change his children forever.

Although the book directly wrestles with issues of racism, violence, bigotry, caste, and education, its primary concern is coming of age and loss of innocence.  Scout’s innocence, in particular, but also Jem and Dill’s, is threatened by successive incidents that reveal to these generally kind, somewhat simple kids the presence and nature of human evils.  This is especially made clear with the conviction of Tom Robinson, a black man who, from the start, was bound to be found guilty, despite Atticus Finch’s brilliant defense and the clear evidence support Robinson’s innocence.  This conviction shatters Jem’s world and forces him into manhood, meanwhile causing Dill, a gentle and artistic soul, to face the harsh realities of a world he tries so hard to avoid.

The trial is only the first of two major incidents which will change the kids’ worlds.  The second happens at the end of the book, when the man whom accused Robinson of rape (and whom Atticus clearly implicates instead), attempts to make good on his promise to ruin Atticus Finch.  Although neither he nor anyone in his family was punished for their perjury and false accusations, and although Robinson was ultimately convicted and suffered the harshest fate, Bob Ewell still feels it necessary to seek his own justice for the “damage of character” done to him at the trial.  This particularly subplot is particularly telling of how class, within white society, is just as important and just as divided as the world of blacks and whites.

Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird is an exploration of human nature and each individual’s capacity for both good and evil.  It is a commentary on the importance of moral education – much more so than academic education, and a discussion on social class and the true meaning of justice (and who is entitled to it).  Harper Lee utilizes interesting Gothic techniques, reminiscent of the great southern Gothics such as Flannery O’Connor, to build tension and anticipation, and to foreshadow the story’s more important events.

Allowing the story to be told from Scout’s point of view, in retrospect, adds both honesty and evidence to the story, but also some room for doubt.  She narrates the entire story in the first person, as through her childhood self’s eyes, but then adds analysis and supplementary thoughts to the narration, as an experienced adult revisiting these events after many years.  The inclusion of these comments makes the narrator more trustworthy, as it reveals to us that she is aware (and admitting) that she is somewhat distanced from the time and place of the story and, therefore, could possibly be over or under-exaggerating certain things.  The tone of her narration, like the tone of the story, begins in childhood innocence but becomes increasingly foreboding and self-conscious as the tale unwinds.

To be sure, To Kill a Mockingbird holds a beloved place in the hearts of many readers and also a coveted spot in the canon as a “classic” of American literature.  When I first read this book, many years ago, I was not as much of a fan as I thought I would be, but this re-read has proved me wrong.  The book is well-written and masterfully constructed (where and how Lee begins the story, for instance, really struck me as perfection, this time around).  The characters, good, bad, and indifferent, are believable, interesting, and important to the plot and scenery.  This is a book I will be revisiting again and again.

I read this book as part of a read-along, with additional thoughts posted Here.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 16+
Interest: Social Justice, Racism, American South, Courtroom Drama, Coming of Age, Southern Gothic.

Notable Quotes:

“Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies” (9).

“There were other ways of making people into ghosts” (12).

“It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind” (19).

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults” (99).

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (103).

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that just doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (120).

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what” 128).

“Dill was off again. Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head. He could read two books to my one, but he preferred the magic of his own inventions” (163).

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (259).

“Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret court of men’s hearts Atticus had no case” (276).

“I came to the conclusion that people were just peculiar. I withdrew from them, and never thought about them until I was forced to” (279).

“As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra” (321).


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