A book of great literary interest - but of questionable merit
Published 14/07/2015 | 02:30
It is 20 years after Depression-era Maycomb, in the backwaters of Alabama, held its doomed race trial in Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.
Jem is dead of a heart attack; Dill is away in Italy; Atticus Finch has evolved into a small-town bigot who reads pamphlets on "The Black Plague" and regards "our Negro population as backward".
Scout - Jean Louise Finch, aged 26 - is the new moral compass and civil rights activist-in-the-making of 'Go Set a Watchman'.
It is not a finely written story - this reads as a "good" first draft that Lee has refused to rework. Yet even in its coarse state - where scenes are sketchy, third-person narration shifts haphazardly and leaden lectures on the Southern States' racial history stand in for convincing dialogue - it is the more radical, ambitious and politicised of the two novels Lee has now published.
It deals with the scourge of racism in civil rights era America (found in the hearts of otherwise "morally upstanding" individuals like Atticus) whose trajectory can be traced to America's relationship with its black community today and to the Charleston shootings. In this sense, it has contemporary relevance where 'Mockingbird' is safely sealed off as a piece of American history, with all the hope its ending brings for Maycomb's growing racial tolerance.
It does not undermine 'Mockingbird' but it makes a reassessment of that story absolutely necessary. Set-text students may now look for signs in that book for Atticus as the racist apologist. In the end, this is the most shocking aspect of Lee's novel, published 55 years after she was advised to discard it and focus on the children's story instead - that we will never be able to read 'Mockingbird' in the same way again and never see Atticus in the same light again.
It is the end of innocence for that novel and its simple idealism is horribly soiled.
That novel made a civil rights hero out of Atticus, for his courageous courtroom battle to save Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl. He urged Jem and Scout to stand up to an entire community baying for blood. Yet here he is in 'Go Set a Watchman', in his early 70s, entrenched in reactionary racism.
Just as Scout watched him attempting to save Robinson 20 years ago from the "coloured gallery" of the courtroom, she now stands in the same spot, watching him attend a meeting on the dangers of desegregation, admitting to have been to a Ku Klux Klan meeting years ago, and speaking of the black community in offensive, paternalistic and defensive terms.
Many have spoken of the marketing value of 'Go Set a Watchman', but one wonders whether Lee's editor was thinking about just that when she asked her to discard this angry, incriminating story and write something more "nostalgic", perhaps to sanitise it and make Atticus more palatable to White America.
Despite the boldness and bravery of its politics, this is a very rough diamond in literary terms, made up of flashbacks into childhood in which Jem and Dill are still Scout's playmates and memories of teen angst that lack the emotional detail and impact of 'Mockingbird'.
There is a moving scene when Scout visits the former, black housekeeper Calpurnia, in which Cal refuses to look Scout in the eye and sees her merely as the enemy - the "white person". It is a potentially moving scene which, redrafted, could have been emotionally devastating in Lee's hands.
In this respect, it is a book of enormous literary interest and questionable literary merit. It cannot match Mockingbird for its bewitching prose, its brilliance in capturing the southern American demotic, its exquisite picture of childhood play and innocence, corrupted by an adult world of racial injustice.
There are various plot glitches: Scout's romance with her childhood friend, Henry, brings the central question of the novel - whether she will marry him. But that is all-but-forgotten in the final chapter. And in spite of the many flashbacks, not one describes Jem's death in any detail, or Scout's emotional response to it.
The storyline is limited, too, hinging on one incident - Scout's shocking discovery that her father is not the unimpeachable moral force that she thought he was.
Yet it works, somehow. If 'Mockingbird' is a story about childhood before it is one about racism, this is a coming-of-age novel in which Scout becomes her own woman. Her betrayal and hurt over Atticus's change is ours. Whatever its failings, it can't be dismissed as literary scraps from Lee's' imagination. It has too much integrity for that.