Sunday, July 19, 2015

Closely watched trains

Go Set a Watchman is flying off the bookshelves as many persons are dying to find out what happened to Scout.  However, some credits are a skeptical of this "sequel," which was apparently written a year before To Kill a Mockingbird.

It wouldn't be the first time an author wrote a prequel to a previous book, but for whatever reason Go Set a Watchman wasn't published in its day and we were given the young Scout instead.  I doubt Harper Lee or her publisher could have imagined the power this book would have, bolstered by a movie two years later that featured Gregory Peck as the much revered Atticus Finch.  The book is one of the most recognized American novels, selling more than 40 million copies worldwide.

Mockingbird was set in the 1930s.  Scout was a precocious young girl who idolized her father, narrating the trial in which Atticus defended a young black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.  Scout sneaks into the "coloured gallery" to witness the event, with Atticus finding himself at odds not just with the prosecuting attorney but the community as a whole, which had made up its mind that Tom was guilty.

Scout was telling this story in retropsect,  and it could very well have emerged from the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, which the publisher rejected at the time.  Atticus didn't so much take the case as a civil rights advocate, but rather out of respect for the law.  In this earlier novel, Atticus has many of the same petty biases as other respected white Southern men of his era and didn't feel that Blacks were ready to vote yet.  Atticus quotes Thomas Jefferson, who believed that the right to vote is earned not given.  Sadly, we learn the Atticus supported the status quo in the South, and this was really nothing more than a Pro Bono case out of deference for Capurnia, who had raised Atticus' two children after the death of his wife.

No longer Scout in Go Tell a Watchman, Jean Louise comes back to Maycomb, Alabama, as a self-possessed young woman who finds herself butting heads with her father and others over civil rights issues.  It is the kind of didactic first novel you would expect from an idealistic young writer trying to reconcile herself with her Southern roots.  It isn't too hard to doubt this novel came first, but Adam Gopnick thinks that at the very least the novel went through some editorial revisions that take To Kill a Mockingbird into account.

Go Tell a Watchman has come under attack mostly by critics who feel it dilutes the power of the former novel, and that we will never be able to look at To Kill a Mockingbird the same way again.  That might be so, but then maybe we interpreted Mockingbird in ways we shouldn't have, and this newly released previous novel "corrects" some of those impressions.  I guess some novels shouldn't be revisited, as we would prefer to hold onto our illusions.


  1. I am half way through the novel which is a terribly slow read but picks up after page 100. Had been on the VERY long waiting list for the book but St Paul's library system must have ordered a few extra volumes and they lent me a copy - thought I'd have to wait until December but got it last week.

    Here is a review that interested me because of its reference to William Faulkner:

    That particular writer see Faulkner as an influence upon Lee and comments about the use of biblical allusions in their books. It will be recalled that when we discussed "Absalom, Absalom" I asserted that Faulkner's book was sermon like because of its repeated allusions to the Bible. My friend Gintaras did not see it that way as he felt miscegenation was the key issue whereas biblically based moral teaching was more of a marginal matter:

    The link I provided suggests that my analysis had solid foundation. But again, I leave it up to the reader to determine for him/herself as to the proper interpretation and intent of the author.

  2. I'm sure it does, Trip. I think for Faulkner the religious references were more a way of reinforcing the themes of his novels and the way religion is so pervasive in Southern society, used to defend everything from slavery to the Jim Crow era. It was part of the world he created in Yoknapatwpha County.

    In Absalom, Absalom, Sutpen was hardly what one could call a religious man. Faulkner set him up as the perfect foil for Antebellum Southern society, essentially a gatecrasher in a society that provided itself on its petty aristocratic lineage. It's perhaps my favorite book, as he places the antagonistic characters so much at odds with each other, especially when his Sutpen's first family comes back to haunt him.