Wednesday, August 26, 2015

‘Watchman by Harper Lee, A Review

Isaiah 21:6  For this is what the Lord has said to me, ‘Go and post the watchman, and let him report what he sees.’

           The recently published novel, Go Set a Watchman* by Harper Lee is an American classic about Justice.  John Rawls established an American philosophy of justice with his treatise, A Theory of Justice.**  Harper Lee wrote the novel;  both are insightful and provocative.  Harper Lee wrote her first novel with feeling and fascinating characters, presenting a personal understanding of justice.

           In the Watchman, Atticus Finch and his sister Alexandra represent the western heritage of Greco-Roman justice where slavery and suppression of women is acceptable. Finch’s daughter Scout, Jean Louise is able to see the overall battlefield in the struggle for human rights.  Jean Louise (her name rings of Joan of Arc, Jeanne d’Arc) represents a distinctly American concept of justice which, since Lincoln at Gettysburg, posits literally that ‘all are created equal.’ Despite dialogue in the book that indicates the South of the 50’s as rooted in fear and hatred of Koons, Kikes, Katholics and Komunists, the novel’s main characters eventually agree that equality is the goal and that it is a question of time and individual moral leadership.

          Religious services reflect the narrowness of the culture.  In contrast, Scout comments about the morning ‘service’ of the mockingbirds who sound the chirping of all birds.  Harper Lee’s prize winning novel To Kill a Mocking Bird*** was published in 1960, but the recently published Watchman was written before Mockingbird.

          The novel continues to resonate with current messages: the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle over immigration reform.  A friend of African ancestry pointed out to me that the racism against immigrants is the same as that against Blacks.  “They believe that they are the good and we are the evil.” However, Jean Louise points out to her father Atticus, we are all human and therefore all have basic rights whether the law recognizes them or not.  There is justice and there is Justice.

    The fascinating characters in the prize winning romantic To Kill a Mockingbird originated in the long unpublished realistic Watchman.   Some may find the story of the Watchman difficult to imagine because the To Kill a Mockingbird paints Atticus Finch in the 30’s as a moral giant.  Go Set a Watchman, set in the 50’s, shows his racism.   Doesn’t this indicate an important truth?  Atticus Finch favored fairness, but with limits.  Aren’t we all like that?  There is racism and there is racism; it can be measured in degrees and it still dominates modern America.

              It is tempting to designate Calpurnia, the Finch’s African American maid, who raised Jean Louis, as the “Watchman.”(Calpurnia was Julius Ceasar’s wife who warned him not to go to the Senate where he was assassinated.)  But the ‘Watchman’ role is for each and every one of us.  Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack advises her of her destiny.  Atticus’ brother Dr. Jack Finch is an anglophile; he struggles with the burden of moving from the culture of Victorian England to the 50’s South and from the 50’s South into the modern age. Uncle Jack Americanizes a quote from the 17th century English poet John Donne, “Every man’s an island," Jean Louise. "Every man’s watchman is his own conscience.”  With this advice Jean realizes her identity as a woman and as a moral force.  At the end of the story, she indicates she will stay in Macomb and fight for civil rights.

*Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman, Harper Collins, New York, 2015
**John Rawls, A Theory Of Justice, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1971

***Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Collins, New York, 1960

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