Monday, July 20, 2015

Watchman

I just finished reading the newly released novel by Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, and the cultural differences between regions of our country were borne in upon me once again. While “Watchman” is not as intricately plot-driven as Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a carefully compiled string of intellectual and emotional growth spurts Jean Louise Finch, a.k.a. Scout, experiences. In “Watchman” she is a twenty-something lady returning to her Alabama hometown for a visit after a long stint in New York. Like Southerners we have known who have moved away and returned she has a bit of a judgmental attitude and an expectation of stasis. But nothing remains the same and you can’t go home again.
Since I don’t want to ruin the novel for you, I won’t go into a lot of detail about Scout’s expanding understanding of herself and her region, but I will say that bigotry wears many disguises and Lee shows us how subtly our judgment of others saps moral powers in so many ways. One of these ways includes the beautifully drawn contrast in the novel between the Calpurnia, sweet and stern maid of her childhood memories, and the stoically isolated and somewhat embittered Calpurnia of Scout’s return from up north. But her confusion concerning Calpurnia is dwarfed by what she discovers about her boyfriend and her own sainted father.
Perhaps the most interesting way she comes to understand the ugliness in her own heart is through her playful-yet-serious relationship with her uncle, Atticus’ brother Jack. He is a physician, esoterically in love with Victorian literature, especially the obscure or little-known authors. Apparently he had led Scout into studying and even appreciating some of these when she was a child, and he forms arguments based upon literary allusions and what he knows of Scout’s dual “citizenship” in New York and Alabama. He makes her face the fact that her attitude towards the South is as corrupt as what she loathes about the region. The culminating scenes of the novel when Uncle Jack forces the issue are not pretty.
The dialogue between Scout and her uncle reminds me of a conversation in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! in which a northerner asks his roommate, a Mississippi native, why he hates the South. “I don’t hate it,” he replies, “I don’t hate it…I don’t!” In a way, I see that same love-hate relationship in Scout in this newly released novel. “Watchman” was said to have been written before “Mockingbird,” but I believe it was wise to save its issue until now.

I say that because we are currently embroiled in yet another regional misunderstanding. And it is not just about the folks way up yonder being dead wrong about the South. It is not about Confederate flags. It is about many of our best Southern people misunderstanding each other and even themselves. The ugliness of our past is inescapable. History is history and we have to live with it because aspects of it will not go away. The modern way to deal with such issues seems to be through slogans and bumper-stickers and shallow Pinterest aphorisms. So, I will here offer a slogan dedicated to Harper Lee. It is as old as the Lord God Himself: “Love one another.” That is a tough one, but it is the only solution.

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