From Scout to Jean Louise: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

By Courtney LukGo Set a Watchman


“You’re still unable to think racially. You see only people.”

As one of the most anticipated novels of the year, Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, published in July, invites readers to view a piece of the makings of the literary classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. This unveiled story centers on the character many of us know as Scout Finch but, as her adult self, is most often called by her full name, Jean Louise. She still has her spunky attitude, the embodiment of a tomboy rather than a Southern belle. Now a New York resident, she visits her family in Maycomb, Alabama, where she grew up and faces the racial and gender discrimination present in her hometown.

Go Set a Watchman is very much a quest toward understanding for Jean Louise. She returns to a place she once knew so well with a newfound perspective adopted from the North. As she reflects on her past in Maycomb County, she tries but fails to see traces of what she now perceives as racism and sexism. Jean Louise questions how the people with whom she grew up and admired have become so bigoted; however, it is with the assistance of her Uncle Jack that she makes sense of her own stubborn bigotry in regards to the majority of Maycomb’s ideals. She must open her mind, but not necessarily change her mind, to other cultures and perspectives, understanding individuals’ motives, in order to view a full picture of the world.

As in To Kill a Mockingbird, the matter of race—particularly segregation and the level of civil rights available to the black community—is at the forefront of this novel. Her turmoil begins when Jean Louise finds a pamphlet entitled The Black Plague for a Maycomb County Citizens’ Council meeting, of which Atticus Finch is on the board of directors. The pamphlet discusses why the black race is inferior to whites, angering Jean Louise. Upon sneaking into the meeting, she listens to the chosen speaker encourage the “preservation of segregation.” In that moment, Jean Louise loses the overwhelming respect she has always had for her father. Though he does not speak the words she despises, she associates all those in attendance with agreement, later thinking, “I didn’t know what hate was until I lived among you and saw you hating every day.” What comes into conflict here is Jean Louise’s progressive thoughts on such political issues and the man she has considered so righteous and almost superhuman. This then causes her world to seemingly crash around her as its foundation crumbles.

Conversations about racism are not absent within this carefully illustrated novel. Jean Louise discusses it extensively with Henry “Hank” Clinton (her Maycomb suitor), Atticus, and Uncle Jack. Readers are able to understand, as Jean Louise does, the various perspectives of these characters and why they believe what they do, most importantly Atticus’ motives for being associated with the Council. Its publication in 2015 rather than 1960 allows these conversations to continue having merit as we, as a society, are still combating racism in different forms. Many of the core dilemmas found in this text are still relevant in America today. We may not be fighting for or against segregation in its physical sense at this point in time, but we are fighting against discrimination and entitlement in other ways.

Lee also toys with the concept of gender norms and what it means, particularly for Jean Louise, to be a woman. As a twenty-something, she is burdened by her tomboyish behavior also present in To Kill a Mockingbird. This beloved trait of hers provides conflict with her Aunt Alexandra, the women of Maycomb with whom she grew up, and most notably Hank. Hank has been courting Jean Louise since they were in high school and wishes to finally have her hand in marriage. This would be all fine and dandy except for the fact that Jean Louise is very hesitant to marry anyone. Making her even more wary, Hank tells Jean Louise how to be the perfect wife: “Hold your tongue. Don’t argue with a man, especially when you know you can beat him. Smile a lot. Make him feel big. Tell him how wonderful he is, and wait on him.” To Hank’s dismay, she does not see herself succumbing to those submissive, domestic habits.

The pair later engages in more spats about how she should act both as a lady and possible wife, to which she feels a loss of identity. This conflict is ever present in Lee’s novel. While Aunt Alexandra pesters her to act like a lady, Jean Louise just doesn’t seem to fit the bill, especially during a coffee gathering with some women in Maycomb who follow their husbands’ principles of race in the community, not thinking for themselves, which is appalling to Jean Louise. Under this lens, Jean Louise is a contemporary young woman in today’s world, making Go Set a Watchman that much more relevant as she argues against normative women’s roles.

These two major themes lace themselves throughout the text in a manner that emphasizes their importance in society. They are integral to Jean Louise’s character considering her adulthood that allows her to articulate her thoughts as they clash with those of the people she loves. This is the basis of what sets Go Set a Watchman apart from To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Scout is a charismatic six-year-old. Jean Louise has experience and independence whereas Scout does not. Though Lee’s workings of Jean Louise’s narrative falls short, mainly because of extensive scenes and prolonged dialogue that can go on for pages at a time, the idea that Jean Louise is an autonomous woman does not escape but emphasizes the novel’s core ideas.

As readers, it’s natural to compare Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird. In this respect, no, the writing is not as polished, conversations sometimes go on a bit too long, several scenes drag, and one character seems to flip-flop between a Miss and a Mister. However, what we have to remember and take into consideration is that Go Set a Watchman is a rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, not a sequel. Readers should understand that the latter is an evolution of the former, which was originally not supposed to be published. Though Go Set a Watchman may not be as revolutionary or recognized as part of the literary canon, without the development of this manuscript, we would not have To Kill a Mockingbird, which truly stands as a thought-provoking novel with a classic cast of characters whom will be remembered beyond the new release of Go Set a Watchman.

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Sheila Squillante’s Beautiful Nerve

by Stephanie Cawley

Sheila Squillante's Beautiful Nerve (Tiny Hardcore Press 2015)

Sheila Squillante’s Beautiful Nerve (Tiny Hardcore Press 2015)

(Tiny Hardcore Press/2015)

“This is what it feels like / to be both,” thinks the speaker of the first poem in Sheila Squillante’s debut collection Beautiful Nerve. And in the second poem, “Fear,” the speaker anxiously considers (or tries not to consider) “how small and frank the space between / the whole and the part,” alongside images of horse vivisection and human bodies being sliced in two. Exploring the relationship between parts and wholes is a useful way to look at Squillante’s collection of poems, poems interwoven by a system of “beautiful nerves,” at once delicate and tough, more steel wool than cotton candy.

The book is structured in three sections: the middle section consists of prose poems that chart scenes of anxious dreams about family and the body, full of bears and a fish-woman and a falling neoprene sky. The first and third sections contain more lyric and fragmented poems that explore similar thematic and emotional terrain.

Though the center section is fun to read, the real pleasure of the collection, for me at least, is in the obsessional, interlocking series of poems in the first and third sections, poems like “One Sparrow in a Flock of Sparrows from Here On,” “A Wonderful Surprise,” “Make Up a Secret About Yourself,” and “Divine Girl.” In moments of these poems, lines or phrases repeat in partial or modified echo: in “One Sparrow in a Flock of Sparrows from Here On,” the speaker says, “History is to separate or divide / in thought” and “Probably he made small talk,” while in “A Wonderful Surprise,” the speaker writes, “In history, your friend sleeps / on the sofa,” and “Separate or divide the unsightly place where secrets / bring small talk.” In other moments the poems seem almost like erasures of each other. In many, images like salt or the color blue are laden with meanings and associations developed in other poems. The title of one poem early on becomes a closing line of a much later poem, and so on.

But it becomes impossible to chart the relationships neatly, creating an effect that is both dizzying and delightful. The intricately telescoping tangle of these poems—like neural wiring, like arteries, like roots of plants—resists an easy decoding, offering instead a brilliant bouquet of “nervous yellow bloom[s].”

I am tempted to say these are poems of the mind—its jagged anxieties, uneasy associations, and lucid moments of wonder—but they are, just as much, also poems of the world the mind perceives, rendered in lush and eccentric detail. In “Perquisite,” the speaker holds “antique glass doorknobs” to her eyes so “the world looks clear and equally swag.” And the body, its failing knees and cancerous freckles, is often the center and source of this mind’s turnings. There are poems of both anxiety and love, terror and joy. Perhaps it is through these refusals to disentangle, to reduce or settle, that Squillante guides us, as readers, through “what it feels like / to be both.”

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Robert Yune’s Eighty Days of Sunlight

by Monique BrionesEighty Days of Sunlight

(Thought Catalog Books/Prospecta Press, June 2015)

“There must have been times he’d thought of leaving, pointing his car in one direction and speeding off, feeling the wind peel his old life away.”

Published last week, Robert Yune’s Eighty Days of Sunlight explores the relationship between protagonist Jason and his brother Tommy following their father’s suicide. After spending their childhoods in two completely different worlds, Jason and Tommy begin the slow process of reconciling their differences and sticking together.

One of the main buzz words around Robert Yune’s debut novel appears to be “coming-of-age.” While it’s right to categorize Eighty Days of Sunlight as such, there are a number of formulaic expectations of other (often more commercial) coming-of-age stories that Yune’s novel subverts. This is to say that the novel never falls prey to the general melodrama of other coming-of-age protagonists, who learn to define themselves through self-evident climaxes and other one-and-done experiences.

It would have been quite simple, for instance, for Jason and Tommy to have had a testy relationship that culminates into a telling moment of true camaraderie, then have Jason’s feelings about the relationship resolved. Real family relationships don’t work out as smoothly, and Yune makes sure to never give any clear-cut perspectives on any of his characters.

Because relationships transform over time, Jason and Tommy never reach a definitive conclusion, and Jason’s interactions with Tommy become the equivalent of running into a brick wall over and over again. Through listening to how Jason feels about Tommy’s unpredictable moods, upsetting drug use, and aggressive behavior, it becomes easy to see how “anger seldom moves in a straight line . . . Most angers tend to hover like humidity teeming with gnats. Without an outlet, it builds inside until one tiny thing at the wrong time sparks an epic freakout.” There’s a vicious cyclicality to this relationship that neither Jason nor Tommy know how to end, only that they do need each other.

This portrayal of the brothers is also a much more nuanced vision of family that sets Eighty Days apart from its peers. Rather than family being a duty that Jason feels responsible for, Jason considers Tommy his family due to shared experience. This view on family becomes something that Jason contends with and returns to throughout the novel. Nothing is sugarcoated about the way family works in the novel–it can throw liquor bottles at you, it can abandon you, and it can often betray you. The reason that Jason and Tommy stick together isn’t from the superficial connection of their blood, it’s because there’s too much that they’ve gone through together.

One of these shared experiences, race, becomes another issue of identity that Jason has to tackle. Although Jason and Tommy are Korean-American men, Jason doesn’t enjoy the entitled, probing questions he receives from other Asian-Americans of “what are you,” stating that “being a member of a racial group felt too much like being a member of a street gang with its own crude rules and predetermined loyalties and hates.” When Jason’s thoughts on racial identity begin to unnerve him, he sets out with Tommy and Tommy’s girlfriend Kate to figure out why he does or doesn’t feel connected to his race. He doesn’t succeed on this mission, but he later resolves his feelings while undergoing different challenges.

And perhaps this is what makes Eighty Days seems like a much more mature version of a coming-of-age story. Whether it’s solving his father’s suicide, finding romance in college, or helping Tommy out, Jason doesn’t find epiphanies or moments of clarity when he looks for them. The epiphanies come to him, and it’s not until after certain events are long past fixing that he realizes the person he’s become and how he’s adapted to various circumstances in his life.

Yune looks at Jason in much the same way that light fractures into multiple colors–one person with different aspects to be viewed separately instead of having a single defining coming-of-age revelation. The settings (Princeton, Wilkes-Barre, and Pittsburgh) pulse with a gritty resonance that embodies the characters in a strained, cage-like way; only suiting for so many erratic characters who seem to be connected by how uncomfortable they are in their current situations. Yune’s crisp metaphors and endearing comedy cut through the heavier moments of Jason’s life, delivering a tenacious debut novel.

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