Go Set a Watchman: A Novel for Southern Nationalists?
The new novel by Nelle Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, has garnished a lot of attention from the modern media. Pre-release reviews were a-shock at the new way in which Atticus Finch, an old-time Southern lawyer, is presented. Not surprisingly, they call him a “racist,” for his views on the state, race, and issues of citizenship. Set in the 1950s, Jean Louise Finch (Scout) returns to Maycomb on an annual trip, but discovers the world (or her perceptions of it) changed. Maycomb is locked in a battle, attempting to forestall a coming revolution. Throughout the story (which will surely be a classic), Jean Louise interacts with her kin, from whom she feels increasingly distant. Her father, Atticus, and her uncle, Dr “Jack” Finch, are two pivotal characters.
The book centres around the issue of race- how the South is being affected by the recent Supreme Court decision, and how this is being handled by various persons in the book. Jean Louise, with her progressive sensibilities and sheltered life, struggles to come to grips with Maycomb’s reaction.
Possibly the greatest, most level-headed person in the book is Dr “Jack” Finch. He’s of the old-school line of Southern agrarians (remarking that “some pervert invented machinery”) and offers a Southern nationalist view. Consider his words when talking with Jean Louise:
“Has it never occurred to you—have you never, some where along the line, received vibrations to the effect—that this territory was a separate nation? No matter what its political bonds, a nation with its own people, existing within a nation?”
Jean Louise attempts to defer the issue as a matter solely of history, the defeat of 1865 closing the issue. Again, Dr Finch gets the better of her:
“The remnants of that army (of the Confederacy) had children…They were never destroyed. They were ground into the dirt and up they popped.” (pg. 196)
Atticus, who comes across as that most laudable epitome of Southern stoicism, himself defends the South and her ways. Here are a variety of excerpts dealing with various subjects.
On the SCOTUS: “You mean because the Court said it we must take it? No ,ma’am. I don’t see it that way. If you think that I, for one citizen am going to take it lying down, you’re quite wrong.” (pg. 241)
On race: “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?”
On citizenship: “You realize that the vast majority of our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibility of citizenship, and why?…But you want them to have all its privileges? (pg. 242)
On Jefferson and citizenship: “A man couldn’t vote simply because he was a man, in Jefferson’s eyes. He had to be a responsible man. A vote was, to Jefferson, a precious privilege…” (pg. 244)
On government: “Yes, I’ll accept being called a snob when it comes to government. I’d like very much to be left alone to manage my own affairs…I’d like my state to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP. (pg. 245)
On race relations: “[C]an you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people who have no idea of its daily problems?” (pg. 247)
The themes or GSAW are certainly more mature, and caution is advised if the book is to be read by younger audiences. The book is almost Southern Gothic in style, with death, dismay, and the somewhat grotesque being presented in a matter-of-fact way. The writing style is easily palatable, but copious amounts of literary references in the book are enough to keep one busy well after the story has ended.
Perhaps this reviewer was just stunned to see the issues of the South laid out for the modern reader by so well a known writer as Nelle Harper Lee, but the book will certainly help spark discussion on the very same issues which continue to afflict the South today. While not perfect, it is certainly a novel that any Southerner could enjoy. And, with its condemnation of the SCOTUS and emphasis on Southern identity, it could come at no better a time.