Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Scout goes home again

Guest Contributor

Fifty-five years after To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman has been published. If Harper Lee or her publisher planned its timing, they could not have picked a better time to release this novel. Harper Lee has once again given the world a captivating look at and a gripping narrative on the most divisive issue of our time.

In 1957, Harper Lee submitted her novel, Go Set a Watchman, for publication. At the advice of her editor, she was asked to rewrite it as a coming of age story narrated by a young
Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch. It took Harper Lee two years and, in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was published.

Watchman was written while Lee was living in New York City. In the mid 1950’s, the Supreme Court handed down three major desegregation decisions. Needless to say, the decisions, which nullified States’ segregation “rights,” hit the southern states like an earthquake. Those tremors became the focal point for the novel, Watchman.

Jean Louise Finch, now 26 years old and living in New York City, returns to Maycomb County for a two week family visit. Her father, Atticus, is now 72 years old and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. He lives with his sister and caregiver, Alexandra. He needs help with shaving, buttoning his shirt, tying his shoelaces and needs to be driven to his office where he still practices law. Still very well respected, he now has an assistant attorney, Henry Clinton, Scout’s teenage beau.

With both passion and humor, Jean Louise’s narrative treats us to her intimate experiences with the people who loved her and who she in turn loved. They meant the world to her.

After her first day back in Maycomb County, she says, “Every time I come home things change,” and she does not like change. Having lived in New York City for seven years, embedded in a more sophisticated culture and surrounded by artists, she feels out of touch with the people she grew up with and the rural South.

She tells Henry Clinton, who still loves her and wants to marry her, that there is no way she is prepared for marriage even though she loves him. When he asks, “What do you do at night in New York?” she replies, “I attend the Art Students League five evenings a week.” She is still very much her own person and cares less what other people think. She has become more cynical in Henry’s eyes.

The next day her world falls apart. She drives to the Maycomb Court House where her father is chairing a meeting with Maycomb County’s Citizens Council and Henry is one of the attendees. She sits in the same seat in the balcony where she and her brother, Jem, sat when they watched the trial of Tom Robinson twenty years earlier. She recalls her father’s voice, saying “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” But now, even though Atticus never speaks during the meeting, she is watching him and Henry as they listen to the most evil remarks of hatred toward the Negro community. Her stomach is turned and her mind is in a frenzy.

She wants answers; she cannot believe what she has witnessed. Over the next two days, she confronts Henry and calls him a hypocrite. She also confronts her aunt Alexandra, her uncle, Dr. Finch, and, most vehemently, Atticus.

Jean Louise loves Dr. Finch. He always smoothed things over when she got into trouble. Now, he tells her that, until WWII, she was related by blood or marriage to many families in the town. The Finches owned slaves; Atticus was born less than ten years after the Civil War when the South was mired in the Reconstruction Period. As a child, he says, “You never opened up your eyes,” and now the mindset of the South is “nursing its hangover of hatred”.

Jean Louise thinks of Calpurnia, the Negro kitchenmaid who was entrusted by Atticus to take care of his children when his wife died and Jean Louise was only 2 years old. Cal was Scout’s mother. Jean Louise thinks back to when she discovered her menstrual cycle and went screaming to Cal who taught her about her monthly “ministrition” cycle and to when she thought she was pregnant because some boy French-kissed her and Cal quickly educated her. She remembers the day she was getting ready to go to the High School dance with Henry and had bought a pair of falsies to stuff in her bosom. That evening, when Scout came down all dressed up Cal noticed that one side was lower than the other. Cal wanted to sew them to the dress but Scout said no and off she went with Henry. While dancing with Henry he noticed that one side was lower than the other. Needless to say, Scout was saved the humiliation with the help of Henry and Atticus. Scout was a handful but Calpurnia loved her and knew how to handle her. Scout’s brother, Jem, was Cal’s favorite. He died of a heart attack at the age of 22, twenty years after his mother died.

When Calpurnia’s grandson kills an old drunk in a car accident, Atticus takes the case but avoids meeting with Calpurnia. This infuriates Jean Louise and she goes to visit Cal who now is 89 years old. Jean Louise, knowing what is happening in Maycomb County, now asks Cal:

Did you hate us ?
Calpurnia just stared and shook her head.

Jean Louise is devastated.

Now it’s Atticus’s turn. In a one-way blistering scolding, Jean Louise blames him for sheltering her: “I never heard the “N” word;” “Equal rights for all;” “I was color blind,” she tells him. “You sowed the seeds in me, Atticus, and now it’s coming home to you.” She walks out, goes to the house and packs her bag: “I’m never coming back.”

Dr Finch shows up as she is about to leave. She looks at him and knows that Atticus already has told him about their tete-a-tete.

“You know what I said?” she asks.
“Yes I do.”
“Why didn’t he defend himself ? All he said was, ‘I love you - as you please.’
“He was letting you reduce him to a human being.”
“You’re very much like him except you are a bigot and he is not.”

Both Dr. Finch and Henry try to tell her that Atticus did what he needed to do in order to know who he would be fighting; he needed to know who was behind those masks. Dr. Finch tells her that, “They can parade all they want but when it comes to burning and bombing, you know who will be there to stop them.”

Jean Louise realizes that the tongue lashing she spewed on Atticus was wrong but she doesn’t know how to approach him. Dr Finch tells her that Atticus has handled worse slander and not to worry: “Just go.”

When she returns to her father’s office to pick him up, she sees Henry and makes a date with him for that evening. She intends to let him down easy as to his marriage plans.

Atticus, hearing her in the office, says, “Jean Louise, are you ready?” She is startled and starts to say she is sorry but sees he is smiling. He tells her that he is proud of her for standing up for what she believes in. When she says to him, “Atticus, I think I love you,” he replies, “Let’s go home, Scout. Open the door for me.” She steps aside to let him pass.

The words of her uncle, Dr. Finch, will stay with her: “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.”

Norman Darvie was born in the Bronx, New York and comes from a family of artists where his siblings, uncles and cousins are and were painters, potters, sculptors and jewelry designers. Self-taught, he started painting at an early age and has mastered techniques in a variety of media: charcoal, pen & ink, pastels, watercolors, acrylics and oils, as well as figure sculpting in clay, wax and stone. Retired and a graduate of Rutgers University with a BA in Mathematics, he now lives in West New York, New Jersey and continues his art work in his studio in upstate New York. Norman is currently a life member of the Art Students League of New York and many of his paintings and sculptures are in private collections throughout the Country. For more, see normandarvieart.com.


  1. It seems as though Mr. Darvie was able to see beyond the poor writing of this rough draft and feel the story Harper Lee first wrote. Good for him. I couldn't get past the first chapter. Many writers (not so popular as Lee) are able to create beautiful, heartfelt stories as well but don't have the likes of Tay Hohoff to turn their drafts into magic. I just wonder how well 'Watchman' would have done had someone simply corrected the grammar? I mean, would it have won a Pulitzer Prize? Or any prize for that matter.

    I see that Norman Darvie is an artist and not a writer or publisher so perhaps he reads for the story and not for how well the story is told. Maybe this is how all those self-published books on Amazon/Kindle get so many 5 star reviews--people who aren't interested in the art of writing can highly appreciate a badly written GREAT story.

  2. I understand that your view of "Watchman" (formed on the basis of having read one chapter) differs from that of Norman Darvie, my guest contributor. However, I disagree with your suggestion that only authors and publishers are capable of determining whether something is “good” or “bad” writing. By that reasoning, writers and publishers are incapable of seeing the difference between a child’s Play-Do creation and a Bernini sculpture – only artists can do that. Moreover, your implication that Darvie is like those readers who give high ratings to self published books on Amazon only because they cannot recognize “good” writing is more than a tad offensive.

    I have not read the book but, I gather, since I am not a published author or publisher, my views would be irrelevant anyway. From where I stand, however, it appears that you and he have focused on two different aspects of the book. You have decried the writing in the first chapter and deeply deplore the “changes” in an entirely fictional character.

    Darvie is making the point -- quite apart from whether it is "good" writing -- that this is a book that should be understood in the context of its times. It – like "Mockingbird" -- addresses one of the most divisive issues of those decades and of the present – race relations and racial equality. I think that point is salient and should not be overlooked.

    1. I am not suggesting that only authors and publishers are capable of determining whether something is “good” or “bad” writing. I was attempting to point out that readers, any readers—educated or not—read what they “like” and what makes them “feel good or challenged or educated them in some way”. Many articles have been printed in the past couple of weeks proposing that the first draft of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is rough and that ‘To Set A Watchman’ was not ready to be published, yet there are more 5 star reviews on Amazon and the reviews ring of innocence and charm and all the of good things Darvie suggested.
      Maybe my writing is so bad that you missed my point. I was trying to say that some poorly written self-published books, including my own, receive 5 star reviews in the same way ‘Watchman’ does—people give 5 stars if they “like” or “enjoy” or are “moved” by a story no matter how it’s written. I am sorry if I offended you or Darvie. I was, in fact, speaking about the writing and the need for good publishers who push writers to write “better” or maybe I should say “correctly”.
      And as for deploring the idea of this new Atticus Finch, you are entirely correct. Which is why I fear to read ‘Watchman’.

  3. It sounds like Shelia didn’t want to like ‘Watchman’ from the outset. I don’t think anyone was honestly expecting a novel as polished as ‘Mockingbird.’ If anything the abandoned and recently “discovered” ‘Watchman’ is interesting because it gives us insight into the very polished and insanely marketable ‘Mockingbird.’

    1. You are correct Tammy. After reading 16 articles panning 'Watchman' (panning the grammar, the suspicious timing of the release, and the tarnishing of Atticus Finch) I am afraid to read it. But after reading Darvie's review I just might garner the courage to download a copy.