The Awakening of Miss Jean Louise

One might be forgiven for wondering if Harper Lee’s formerly lost novel Go Set a Watchman just might be the equal of To Kill a Mockingbird. For fifty-five years we have had just one volume of the companion set, as if we only knew The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but not The Mysterious Stranger. Watchman was written first, the story of Jean Louise Finch’s return to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama after a few years of escape in New York City. Was the return a mere visit to see her elderly father or was it permanent? We do not know, nor does the novel tell us, but we do know that Lee herself did eventually return to Monroeville, where at eighty-nine she lives today in a nursing home. Her New York editor in the mid-1950s seemed unenthusiastic about Watchman but saw possibilities in the novel’s frequent and sometimes lengthy flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood and a rambunctious young girl’s 1930s-era evocation of free-roaming summers and invented games, but also Southern life, manners, and the color line.

So Lee returns to her typewriter. In a fine, easy prose, sparkling with tidbits of humor, she creates a Southern small town world as seen by Scout, the nickname of the young Jean Louise, as she navigates ages six through nine, along with her older brother Jem, her father Atticus, their black housekeeper Calpurnia, her playmate Dill, and a cast of lesser but well-drawn dramatis personae. Indeed the language is a little too fine for the six-to-nine year old narrator, a fact which invites a legitimate criticism of the novel. But on that point a willing suspension of disbelief is justified, given that even the precocious Scout could not otherwise reward us with scores of little gems such as:

Atticus had urged them to accept the state’s generosity in allowing them to plead guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass. The Haverfords had dispatched Maycomb’s leading blacksmith in a misunderstanding arising from the alleged wrongful detention of a mare, were imprudent enough to do it in the presence of three witnesses, and insisted that the-son-of-a-bitch-had-it-coming-to-him was a good enough defense for anybody.

But Mockingbird is not solely a story of Southern rhythms of the mid-1930s as seen through the innocent eyes of a very young, tomboyish girl ever willing to scrap with the local boys and averse to all impositions of femininity. Lee goes straight to The Great Forbidden in the catalogue of white racial fears: black men raping white women. That particular miscegenation is for whites de facto rape; the idea that interracial sex between black men and white women could be consensual is too abhorrent to be conceived, while that between white men and black women is almost an entitlement, though mentioned only in whispers. The only acceptable outcome to this affront to white sensibilities is lynching, whether judicial or extra-judicial.

This is the scenario Atticus faces as the lawyer for Tom Robinson, wrongfully accused of “ruttin’ on my Mayella” by the much-put-upon white trash lowlife Bob Ewell. Ewell, Scout tells us, “was the only man I ever heard of who was fired from the WPA for laziness,” after which “he resumed his regular weekly appearances at the welfare office for his check, and received it with no grace amid obscure mutterings that the bastards who thought they ran this town wouldn’t permit an honest man to make a living.” As becomes obvious to any objective eye in the courtroom, Mayella has broken the “code” and lured a black man into her shanty house allegedly to move a piece of furniture, kisses the frightened man, and then sees her father at the window and begins screaming as if she has been attacked. Tom runs, and Ewell beats his daughter. Soon enough, father and daughter both easily slip into victimhood and cry rape, and at the trial Atticus coolly eviscerates the mendacious Ewells on the stand, earning their simmering hatred. But reason and facts succumb to the “code,” The Great Forbidden, and so the all white, all male jury comes to its inevitable verdict.

Jem and Scout have been secretly watching the proceedings from the balcony, unknown to Atticus. Scout’s near deification of her father is rooted in her memories of her gentle, loving father who lets her crawl into his lap and reads to her. Despite all Scout’s scrapes, misadventures, and general pugnacity, Atticus is never really angry with her. Though not of an age capable of fully understanding the quiet courage of her father and the esteem in which he is widely held in Maycomb, Scout’s trust in him to know almost everything, to always do the right thing, and especially to always be there for her and Jem form the circumscribed and idealized perspective she has of her father. And she is not far off: reading Mockingbird, one finds a man worthy of imitation—a desire to be more like Atticus, less temperamental, more equable, more laid back.

Two decades later, in Watchman, Jean Louise returns from New York to Maycomb to visit her aging father. Little has changed in Maycomb, and little has changed Jean Louise’s image of her father. The color line is as firm as ever, and Jean Louise’s visit to Calpurnia, quietly grieving over the fate of her grandson who has accidentally killed a pedestrian, is an almost unheard of literal crossing of that line. It does not go well. But it does provide the final chapter in Jean Louise’s awakening. As a girl, she was innocent of the color line’s social mores which enveloped her, and had seen Calpurnia as a mother substitute, dispensing love and discipline with equal fervor. But now, weighed down by age, her grandson’s predicament, and long memory of the unbridgeable divide between white and black, Calpurnia barely speaks, and the realities of the color line rend the cherished memories of Scout’s childhood innocence. Plaintively, Jean Louise asks in parting, “Did you hate us?” After a pregnant moment, Calpurnia shakes her head, but Jean knows that she had a right to.

But the full catastrophe had already begun with Jean Louise’s discovery of a snatch of paper about a meeting of the Maycomb Citizens’ Council. What she now sees as the lie of her childhood crescendos with her clandestinely watching her father introducing white supremacist and state Citizens’ Council leader Grady O’Hanlon, all in the very courtroom where Atticus had so nobly defended Tom Robinson some two decades before. Seeing her father even at the courthouse meeting, much less introducing this reptilian creature, sends her rushing outside, puking her insides out. The disillusionment, the loss of innocence, is almost complete. Her sort-of boyfriend Henry is as complicit as her father. What they and the Citizens’ Councils see as a justifiable defense against the presumed onslaught of the NAACP in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision is, to Jean Louise, the howling of the Ku Kluxers railing against the possibility that Negroes might be as human as white folk. And the man she vaguely thought of marrying, and even more importantly, the man she had idolized since before she could walk, were in league with that constellation of odious views up to their armpits. Her faith and trust have been ripped from her, awaiting only Calpurnia’s melancholy head shake to be complete. Jean Louise had simply endured her Aunt Alexandra’s assumptions of class superiority and higher breeding, her supercilious presumption of white benevolence, and all her corseted, self-deluded entitlement that are the poison and ignorance of skin color aristocracy. But her father was pure, the embodiment of racial integrity, the defender of her faith. Yet now, with her own eyes, she had seen that it was not at all so. He was a monster. He may not have burned a cross, but was he not in their camp? It is a small step from radical disillusionment to white-hot anger and loathing, but the step after that is a long one. Finally, through the ministrations of a wise uncle, she comes of age. She takes that long step to a reluctant acceptance. It is not an acceptance of beliefs contrary to her own heart, but an acceptance of her father’s imperfect humanity.

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