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A Queer Look at Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’

A Queer Look at Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Author: Victoria Brownworth

July 19, 2015

She is the talk of the publishing world. The reclusive Nelle Harper Lee, author of one of the most beloved and oft-taught novels of the American literary canon, has come out of the shadows of her tiny hometown of Monroeville, Alabama with the publication of Go Set a Watchman, the sequel (though meant to be a prequel) of To Kill a Mockingbird, this past July 14. It has been a controversial emergence from a chrysalis of seclusion. The eighty-nine-year-old Lee has long been a lesbian literary icon, and her protagonist, Scout Finch, a.k.a. Jean Louise, has been—along with Carson McCullers’ Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding—a girl that every young American lesbian grew up reading, knowing, “I’m not the only one.”

To Kill a Mockingbird ranks 67th on the Publishing Triangle’s list of The 100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels, a list studded with classics of the lesbian and gay literary canon. (The Member of the Wedding is 21st.) No lesbian or gay reader of To Kill a Mockingbird came away from the book without feeling that there was someone else like him or her, be it Scout or her friend Dill. These were not the stereotypical characters that we knew: the fey timid girly boy and the courageous rugged tomboy. Unless, of course, we looked in the mirror.

Scout returns as the grown-up twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise in Go Set a Watchman. And while no one else can see that she’s still a lesbian, I can. As she prepares to get off the train she has ridden from New York City to Maycomb, Alabama (I’ve ridden that Southern Crescent; it’s an amazing ride), she dons clothes like the Scout we know: “When she dressed, she put on her Maycomb clothes: gray slacks, a black sleeveless blouse, white socks, and loafers. Although it was four hours away, she could hear her aunt’s sniff of disapproval.” She dresses like every lesbian in an Ann Bannon novel. Scout could have come home from New York as Beebo Brinker. But she doesn’t.

There is a scene in Bennett Miller’s 2005 film Capote, in which Truman Capote (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) is sitting with a scotch in his hand and talking about the writing of In Cold Blood with his best friend since childhood and sometime amanuensis Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). He’s describing his connection to one of the killers of the Clutter family in Kansas, Perry Smith, with whom he has fallen in love. He tells Lee, “It’s like Perry and I grew up in the same house, and one day, he went out the back door, and I went out the front.” Capote—with the consistent help of Lee—did indeed go out the front door. She helped him with each of his books. As the film opens, Capote has become a minor star in literary New York, where his affectations and gayness are embraced, not shunned. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a wild success, which allows him to write In Cold Blood.

In the film, Lee is Capote’s constant, and only, companion. She creates a buffer between him and the people of Kansas who have only seen his like in The Wizard of Oz, never in their own backyard. As Capote says to a child on one of his and Lee’s trips to Kansas, “Ever since I was a child, folks have thought they had me pegged, because of the way I am, the way I talk.”

That is why he needed Lee—desperately. With his fedora and long scarves and mincing speech and walk, there was no seamlessness of the investigative reporter in him. But Lee, with her shirtwaist dresses and short hair and no-nonsense manner, understood small-town American life. She had herself been writing about it for years, and she knew how to talk to people in ways that Capote did not.

In the film, Capote he knows he must extricate himself from his obsession with Smith because the ending of his book—his masterwork—depends on the two killers being executed. That is his ending, the only ending. He tells Lee, “If they win this appeal, I may have a complete nervous breakdown.” Later in the film, after Smith and Richard Hickock are hanged on April 14, 1965, Capote tells Lee, again, musing, over a scotch, absolving himself, “There wasn’t anything I could have done to save them.” There is a slight pause and then Lee says, without a hint of compassion for her lifelong friend left in her, “Maybe, but the fact is you didn’t want to.” It’s a climactic moment, but like the relationship itself, it reads as anti-climax. Soon after, the friends drift apart. (Both Hoffman and Keener were nominated for Oscars for their roles; Hoffman won.)

In real life, Capote was unable to share in Lee’s success as To Kill a Mockingbird became a world-renowned novel. As for Lee, her experience as Capote’s research assistant and personal handmaiden throughout his writing of In Cold Blood, and his lack of appreciation for her contributions, may have finally soured the friendship. (Capote acknowledged her involvement prior to the publication of In Cold Blood in 1966, but Lee is not acknowledged anywhere in the actual published book.)

Tina Madison Peschock writes in her dissertation, “A Well-hidden Secret: Harper Lee’s Contributions to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood,” that there was a far deeper rift that damaged both writers and that the book may have ruined both their writing careers, inadvertently. (Capote never finished another book, and Lee never published another book until Watchman, fifty-five years after the publication of Mockingbird.)

As Peschock reveals, Lee conducted all but two of the interviews for the book and was in Kansas with Capote for the majority of the five years he was working on it–except, it seems, when she was promoting her own book and accepting the Pulitzer Prize. She writes, “By examining Lee’s and Capote’s research notes, and by juxtaposing both of the writers’ notes, one can see that Lee conducted a majority of the interviews with the townspeople, while Capote focused on Smith and Hickock.” In the film, Capote is never without Lee on his trips to Kansas; Lee is Capote’s calm, focused foil. They are almost like a couple, except they are not. This was true of them in real life, as well.

In the film, as in history, Lee writes her book—namely, what we now know to be a revision of Watchman—while Capote goes to cocktail parties and has flings with sailors and doesn’t write. Lee wins the Pulitzer, her book is optioned as a major motion picture (as they said in the ;60s), Gregory Peck becomes the embodiment of Atticus Finch, Lee sits with him on the set and with producer Alan J. Pakula in 1962 while still wearing that shirtwaist dress, and later attends the world premiere of the film with Gregory Peck. She is immersed in the world that Capote is desperate to be part of and spent the rest of his life trying to be part of: a perennial talk show guest. But it is Lee who becomes a part of American history. And now, she is back. But where does she fit in our LGBT canon today, if at all?

In Capote, Lee chastises her friend for languishing with his writing of In Cold Blood and for his dalliance with Smith. She prods him, “Do you hold him in esteem, Truman?” His response is not what she or we want to hear: “Well, he’s a gold mine.” The return of Harper Lee is, for lesbian and gay devotees of To Kill a Mockingbird, not a little maddening. I am trying to remember a time when I didn’t want to meet her, to be the writer who got that interview with her. And yet, even as a much older version of the woman whose photos I saw growing up that made me just know she must be a lesbian is everywhere now, we still have no answers.

There is this new book, Watchman, for which there are some kind, if patronizing, reviews, but which has mostly garnered negativity and even outrage from critics and from those of us who held Mockingbird in such a revered, even holy, literary place. Where is Harper Lee? Where is Scout? Where are the answers to the question of why Lee never wrote another book?

Peschock suggests that it was In Cold Blood that ended Lee’s writing career as well as Capote’s. She writes that her “exploration of both writers’ research notes [for In Cold Blood] shows what notes Lee recorded were used in Capote’s published book. Their notes not only reveal what research they conducted, but also reveal their personalities and show that the two had major creative differences […]. Because Capote did not acknowledge Lee properly, I suggest that this is one reason Lee stopped writing.”

It’s an intriguing theory. Although Lee is now speaking with the press in brief spurts, she has never offered any explanation for why she never wrote anything after Mockingbird. And because Watchman was written prior to Mockingbird and Lee’s experiences in New York with Capote and her work on In Cold Blood, we are left wondering what it was that propelled her to write Scout as she did.

I had mixed emotions about reading Watchman. Like millions of other Americans, I’d pre-ordered the book from Amazon, but as the twists and turns of the back story evolved between February and the book’s imminent release, I reconsidered. By the time it arrived, I could have easily set it aside and never opened it. I’ve done that with books before.

But what about Scout? I have taught Mockingbird for years. It’s a book I know well, a book I no longer think of as perfect, as I once did, but a book I still love deeply. Like The Member of the Wedding, or The Catcher in the Rye, it’s a book that situates my early, inchoate lesbianism for me: Scout, Frankie, Holden Caulfield—these were characters I knew as a young child, books handed to me by my mother when I was home sick from school at ages eight, nine, ten. Books I read in a febrile state, but which touched something inside me that I wasn’t sure of, something I couldn’t articulate or define.

Yet I knew, even then, as a child who was different laying in bed reading, reading, reading, that these misfit children comforted me. These children were my friends. They were the closest thing to me that I would ever find on the pages of any book as I was growing up. And with Mockingbird, Scout afforded me a special connection. My own parents were civil rights workers; I could read about Scout and know that there was, or had been, another little girl like me. Maybe there would be others.

Lee and Capote have been inextricably connected for LGBT readers. Capote said repeatedly that he was Dill in Mockingbird, and we had no reason to disbelieve him; Lee never contradicted that assertion. And we know how autobiographical the novel is. Even the family’s name was borrowed from Lee’s mother. And her own father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was, for a time, an attorney who had defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. But in a different twist on the case in Mockingbird, the men Amasa Lee defended, a father and son, were convicted and hanged, and their bodies mutilated. Lee’s father, deeply disturbed by the experience, never tried another criminal case after that, making him more like the Atticus of Mockingbird than the Atticus of Watchman.

In an interview, Capote said, “Mr. and Mrs. Lee, Harper Lee’s mother and father, lived very near. She was my best friend. Did you ever read her book, To Kill a Mockingbird? I’m a character in that book, which takes place in the same small town in Alabama where we lived. Her father was a lawyer, and she and I used to go to trials all the time as children. We went to the trials instead of going to the movies.”

For decades, Lee has been silent, living a reclusive no-interviews-please life in Monroeville, Alabama, the small town (6,500 people in the 2010 census) that was the basis for her fictional town of Maycomb. As was the case when Lee and Capote were children living in Monroeville in the 1930s (he was born in 1924, she in 1926), it’s a poor town. The per capita income for the city is $17,070, and more than a third of the residents live in poverty. The town’s main claim to fame is Harper Lee. Their second, more distant claim to fame is Truman Capote.

It’s perhaps hard for Northerners to imagine how a small town in southern Alabama created these two writers, but for anyone who has lived in the rural or semi-rural South, the complexity of that world is both suffocating and intoxicating, melded as it is with the sheer beauty of Southern towns. As Lee writes in Watchman, “She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful.”

The book is at times heartbreakingly beautiful. But you must try not to think of scenes from Faulkner or hear Billie Holiday singing about “strange fruit…swinging from the poplar trees.” Because as beautiful as the towns are that Jean Louise rides through on the train back to Maycomb, they are situated in what is still, as we know from the recent battle over the Confederate flag, a region that is also deeply racist.

But Mockingbird tells us that it is also just as deeply classist and misogynist. And the way Capote and Lee fled Monroeville for New York, we also know that it is homophobic, that the Bible Belt was a metaphorical if not literal noose around the necks of flaming queens like Capote was, and “tomboys” like Scout was.

One of the first shocks of Watchman for most readers will be the word “Negro” in the first paragraph. It reminds you that you have gone back in time, back to a time before Negro was the polite word that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. revived, and before black was beautiful, and before you were supposed to say Afro-American, then African-American, and now black again.

The “unpainted Negro house” Lee mentions is a reminder that this is the segregated South, a place with a color line, and that Lee’s fame, the reason she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature, is not just because Mockingbird is a good, maybe even great, novel, but because it features a white savior of a black man at the beginning of the civil rights movement. When Lee was writing Watchman and then Mockingbird, Alabama was a flashpoint. Rosa Parks had sat on a seat at the front of the bus on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, starting the city’s Bus Boycott, which lasted a year, engaged Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling segregated buses unconstitutional.

That was the world Harper Lee was writing in. But the world Scout Finch was living in was the world Harper Lee grew up in. The novel is set during the Depression. Scout is just a few years younger than Lee would have been at that time. It’s a world in which some will find hard to imagine, in which to be black was still to be fully indentured to whites and the color line was always drawn in blood.

It’s my belief that fewer people have read Mockingbird than have seen the film. Had they read the book, they would remember that Maycomb was as classist a town as it was racist. They would remember that Atticus Finch knew his daughter and son were different from other children. (Jem is killed off in Watchman without a backward glance, which, given the ending of Mockingbird, is shocking. I had also always imagined that he and Dill would’ve ended up together.)

Teaching Mockingbird has forced me to deconstruct the novel I have loved, and to situate it in the place that Lee never fully takes us–not in Mockingbird and sadly, maddeningly, not in Watchman, nor now as she stares out excitedly into the cameras, in any interviews that would illumine what we most want to know, like, what about Scout, or what about #BlackLivesMatter?

Yet, the outrage over Watchman has focused not on Jean Louise, but on Atticus. Atticus, that white savior who took his children to sit on the steps of the jailhouse to prevent a lynch mob from killing Tom Robinson in Mockingbird, is, in Watchman, a well-defined textbook racist. A man who gets down with the KKK while we know, fifty-five years later, that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was happening and civil rights workers were on the verge of being killed. Oddly, racism is also at the core of Mockingbird. Tom Robinson is killed the same way black men and women are being killed all over America still, today, in 2015; he is shot to death by police. And rape culture was alive and well in Maycomb, too: Mayella Ewell was most assuredly raped, just not by Tom. But no one would believe her if she told the truth about her rapist. So she chose the lie that made sense at that time, in that town: the black man did it.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the Otherness, the queerness, of Scout, Jem and Dill is established in part through their friendship with Boo Radley. But it is when the three go and sit in the “colored” balcony during Robinson’s trial that we know they are not normal white kids. They are Other—not black, but seen by blacks as skirting some undefined line. No one “mammies” them in the balcony. They are treated as their own persons, their own strange persons. And while Jem is the oldest, Scout is their leader. And because Scout is their leader, when Bob Ewell is disgraced by Atticus as a drunk and a liar and his daughter, the tragic Mayella, depicted as a whore, he is determined to get back at Atticus—by going after his daughter.

The implications of Scout being grabbed by Ewell suggest to us that he has grabbed girls before. We know he beats Mayella. Did he rape her, too? I have always taught the novel with this in mind—that Mayella is a broken girl, desperate for affection, for care, for concern. But even Lee dismisses her, defining her as a low-class slut who would make advances to a black handyman, because the Finches were middle class and the Ewells were dirt poor. Every aspect of the book’s heroism pivots off the (perhaps self-loathing) misogyny and classism of the depiction of Mayella. She is the only unredeemable character in the book. Her father is killed—by  Boo Radley, and also in a way by Jem, so he pays for his crime. Every other character has a moment of heroism—even her father, who attempts to avenge his own, if not his daughter’s, honor. But Mayella does not. She is left in the eternal purgatory of White Trash Whoredom.

Watchman has no heroes, except for Jean Louise. Atticus isn’t just mildly racist; Brown v. Board of Ed has changed him from the man who defended Tom and sat on the jailhouse steps with his children to protect him, into a Donald Trump-style demagogic hater. He believes fully that Negroes are inferior as a race and dangerous as a people. He rants at Scout, telling her that Maycomb’s Negroes are “backward” and “still in their childhood as a people.” It’s repugnant, yet also fully believable. Lee wrote the book in 1956. This Atticus rings regrettably true for those of us who grew up being called “race traitors” and “nigger lovers” for not being racists, or for our parents having black friends. But in the context of Mockingbird, this Atticus is a monster. We want no part of him.

What we do want is Scout. And we see her, briefly, the old Scout, again and again, as she spends much of the novel trying to situate herself somewhere, trying to imagine getting married, being back in this suffocating town, trying to imagine a world in which she can be part of The Newlyweds or The Diaper Set—the women whom her aunt has brought her to see. She can’t quite position herself in the world of compulsory heterosexuality. But it’s too soon for her; Stonewall is more than a decade away. Scout is still there, inside Jean Louise. But unlike the Scout of Mockingbird, she’s no longer the leader of the pack. Here, she has no pack, and she’s unsure what kind of leadership she should bring to the table. She doesn’t even know where that table is.

I come away from revisiting Harper Lee with sadness. I don’t feel the loss of Atticus Finch. He is still there, in Mockingbird. That other Atticus is just as real, but he reads as flat and fake, as if Lee herself was trying to pour all of Southern white racist rage into one character, just as she put all of Southern misogyny and its embedded link to racism in Mayella. But Scout is still there, and she’s still the lesbian I knew she was when I first read her as an eight-year-old girl in bed with some sickness in the dead of winter. She’s still the girl I knew I could grow up to be, except I got to grow up to be a lesbian and she did not, because I was born decades later and in the North and in a big city, not a small town, etc.

So I ache for the Scout I knew in Mockingbird, and I ache still more for the Jean Louise of Watchman. Mourn Atticus if you will, but it is Scout who gets lost to history in Watchman. Scout, the fighter, the justice-seeker, the dirty, scruffy, raging little lesbian-to-be who was an icon for so many of us as children. Scout gets pulled into the vortex of another time, a time when there were Negro houses and girls from Monroeville were destined to marry or become recluses. And for that, I might never forgive Harper Lee, nor perhaps Truman Capote. Or perhaps I’ll merely choose not to forgive their time—the time Go Set a Watchman drags us back to. It is not the trip we wish to take.



Victoria Brownworth photo

About: Victoria Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, 'From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth' won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, 'Ordinary Mayhem,' won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book 'Erasure: Silencing Lesbians' and her next novel, 'Sleep So Deep,' will both be published in 2016. @VABVOX

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