March 26th 2016


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ROYAL COMMISSION INTO SEXUAL ABUSE: J'accuse...! A travesty of justice

CANBERRA OBSERVED Turnbull's grand plan coming apart it seems

EDITORIAL Defence White Paper: rhetoric outpaces action

SAFE SCHOOLS COALITION

DOMESTIC AND FAMILY VIOLENCE Is not family breakdown the real issue?

ECONOMICS Oil offers resistance to free market's operation

HISTORY OF TAIWAN Kaohsiung Incident opens road to democracy

LAW AND SOCIETY Section 18C may render all speech "inoffensive"

VICTORIAN PARLIAMENT Risk to democracy, rights in health complaints bill

RESEARCH Transgenderism: treat it as a mental illness

MUSIC In deliberate pursuit of accidental sounds: Arve Henriksen

CINEMA AND SOCIETY Hollywood writes in "hero" part for Trumbo

CINEMA Hailing the Golden Era: Hail Caesar!

BOOK REVIEW Diminished expectations

BOOK REVIEW 12 million refugees

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BOOK REVIEW
Diminished expectations




News Weekly, March 26, 2016

 

GO SET A WATCHMAN

by Harper Lee

(William Heinemann, London, 2015)
Hardcover: 288 pages
ISBN: 9781785150289
Price: AUD$45.00

 

Reviewed by Jeffry Babb

 

Arresting titles and first lines often set the scene for a book, from “Call me Ishmael” in Moby Dick to “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” in A Tale of Two Cities. So when we read Harper Lee’s title, Go Set a Watchman, it seems we should read something into it, but what?

The title is a quote from the Old Testament book of the Prophet Isaiah: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me – Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth” (Isaiah 21:6). The watchman was to watch over Israel. He would be the moral compass. He would declare right from wrong.

For the many millions who have read Harper Lee’s much-loved classic, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), the idea of a moral compass is the core of the narrative. Atticus Finch, portrayed memorably in the eponymous movie by Gregory Peck, is a man of unimpeachable moral rectitude. The notion of killing a mockingbird, a harmless creature which gives only pleasure, is an allusion to the destruction of innocence. Atticus is a lawyer, stern but confident in the power of the law to maintain a civilised society. He does not expect perfection because his clients are human and humans aren’t perfect.

So, when one gives the title Go Set a Watchman some consideration, it is natural to assume that Atticus is the watchman, as indeed he is. But the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman is very different from the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird have problems. Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, yet it was published later. It is not correct to say that Atticus, who is the main character in both books, lacks rectitude, but he acts very differently. In To Kill a Mockingbird he fears the passions of the lynch mob. His black client will be found guilty, he knows, but at least he gets a defence.

In Go Set a Watchman, he also fears the passions of the mob, but this time it is a black mob. This role reversal is profoundly disorienting for the millions who grew up reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

The truth Is that the 1950s were a period a great dislocation for white Southerners. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) lawyers were challenging the Jim Crow laws that had kept white rule intact even in black-majority polities. The notion that by asserting their rights blacks might rule in Maycomb County alarmed Atticus Finch and most other whites. So, Atticus becomes involved in a committee to restrain the political advance of coloured people.

The only black character of any significance in Go Set a Watchman is Calpurnia, the Finches’ cook. The Finches have no black friends. The children love Calpurnia, but Lee plants seeds of doubt as to whether that love is reciprocated. We have hints that it is not. Blacks are portrayed as feckless and indolent.

In both books, Scout, or Jean Louise, is the main female character. Scout too has grown older, in reverse. Scout’s love interest, Hank, is destined to take over Atticus’ law practice, but according to Scout’s aunty, Hank is “trash”. Nothing good comes from bad blood.

Scout is returning from New York in the opening of Go Set a Watchman. Despite her joy at returning home, she finds adjusting to small-town life challenging. Race is the social capstone of the small-town South. Whites and blacks do not mix. New York is a cosmopolitan city where people of all nations rub along together, if not in perfect harmony, then with a degree of civility. As Scout explains, New Yorkers are not lacking in manners, but their manners are different from those of the small town where the Finches live.

Atticus is a decent man, but the South is in turmoil. Atticus is trying to adjust to a South that is changing and where segregation is under threat. No one knows what to expect. The NAACP lawyers in particular are regarded with dread.

Scout finds adjusting to her family harrowing. Her uncle slaps her hard in the head and draws blood. Yet Scout’s family is educated; it is of the elite of Maycomb.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a much-loved book. One would say that Go Set a Watchman is a good book, but not a great book. The most important assertion we can derive from Go Set a Watchman is that each man and woman is the keeper of his or her own conscience. These books really should have been published in reverse, allowing for greater consistency in their structure. Go Set a Watchman is an Old Testament tale with some great writing but lacking in consistency.

 

Making sense of Harper Lee

Harper Lee, one of the best-loved authors of the past century, died in February at the age of 89.

 

Lee grew up in a small town in Alabama in America’s Deep South, where she was a noted tomboy. Her bestselling book To Kill A Mockingbird was inspired by her father, who served as a model for Atticus Finch. Her father had the same scholarly diction and elevated sense of civic duty as Atticus.

Lee attended a small-town Methodist college for woman, then studied law at the University of Alabama. She later went on exchange to Oxford University.

Lee had shown some signs of literary ability, and when she went to New York to work her talent flowered into what was to become her masterwork. She was hoping for some critical attention for her book, and was stunned when it became a publishing phenomenon. The book stayed on the bestseller lists for over a year.

Harper Lee never became accustomed to fame. She and the people of her town guarded her privacy jealously. Her masterwork was in part a humorous and affectionately ironic description of small-town life in America’s South before the onslaught of modernity, and partly an indictment of the Jim Crow laws that warped life in the South.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. Finch knows he will lose the case, but believes that every man deserves a defence. The 1962 film with Gregory Peck, pictured above with the author, epitomised for Americans the feeling that they were fundamentally decent people.

Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman has a different view on black rights. His sense of civic duty is undiminished but it is expressed differently. The book is a disappointment, but it is better than no book. The title itself, with its obvious Old Testament significance, evokes a past when expectations of behaviour were far more elevated, even if frequently disregarded. Old Testament moral vigilance is the moral code of the Old South.

Authors are often asked about their characters: “What do you really think?” Harper Lee was an intensely private person. The reading public cried out for years for a new book. Eventually they got it, but it was not a new Mockingbird. We will never know what Harper Lee “really” thought.

The South has changed in many ways but in other ways hasn’t changed much at all. Harper Lee consulted people she trusted before releasing Go Set a Watchman. While it is brilliantly written in parts, it is unlikely to enhance her reputation. The moral sentiments of Go Set a Watchman do not have the uplifting simplicity of those in To Kill a Mockingbird.

When Harper Lee died in Monroeville, Alabama, on February 19, she took with her the secrets of her own moral sentiments. Now we know there will never be another great book from her.

Jeffry Babb


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