“For thus hath the Lord said unto me,
Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”
I don’t like book reports – never have. What any author has to say can only be done justice by reading every word, from first to last, without shortcuts… truncation in any form is merely butchery, usually done by lessers about their betters, and with jealousy aforethought.
But having just set down Harper Lee’s first/second(?) and final book, “Go Set a Watchman”, I have a few thoughts that may be pertinent for readers’ to consider about her work, both separately and together.
Most synopses I have seen about this newest book say something like: “So it turns out that Atticus Finch was a racist after all…”, and that’s hardly what the book is about, at all. Born and bred in Maycomb County, Alabama, how could he have been anything else? He was a Southerner, through and through…
Miss Lee’s first book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” – though especially beloved by Northerners – was actually about Southerners. They were the people she came from, after all, and what is now abundantly clear is that she wrote both of her books TO THEM. To the people of the South… to HER people.
What is also made clear through ‘Watchman’ is that racism in America is not about black people, or any other ethnic minority. Racism in this country is about white people – about who they are, and the way they think & behave. It is about unseen privilege, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and unrecognized shame.
Racism is about America, North and South, and the ongoing battle over what kind of country this is meant to be. And if racism is ever to be overcome, white people are the ones who will have to do it. White people are the ones who have to overcome it…
Because, you see, Atticus Finch was an idealist, a man of principles, a man of decency and honor. But the truth is that ideals can be mistaken, and principles can be unjust, and decency & honor can fall short – because men are not Gods, nor even close to becoming perfect.
“We hold these Truths to be Self-Evident,” Thomas Jefferson said in Philadelphia, in 1776. “That all men are created Equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And then he went back home to Virginia, where he kept his black servants enslaved and in bondage until the day he died.
That kind of hypocrisy, and the feelings which allow it to flourish, are what tore this country apart one hundred years later and are still rampant throughout this land, even today.
From the book:
“Bigot,” she read. “Noun. One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion.”
“Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are.”
“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”
Just like in her earlier book, Ms. Lee – who never married – speaks from her heart to those she loves (and hates) the most. Her people, her kin and almost kin. And out of that love/hate she sets forth the truth as she sees it, painful though it may be.
That this is the same dark truth that was earlier exposed in ‘Mockingbird’ may not be as easily seen – especially by Northerners, or sentimentalists – but it is still the flaccid underbelly of Southern manhood and womanhood that she returns to observe, with this her final book.
“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There’s no such thing as a collective conscious.”
And therein lies the ever-bleeding heart of the matter. As the South goes, so goes this Nation – and mankind – for individuals have always lacked, and still do, a collective consciousness.