Thursday, July 30, 2015

The New South is the Old South

"Go Set a Watchman,” by Harper Lee, 2015

This book has been a huge seller and oddly enough, has contributed to a revision of one of the best-beloved books in the liberal American literary canon- “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  “Go Set a Watchman” is the book that Lee wrote in New York City over 8 years while working as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and BOAC.  The eventual publisher of “To Kill A Mockingbird’ didn’t want to publish this book, but instead furnished her with an editor and a suggestion she write about Monroeville, Alabama and her past, both central to this book  Additionally, some New York friends gave her money to write.  She then produced the famous work that every high-school student has to read or watched as a film.  It is an enduring portrait of a white man fighting institutional racism in the South.  Good for the white man.

Balconies Then and Balconies Later
Well, this book sets that straight.  The main dialog is not just a return home, but a return home to a reactionary South, a South that Harper Lee discovers she can no longer live in.  The many starry-eyed liberals who are insulted about “Go Set A Watchman” are learning a lesson about the deepness of racism in the South.  A South where even Atticus Finch is a member of the White Leagues.  Yes.  Every history of the Klan and its tributaries involved not just the working-class ‘white trash’ that both middle-class southerners and northerners glory in denigrating.  It also involves the various power figures in almost every southern town.  Atticus Finch was a lawyer and part of the ‘educated’ layer that opposed the school desegregation decision by the Supreme Court in 1954’s “Brown v Board of Education.” 

The key moment is when Scout/ Jean Louise spies on her boyfriend Hank and her father Atticus attending a Maycomb County (White) Citizens League meeting.  This meeting takes place in the same courtroom that saw the trial in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ and Jean Louise watches it from the same ‘colored’ balcony as in that book.    As Lee puts it, at the meeting were:  “Men of substance and character, responsible, men, good men.  Men of all varieties and reputations… it seemed the only man in the county not present was Uncle Jack…”

Ironic about that balcony. 

However Uncle Jack is there in spirit.  Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother and a doctor, later concocts a Republican ‘small government’ logic to also support the position of the (White) Citizen’s League against desegregation and the black vote.  She finds out from Uncle Jack that Atticus had joined the Klan to watch over the more irresponsible racists in town to find out who they were.  Atticus adds later in a discussion with Jean Louise that blacks are basically ‘backward’ children who should not have the right to vote yet. 

Lee explains in this book that Atticus, in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” earlier defended a black man unjustly accused of rape as he would any other attorney defense – with the added bonus that he knew he was innocent.  This incident was based on an actual trial in 1936 known by Lee.  It did not mean that Atticus was not a segregationist.  Segregationism was not on trial, otherwise he’d have been on the other side. 

And that would have been a poorly-received book.

“Go Set a Watchman” is a quote from the Bible.  It means, as later explained in the book, that a ‘watchman’ is needed as your conscience.  Scout/Jean Louise’s conscience eventually turns her away from idolizing her father and convinces her she cannot live in Alabama anymore.  She is ‘color-blind’ and that is her southern failure.  It is a summer ‘coming of age’ story in an ideological sense.  The Jean Louise of ‘Watchman’ is still somewhat of a tom-boy and perhaps a lesbian.  She acts, not 28, but still almost an immature girl, still ‘Scout’ – still sarcastic and easily angered, still flaunting the morĂ©s of Monroeville and Maycomb County, still flirting with her predestined ‘boyfriend’ without real love.  She has really become a ‘New Yorker’ in everything that implies, and it leads her to leave before the summer is over.   

The black people in “Go Set A Watchman,” – even Jean Louise’s long-time mother/maid Calpurnia – are hardening their attitudes towards the white people in town, given the supposedly nefarious  influence of the NAACP and various ‘Communists.' But their feelings actually coincide with the 'outside agitators.' This is in the mid to late 50s, mind you.  Jean Louise talks with Calpurnia at her house, but the former knows something has changed.  The idyllic world of her youth is over.  Summer is over.  The train is coming to take her away.

What this book signifies is that institutional racism in America is not going away through endless partial reforms or nice thoughts or good movies.  The south … and the north … are still variations on a constant criminal theme.  The racist basics have not changed since the first ship brought the first white ‘indentured servant’ and later the first slave ship brought the first black slave.  It is a permanent cancer on the capitalist landscape we live in.  They can only be gotten ridden of in one way - not through guilt or hand-wringing or mere words or well-meaning reforms.

Red Frog
July 30, 2015