Harper Lee’s Bad Form

Tom Perrin

Even if, like the Paris Review’s “Daily” blog, you’ve been keeping your exquisitely curated cultural world a “Go Set a Watchman–free space,” you must have heard by now: Harper Lee’s novel sucks. Just four days after publication, the Toronto Star concluded that “consensus has already formed among critics: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is unsuccessful as a novel, its structure shoddy, its tone uneven and its voice strangely calibrated.”

But what if, instead of simply critiquing Go Set a Watchman’s failure, we tried to analyze it? The new, older work makes more sense if we read it as an attempt to accomplish two tasks: first, to master—unsuccessfully, it turns out—the smart-magazine style that Lee developed in her student journalism; and second, to write in a genre that often relied on the ironic elisions typical of “smart style”: the midcentury social-problem novel.

Two complaints recur in reviews of Go Set a Watchman. First, its ending is “unsatisfactory,” focusing on the relative triviality of Jean Louise’s coming of age, instead of on the serious business of racism that has catalyzed it. We are supposed to care that Jean Louise ends the novel “teetering between … moral revulsion” and “acceptance” of Atticus and her community despite their racism, while, as Kiese Laymon put it in the Guardian, “in other American rooms, bruising bloody rooms that Go Set a Watchman simply can’t imagine, Calpurnia and her relatives are watching, listening to the hollow echoes of rehearsed, balanced, preserved whiteness clubbing their black hearts, black ears, black eyes, and black bodies to death.”

Second, reviewers note problems with Lee’s narrator. Gaby Wood, in the Daily Telegraph, dilated on To Kill a Mockingbird’s control of narrative voice, noting that its “narrator was virtuosic: not merely first person but a kind of double exposure, offering a six-year-old’s point of view and a 26-year-old’s vocabulary,” before lamenting that “there is none of that skill” on display in Watchman. It is instead, for the San Francisco Chronicle, “written in a wobbly third person that hews closely to Jean Louise’s distressed point of view,” but “sometimes lapses awkwardly into first-person passages to depict her innermost thoughts and turmoil.”

These two complaints are related, and what links them is the little-recognized fact that Lee was attempting to write a social-problem novel. Go Set a Watchman attempts to solve a problem that plagues this genre: how to graft an account of a structural problem onto a personal narrative. The social-problem novel aimed to demonstrate, for a middle-class readership, the toxic power of racial and religious prejudice in American life. Major contributions to this midcentury mode include Ann Petry’s The Street (1946), Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit (1944). Gentleman’s Agreement even includes a detailed description of how problem fiction will convert a tastemaking upper-middle class from bigotry to tolerance: “The very people who set the styles for the country in clothes and cars and salads” will, the narrator hopes, kick-start a popular anti-prejudice movement that will eventually sweep the nation as a whole.

Harper Lee’s new book attempts to solve a problem that plagues the social-problem novel genre: how to graft an account of a structural problem onto a personal narrative.

Midcentury middle-class readers preferred middlebrow fiction, and middlebrow fiction—unlike, for instance, modernism—remained resolutely attached to conventional modes. In literary theorist Janice Radway’s terms, middlebrow fiction depended on “rich and elaborate realism,” “unforgettable character[s],” and “the rush of a good plot.” As Uncle Jack tells Jean Louise in Watchman, “Oh dear me, yes. The novel must tell a story.” The conventionality of social-problem novels was strategic, gambling on the idea that, if they could avoid alienating a middle-class popular readership up front, they might subsequently avoid the pitfalls of popular realism by adapting that mode’s characteristic formal features.

One of the most significant of such pitfalls is that social problems do not operate at the level of the individual. The social-problem novel’s success depended on the illusion that the climax of the individual’s story was equally climactic for a much larger structural issue. In both Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, the trick Lee attempts is to equate her protagonist’s coming of age with fighting racism. Paradoxically, because of this trick, it was common for reviewers to praise social-problem novels by deciding they were not detectable as such: the New York Times backhandedly praised Gentleman’s Agreement for its author’s skill in “camouflag[ing]” her “Grade-A tract” as fiction. “This is in no way a sociological novel,” wrote the Chicago Tribune of Mockingbird. “It is simply an excellent piece of story telling.”

One way social-problem novels achieved their sleights of hand was through the use of a kind of irony we might call smart talk. Smart talk flourished in “smart magazines” like the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, where writers like Dorothy Parker and James Thurber perfected the style. Parker’s short story “Horsie,” for instance, turns on the tastelessness of a posy of gardenias compared to a rival bunch of “strange little yellow roses, with stems and leaves and tiny, soft thorns all of blood red”; yet the story largely elides what the crucial difference between the two is supposed to be. A smart quip about the gardenias, “Thank the Lord she didn’t put them on,” takes the place of an explicit value judgment. Smart talk thus teaches the middlebrow reader which fashions to embrace and reject by flattering her with the idea that she already knows what they are.

Smart talk was a useful style for social-problem novels. It helped instruct a reader who might wonder how, say, a marriage plot could provide a blueprint for ending prejudice, by suggesting that of course, the likes of you and I already know. In a metafictional moment from Gentleman’s Agreement, a smart-magazine editor is asked how the writing he commissions will succeed in combating anti-Semitism where “problem books” like Strange Fruit and Under Cover have failed: “‘I looked at them,’ John said, ‘before I decided to get this series written.’ They all laughed.” Knowing laughter obscures the fact that we leave the scene knowing nothing.

In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise claims to “despise” New York and New Yorker glibness, “slogans, isms, and fast sure answers,” in favor of a different kind of gentility: the Southern “manners” that New York will “never have … as long as you exist.” In fact, though, she’s only too full of smart talk. “Did you go to the top of the you-know-what?” she asks a friend. We’re the kind of people who know she means the Empire State Building. “Piping down the valleys wild? No. Did he write to a waterfowl, or was it a waterfall?” Jean Louise and her readers, we’ve forgotten more poetry by William Cullen Bryant than you’ve ever read. On the other hand, we’d never have “another shabby little affair à la the Birmingham country club set.” You know what those Birmingham country-club types are like, all “misery for everybody” and “the latest Westinghouse appliances.”

Yet the book’s smart talk doesn’t function in the way its plot requires for Go Set a Watchman to succeed as the social-problem novel it wants to be. Instead, Jean Louise’s language focuses the story on her own immaturity, rather than on structural prejudice; it works to betray the fact that she is softer than she seems, “an emotional cripple” with only “the shadow of the beginnings” of maturity, even at the novel’s end. The ostentation of her diffidence communicates the same callowness as her unresolved Oedipus complex: Look, dad, I’m an omniscient narrator!

Go Set a Watchman constitutes, in part, Lee’s unsuccessful attempt to master the ironic mode she experimented with in her undergraduate years. Lee’s largely ignored student writing is heavily influenced by New Yorker humor: She name-checks Thurber on numerous occasions, once explicitly creating a pastiche of Thurber’s sketch “The Bear Who Let it Alone.” The Jackassonian Democrat, a four-page imitation of a rural Southern newspaper that Lee co-wrote in 1947, contained a spoof ad inviting readers to “JOIN THE INNER CIRCLE OF SNUFF LOVERS,” a parody of the kind of middlebrow notices that ran in the New Yorker appealing to “those few men in each community who want a finer hat.”

<i>Historical Marker at the Old Monroe County Courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama</i> (2008). Melinda Shelton / Wikimedia Commons

One of Lee’s favorite punctuation marks is the ellipsis, which she uses to give the impression that the reader knows all about what is being discussed by omitting it. Here it is in action in “Nightmare,” a 1945 sketch of a lynching from the Huntingdon College Prelude, where Lee uses it to paint a scene by presenting snippets of dialogue from a crowd of different speakers: “… didn’t take him long … neck was pretty short … best hangin’ I’ve seen in twenty years … now maybe they’ll learn to behave themselves.” Here it is again in an article humorously recounting Lee’s attempt to register at the University of Alabama law school: “Name, address, birthdate, sex, blood type … If you are a woman entering this school please tell us why … Can you recite? … Do you have an analytical mind? If so, why? Do you know the Gratian Oath? Please quote on dotted lines below …”

Lee uses it again in Go Set a Watchman, this time adding a gag, so that the sentence makes ludicrous sense if you remove the ellipses: “Mr. Talbert looked at me and said … he’d never learn to sit on the pot … of beans every Thursday night. That’s the one Yankee thing he picked up in the … War of the Roses?” In each case the effect is the same: atmosphere is conjured by an ellipsis in order to tell the reader that they already know what is not being imparted: as Jean Louise tells Hank, “You know that language, baby.”

In addition to mimicking the New Yorker generally, Lee’s student writing was filled with smart talk that, like her ellipses, invites the reader to take pride in what she already knows, baby. She kicked off “Caustic Comment,” her scuttlebutt column for the University of Alabama Crimson White, with a sketch about a classmate who wants to read Ulysses: Her friend is “a studious individual; he reads Karl Marx for pleasure.” We all know that guy, right? Lee ratifies this newly created community of smart insiders—herself, the reader, the Marx-loving friend—by contrasting it with a Philistine librarian who mistakes the student’s sophistication as degeneracy, and refuses to hand over Ulysses on the grounds of its “Neanderthal” obscenity. The librarian’s attempt to one-up the student, church-lady style, swiftly falls flat as her language betrays her own cavegirl-grade sophistication: “‘Claude!’ she scream[s],” having finally been outwitted, “‘take the keys and go down to Case A and get a book by some guy named Joyce.’” Smart’s smartness is sealed by trumping Dumb.

The snobbery of the Ulysses article reveals another issue with adapting smart talk to the social-problem genre, though: it threatens to transform prejudice into an issue of class performance: bad form. For example, the articles in the Jackassonian Democrat make no mention of race, instead satirizing redneck life—“LARGE TURNIP IN OFFICE,” runs a typical headline. In this sense it is very much of a piece with the Ulysses column, or a similar one mocking radio announcers’ inability to pronounce “the Andanty Cantibble from Chicowsky’s Sympathy No. 5.” Yet the Democrat had as its logo a cross-burning Klansman. What’s really wrong with the Klan is that they’re common.

Lee’s student writing was filled with smart talk that, like her ellipses, invites the reader to take pride in what she already knows, baby. 

This same problem, attacking racism only on the grounds of its vulgarity, spills over into Go Set a Watchman. When Jean Louise dismisses a crowd of old childhood acquaintances as “magpies,” their blather about the NAACP and “mongrelizin’ the race” reveals not so much prejudice as lack of taste, of a piece with their overdone makeup that “would have put an Egyptian draftsman to shame.” Jean Louise’s first shock upon seeing her fiancé and father at the segregationist Citizens’ Council meeting is that “the county’s most respectable men” are sitting among “most of the trash in Maycomb County.” For Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, a “white man is trash” whenever he engages in racist behavior, “no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from”; but for the Lee of Watchman, racism is to be eschewed, it sometimes seems, because it’s the kind of thing trashy people do.

When we say that the narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird is more successful than that of Go Set a Watchman, then, one thing we mean is that Lee came to develop more successful techniques of irony. To give one example: having the later novel narrated in part by a child skips over the question of how racism might be addressed in practice, not through smart talk, but by casting it into an unspecified future. We know from Atticus that empathy will be important, that we must “climb into [other people’s] skin and walk around in it” before judging them. The injury that Jem receives during Bob Ewell’s attack literalizes that metaphor—Jem’s empathy for Tom Robinson leads to his body becoming literally like Tom’s; after he is attacked, Jem’s left arm ends up “somewhat shorter than his right,” mirroring what Lee describes as Tom’s crippled, shorter left arm. But it remains unclear how this resemblance is to translate into action—is the natural movement of empathy that the middle classes will become more like the proletariat? Maybe, somewhat, but how much, and how? As much as a mockingbird, Tom, is like a Finch? But how much is that? “Soon’s I get grown—” Jem declares, realizing that concrete action is required of someone, but he breaks off, unable to imagine what he might do. Closing the action before Jem has had chance to “get grown,” Lee places such questions beyond the scope of the narrative.

Yet in both Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s success depends on her stopping us from getting too close. Close reading is the enemy of the social-problem genre, which requires us to get swept up in its illusions. Sometimes it seems as if love is based on knowing the beloved inside out, but that’s not always true, and especially not in the case of this “most beloved” of authors. A BBC listicle makes Lee’s refusal to be known magnify her lovability, her habit of telling prospective interviewers “Not just no, but hell no!” taking the #1 spot in its list of “9 Reasons Why We Love Harper Lee.” In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise tells her wannabe lover Hank that “every woman born in this world wants a strong man who knows her like a book.” Our 45-year love affair with Lee suggests that that kind of knowledge is precisely no knowledge at all.