Meeting the Eyes of Harper Lee
Two weeks ago, I promised this post of my 2015 thoughts about Harper Lee’s mixed-reviewed, late-coming novel, Go Set a Watchman, which was not made public until over fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird’s publication, but was written prior to it. As April 28th marks the anniversary of Harper Lee’s birth, I present my commentary in honor of her brave and beautiful voice, an uncommon and courageous one from her place in time.
I’ve joined the throng of Harper Lee enthusiasts and curiosity seekers who vowed not to let July 2015 end without reading her earliest novel, delayed for decades from public view. Because I have shunned any early press about the story and remained staunchly ignorant to motivations behind its tardy release, I write this as an admirer who simply wanted a fair chance at having an unbiased experience with the novel and an unsullied view of its author. In other words, I wanted to read the novel on its own terms and free of the media frenzy.
I can theorize and scoff all I want about the money to be made, the caps feathered, and the high-minded logic dressed up as best intentions that likely flung itself at Lee, but that would give me nothing but indigestion and a headache. What’s done is done, and at whatever cost or fortune, I am lucky to have been able to read a few more scenes drawn from Lee’s piercing eye and willful pen.
The time stamp I recognize, hymns, habits, and all. But that is because I lived in the Mississippi of the 1960s and ‘70s and experienced similar illuminations of revivals, coffees, and courthouses. Some may argue the regional peculiarities inaccessible to many modern readers. How much context does one need to fully appreciate the social commentary, sardonic wit, and personal aversions Jean Louise expresses? I don’t know. For me explanations are unnecessary. I lived in a similar context in my youth. Admittedly, a rural, Southern Christian upbringing informs a powerful reading.
As for the story, on the surface, it’s a simple one. Young woman returns home, fans old flame, and reconsiders her future only to be awakened by memories and accosted by realities tattling that truth gets blurrier with time. What else is new?
But wait. When we travel with Jean Louise back to Maycomb and see what she sees, already knowing the story that she will tell years hence, ironies proliferate, familiar names take on new life, adolescence threatens anew, and adult romance complicates Maycomb’s landscape. A psychological evaluation of Southern culture arrives from those closest to Jean Louise, and she responds as an outsider who is also an insider, as her love interest reminds her.
The crux of the conflict ironically appears in the same courthouse, same balcony, where Jean Louise watches Atticus preside in defense of a Black man twenty years prior and in a story that had not yet been penned. In this first novel, though, Atticus and his surrogate son, Jean Louise’s on-again-off-again fiancé, shock her with their incomprehensible affiliation with Southern Preservationists. Nothing in Scout’s loss of innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird can compare to Jean Louise’s in Go Set a Watchman.
Without elaborating on every point, I will list here the themes that most arrived for me in this variegated addendum to its auspicious predecessor (keeping in mind the time reversals that keep the two works in a spiral both comic and tragic).
This story is about how vulnerable we can become in the presence of each other’s truth.
It’s about what we create and grab on to and abide in order to cope with our fears.
It’s about faith and its trappings, what holds people steady and what upends them.
It’s about being heard. It’s about listening, too.
It’s about facing who we are and recognizing that who we are is not completely up to us and figuring out how we are going to respond to understanding that.
It’s about how ignorance or hurt or anger can straight jacket us until we can find the courage to talk about it.
It’s about how we disappoint each other and how we deal with that disappointment.
It’s about knowing a place and choosing it or not choosing it and what is gained or lost in the choice.
The patchwork quilt of chapters, some fresh, some frayed, some slim, some raw, some colloquial, some bookish, and all Lee, wraps around its predecessor adding nostalgia and heat. At times, an oppressiveness made me want to kick free when I started feeling uncomfortable. Just as Lee likely intended.
****In Memory of Nelle Harper Lee (April 28, 1926 — February 19, 2016)****