Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Go Set A Watchman - From a Catholic Perspective

There is so much controversy surrounding Go Set A Watchman as it is as a story, that I thought I'd speak to the main ideas that seem to be so bothersome to mainstream media reviewers and why I think that their interpretation and disgruntlement aren't quite the response one has after reading the book with a Catholic viewpoint.

I preordered the book and was excited to read it even with the many reports of Atticus now being completely racist and working with the social forces and people he tries to thwart in To Kill A Mockingbird. I was fine with the idea of completely separating the two books and characters even though they had the same names. If this was a manuscript Harper Lee worked on before going back and completely reworking what she had to create a different book in To Kill A Mockingbird it could make sense.

I read the book in a week and although it definitely doesn't have the superb pacing and plot development as To Kill A Mockingbird, I easily recognized Lee's wit and cunning in the prose even though it was not as honed. Jean Louise, the adult Scout, was an amazing character to see and I loved every moment of her in the book. I wanted to say everything she said, I loved her spunk and passion. As you probably already know, the book begins as Jean Louise returns to the South for a visit home after spending a few years in New York. She comes back to her small town, her father, her dear childhood friend and boyfriend, Hank, as well as her aunt and uncle, and Calpurnia. But as she discovers that Atticus and Hank are now working with the local citizen's council which promotes racism, her childhood faith and trust in her father is shattered and she confronts him.

 I respected Lee's honesty in the telling of Watchman's story as it played out, thinking that it was almost more realistic than To Kill A Mockingbird in the sense that liberal, professional, white men like her father probably did work with white supremacist groups due to a misguided liberal idea of how black people should be treated under the guise of protecting a Southern way of life.

I thought Lee's approach to describing this problem was insightful. It's almost impossible for us today to understand how important Lee's description of Atticus as a liberal willing to accept racist and eugenic ideals in order to protect what he felt to be more important; protecting the Southern way of life from judicial and federal overreaching he felt was happening with the civil rights movement and supreme court decision. That was a very popular viewpoint and it's impossible for us to see now with the benefit of history how people can get their morality so out of whack. How people can put political aspirations, however good in of themselves, ahead of the welfare and treatment of people? And yet, we live in a time when people put their political convictions ahead of the truth and the lives of people everyday when it comes to abortion. We need to view history not as perfect assessors free from wrongdoing, but recognize that humanity and individual human beings have been wrong over and over again in every era.

I think that's why so many contemporary reviewers of Watchman have had a hard time accepting, or even giving the time of day to Atticus -- they can't stand that someone can espouse liberal ideals while at the same time accepting racism. I found that Lee's treatment of Atticus to have an almost Catholic understanding; that individuals, no matter how high we hold them in esteem and no matter how much we love them, do and can believe things that are wrong for what they think are good reasons, but that the root of the problem is that people hold political ideals above actual living, breathing, worthy of respect and dignity, people.

The other aspect of the book which has caused a furor among critics is Jean Louise's reaction to her father after their confrontation on his support of the racist citizens council. Jean Louise puts aside her anger after their confrontation that comes as the climax to the book and recognizes that her love for her father is too strong to ignore, that she'll love him in spite of their fundamental difference of opinion. This part of the book did come off extremely fast and wasn't too well developed. I can see how people can think it's a cop out on Jean Louise's part because she's supposed to be an activist and that means disowning and chastising racists in her life and shaking the dust of her southern hometown from her feet.

Here again it's impossible for our contemporary society to understand loving someone when we think they're wrong. As evidenced so strongly in the last month or so since the Obergefell ruling, there are only rainbow photos and everyone else should be vanquished as hateful bigots. No wonder people think it anathema that Jean Louise still love her father even though he is wrong. It's unthinkable. But here again is a very Catholic and compassionate response. Jean Louise recognizes that love is more important than disagreements even over something as important and morally wrong as racism. Love is all the more important when we disagree.

At the book's end we don't know that through Jean Louise's love or continued presence in his life that Atticus will eventually come around, or if for the remainder of his life Jean Louise loves him through his shortcomings and misguided racism. We don't know if Jean Louise becomes a beacon of truth to her whole hometown, or if she returns to New York and refuses to go back because of how strong a foothold hatred has in her beloved home. I believe that Jean Louise is strong enough to love her father and her hometown, in spite of this great evil, while at the same time fighting for and standing for the truth. She is not condoning Atticus by stating her love for him, she is not participating in his sin, she is just continuing to love her beloved father. If this book as we have it is what Harper Lee wrote, then I think the point she may be trying to make is that sometimes you can't fight wrongdoing and evil in dramatic ways or in courtrooms, sometimes you fight evil by still loving those who are wrong.

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  1. I've really appreciated both this post and your post yesterday about this book. I don't have a very strong desire to read the book, but I enjoy reading about it and the Catholic commentary is interesting and sounds spot on.

  2. I have not done any research about it, and aside from the book being EVERYWHERE! haven't heard too much, so I was doing the lazy but smart thing and waiting to hear what insightful You had to say! The way you have presented it here makes me feel like I can read it with the right perspective. I didn't even know she wrote this first which really puts it into perspective. I admit it is fascinating for me to read authors' multiple works with the interest in dissecting how their thinking and writing evolve, and this would be my primary motivation for reading GSAW.

    It is surely significant that she did have this extended length of time in which she would have thought about reworking it and having it published, yet didn't. But the argument can also be made that she had this same length of time to have it destroyed or have it legally barred from being published. So even if she was not in her right mind when she consented to the publication, she certainly knew of its existence and could have foreseen this happening after her death if not before. The fact she made no provision makes me feel slightly justified in reading it, and not simply taking advantage of a situation.

    The other main point is that she did rework the way in which she wanted to depict racial struggles, and was happier with the finished product of TKAM than the earlier version. So in a way, it is almost as if they are two separate stories instead of a part I and II. And therefore it is a little less painful to see that a beloved character took on less than stellar opinions later in life. This would not be an inconsistency of Lee's, but rather Lee is allowing the reader into the inner sanctum of her story's evolution. And obviously, with TKAM being the later work, she settled on such things as the character of Atticus having a less ambiguous moral compass where race is concerned.

    Disclaimer again: haven't read it, haven't researched it too much. Thanks so much for doing that for me and letting me philosophize ;)

  3. Love this, Christy! You must get an Honorary Southerner ribbon for this.


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