This Is Not a Tribute (It's a Cry for Repentance)

-"Jean Louise, have you ever thought about coming home?"
-"If you will refrain from echoing either the last clause or the last word of everything I say to you, I will be much obliged. Home. Yes, home."
Jean Louise grinned. [...] "No sir," she said.
-"Well, at the risk of overloading you, could you possibly give an undertaking to think about it? You may not know it, but there's room for you down here."
-"You mean Atticus needs me?"
-"Not altogether. I was thinking of Maycomb."
-"That'd be great, with me on one side and everybody else on the other. If life's an endless flow of the kind of talk I heard this morning, I don't think I'd exactly fit in."
-"That's the one thing about here, the South, you've missed. You'd be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side's the right word. You're no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you."
She started the car and backed it down the driveway. She said, "What on earth could I do? I can't fight them. There's no fight in me any more..."
-"I don't mean by fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends."
-"Uncle Jack, I can't live in place that I don't agree with and that doesn't agree with me."
-"...I'll put it in my own words: the time your friends need you is when they're wrong, Jean Louise. They don't need you when they're right—"
-"What do you mean?"
-"I mean it takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days. You don't have it yet, but you have a shadow of the beginnings of it. You haven't the humbleness of mind—"
-"I thought the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom."
-"It's the same thing. Humility."
{Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee}

It's a bit disappointing to me that all anybody seems to have had to say about Go Set a Watchman is that Atticus Finch is a racist. I can't help but think they must have closed the book and stopped reading after the Citizen's Council meeting. To be fair, I still wouldn't be able to say that he's not a racist, but I don't think there's as much of an inconsistency here as our immediate, reflexive—indeed, Scout-like—reaction to the revelation would suggest. But my point isn't really to defend Atticus. What I'm more interested in is defending the book.

Watchman probably won't go down as anything half so high school American lit class meritorious as To Kill a Mockingbird. I don't honestly recall much about how Mockingbird was written, but I loved how Lee writes the South in Go Set a Watchman. And her words: she uses the lilting vernacular for her 20th century Huck, but interspersed with the most casually fabulous diction. From the women who remain "enisled in Maycomb" to the "drawing of an anthropophagous Negro," and yet it doesn't feel out of place (certainly not the anthropophagy, which has a very refined delicacy given its subject matter). If anything, I suppose the book will suffer for its plot, of which there isn't much, and maybe that some parts of it were good concepts but clumsily executed. Ultimately, it's mostly words and feelings without much action. Frankly, I don't care. That's basically what I want.

So what are those ideas? There's not much action to spoil, but I'm going to spoil like crazy, so if you have a problem with that, this is not the blog post for you. I should probably also note right now, for anyone who cares and has read To Kill a Mockingbird, that Go Set a Watchman would theoretically be a sequel, chronologically speaking (Atticus is in his 80s, Scout is a 26 year-old Jean Louise), but that Harper Lee actually wrote it before Mockingbird, and apparently her publisher or someone in the industry read it and recommended that she use the characters and setting, but strengthen the storyline. Hence, the two books are not meant to be compatible or contiguous, except perhaps insofar as Lee would have had an idea of how they ended up. Indeed, there is serious argument that Watchman would never have been published at all without external pressure on an aging Lee. But back to the ideas:

To put it in a nutshell, a worldly Jean Louise Finch comes home from progressive New York City to little backwater Maycomb for her annual two week visit in the midst of the post-Brown desegregation furor. The town is much as it once was, but the tensions have created a visible, severe polarization, to the point where Calpurnia will not even acknowledge her because she is white. While she is bewildered by the state of affairs, she is not deeply affected by it until she stumbles upon racist propaganda amidst Atticus's reading materials and follows him and her would-be fiance to a Citizens' Council meeting. Jean Louise feels like her whole world has shattered and spends the rest of the book yelling at people about it.

The last person she yells at is her Uncle Jack, who has served throughout as not quite an apologist, but at least an expositor for the South of which both gentlemanly Atticus and the loathsome Mr. O'Hanlon are a part. I know that the quote I opened with is rather long, but I wanted to capture that entire bit, because I think it picks up on something that we so desperately need to hear right now.

The most trite illustration I could use would be the current popularity of two such polarizing figures as Trump and Sanders. What a strange season at the polls, we say. Who would ever vote for...?! We're told that Facebook helps us exclude people with whom we disagree, and I've seen it in action and have even been guilty of it myself, as much as I want to resist it. Slowly, but surely, we create insular worlds for ourselves where we only hear what we want to hear. And then we are shocked and outraged when the disagreement actually filters through. How DARE they believe that! They're so ignorant, so hateful. How could anyone think...

The thing that struck me most about Jean Louise's reaction to the revelation was how personal it was. Uncle Jack tries to point it out to her, and she figures it out eventually herself, but it's so obvious from the start: she's not offended by racism because it's wrong. She's offended by her father's racism because it hurts her.

When we're so busy arguing past each other, who are we actually doing it for? If we really, truly cared to change anything, shouldn't we be building relations of mutual respect first and then using those as bridges that allow us to speak to each other as equals? It's like we've created this zero sum game of social relations, where if you don't agree with me, I've lost something personal, and vice versa, and to avoid the situation, we just break off the friendship entirely.

And look, I don't know how far I can push this either, because there comes a point where Atticus is part of a segregationist organization because he is an old man defending a way of life that, however flawed, is the way of life that he knows, and even explaining it like that can't deny that the way of life in question was founded on a deeply wrong attitude toward African-Americans and their right to equal participation in all levels of society. But can a Jean Louise actually change that fundamental inequity by shouting down her father's hate, such as it is, and then storming out the door? I don't think so.

I don't know how much more I can say, in part because there are a hundred more things I want to say, but this would rapidly become incoherent. I guess I'll end with one more quote, because this was probably the moment that really slapped me upside the head:

Jean Louise rose and went to the bookshelves. She pulled down a dictionary and leafed through it. "'Bigot,'" she read. "'Noun. One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion.' Explain yourself, sir."

"I was just trying' to answer your running question. Let me elaborate a little on that definition. What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn't give. He stays rigid. Doesn't even try to listen, just lashes out. Now you, you were turned inside out by the grandaddy of all father things, so you ran. And how you ran.

"You've no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you've been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, 'I don't like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.' You'd better take time for 'em, honey, otherwise you'll never grow..."

In other words, what makes someone a bigot is not hate, but intolerance, specifically intolerance for the beliefs and opinions of others originating in a sort of nationalism about one's particular creed. But maybe it's time we grew up and learned how to listen and how to tolerate (within reason), because it seems like this whole "we won't confirm any candidate Obama nominates" bullshit was old before it was new, and it's coming from both sides of the aisle.

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