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Bearing witness to Harper Lees Go Set a Watchman

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I suspect that many who raced out to buy the new, expensive hard-back version of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (sold with a canvas shopping bag, no less) were disappointed after reading it. 

The reader is taken along with Scout (now addressed as Jean Louise) through a painful journal of disillusionment when the revered Atticus is revealed to be all-too human. Equally painful for many will be the lengthy dialogues engaging with abstruse aspects of American Constitutional history and law. Even worse, we are also left wondering about the extent to which Scout herself is on the road to compromising some fundamental values and beliefs. Or perhaps she was always bound to end up as a product of the (post slave-owning) Southern society where she grew up …

My first misgivings arose when Jean Louise’s beloved Uncle Jack (Dr Finch) gives his rant against the perils of ‘big government’:

People’s attitudes toward the duties of a government have changed. The have-nots have risen and have demanded and received their due — sometimes more than their due. The have are restricted from getting more. You are protected from the winter winds of old age, not by yourself voluntarily, but by a government that says we do not trust you to provide for yourself, therefore we will make you save.  

But I then became really distressed when Atticus asks “Jean Louise, what was your first reaction to the Supreme Court decision?”  Her answer is that she ‘was furious’.

She was. She had known it was coming, knew what it would be, had thought she was prepared for it, but when she bought a newspaper on the street corner and read it, she stopped at the first bar she came to and drank down a straight bourbon.

“Why?”

“Well sir, there they were, tellin’ us what to do again – ”

Her father grinned. “You were merely reacting according to your kind,” he said. “When you started using your head, what did you think?”

“Nothing much, but it scared me. It seemed all backward – they were putting the cart way out in front of the horse.”

“How so?”

“Well, in trying to satisfy one amendment, it looks like they rubbed out another one. The Tenth. It’s only a small amendment, only one sentence long, but it seemed to be the one that meant the most, somehow.” 

Although not specifically named, the Supreme Court decision under discussion here can only be the 1954 decision Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, 347 US 483 (17 May 1954), in which the Court declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.

The amendment the Court was trying to satisfy (to use Jean Louise’ phrase) was the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution; a clause which took effect in 1868 in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Equal Protection Clause provides that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws”, and the decision in Brown v Board of Education was the beginning of the end for racial segregation in America.

The Tenth Amendment, which Jean Louise sees as ‘the one that meant the most, somehow” provides that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people”.

It is, as Jean Louise notes, one (rather wordy) sentence in length, and effectively serves as the ‘States rights’ clause in the American Constitution.Which means that what Jean Louise is effectively saying is that her first, instinctive response to the decision which gave African Americans the right to access non-segregated education was dismay at the erosion of states rights.

Now those in Australia like David Flint and Greg Craven who have, since the ‘Engineers’ Case‘, bewailed the erosion of states rights and the increase of Commonwealth government powers in Australia may share her sympathies, but many liberal Australians will not.

The more important relevance of Jean Louise’ moral dilemma in Go Set a Watchman, however, is the insights it provides into the moral dilemma faced by many liberal-minded Americans born and raised in the Southern States of the USA (Alabama in Harper Lee’s case) since before the Civil War and even today.

There are three possible paths that Jean Louise can take. She can move back to New York, and wash her hands of the whole racist mess down South — which means she isolates herself from her birthplace. She can stay, marry, conform and fit in — which means she betrays many of her own deeply-felt beliefs about the way society should operation. Or she can stay and fight — in which case she makes life extremely difficult, if not impossible, for those she loves — including Henry Clinton (Hank) who comes from ‘the wrong side of the track’ and needs to pay particular attention to conforming to local ideals if he is ever to have a chance at success in his chosen career of law.

We never find out which path Jean Louise finally decides to take. But the book provides valuable insight into the courage it can take to remain living in the same community as those whose lack of tolerance one has difficulty tolerating. For those who raised ‘No Room for Racism’ banners at recent protests held around Australia, the relevance of Go Set a Watchman might be that there is value in bearing witness to and seeking to understand intolerance, as well as in refusing to tolerate it.

Related story:

Helen Razer on the so-called lost innocence of that hot liberal daddy, Atticus Finch

This article, Bearing witness to Harper Lees Go Set a Watchman, first appeared on Daily Review: film, stage and music reviews, interviews and more.