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  • Ursula LeGuin's very personal response to Go Set A Watchman
Ursula LeGuin's very personal response to Go Set A Watchman

Three days ago, Ursula LeGuin posted an interesting essay about Go Set A Watchman. (http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/08/03/a-personal-take-on-go-set-a-watchman/

I read it this morning and thought about it all day. She speaks of the conundrum presented by Go Set A Watchman, speaks very personally, via her own relationship with her Southern in-laws, with whom she lived during the mid-fifties while her husband finished his PhD at Emory.  

"If you love and respect people who live in and obey the rules of such a society, and I loved my father and mother in law, and they deserved all my love and respect — if they love and respect you, as they did me — if you have family feeling or rational sense of decency, you do not and cannot arise in a halo of self-righteousness at every instance of race prejudice, denounce, disown, and depart. Depart where? You live there. These are your people. You are a member of this kind, upright, affectionate family. You live in this society with its tremendous, ingrained prejudices — racial, religious, and other.

"You find how to evade showing approval of injustice, and how to avoid practising it, as well as you can. You meet the endless overt bigotry with silent non-acceptance, perhaps with a brief word or two reminding the bigot that not everyone shares, or admires, his opinons. Now and then, when Cousin Roy gets to ranting on about the niggers, and you’re about to leave the room because you’re feeling sick, your mother-in-law says very quietly, I don’t like such talk, Roy. And Roy shuts up.


"Oh, it’s all so much more complicated than it looks like from outside, to people who don’t have to consider how love and loyalty constrain you, to people from Outside the South, where of course no such injustice is ever practiced, no such bigotry exists."

Love that final irony. And I highly recommend reading the entire essay. 

I find, though, that I did not agree with her rationalization, and I say this with the utmost respect, because LeGuin's writings have had a profound effect on the way that I think about language and story and frankly, living life. I speak from a less intense, but similar situation, when we were staying with my future husband's Holocaust survivor family, having met them for the very first time. They were then in their early seventies, and one morning, at breakfast, they both spoke disparagingly of African-Americans.

Like LeGuin, these were people I loved and respected, although they were not people on whom i was financially dependent, as it sounds like LeGuin was with her inlays.  They had also experienced incredible, unbelievable, inconceivable hardship during their teens. Both had lost multiple family members, in one case 400 extended relatives from a close-knit clan. Both had been in mulitple labor camps, one in Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz with a death march in between, the other in Auschwitz. Both had lost multiple close family members to the Nazis, Stalin, and local brutality and had gone on to live lives of great accomplishment and were wise and kind. 

Yet, now, they spoke with bitterness about “those blacks,” blaming a daughter’s drug addition on dealers who were people of color. 

At that breakfast table, eating eggs cooked by one of them, I chose to speak up. While my future husband's foot lowered over mine--the silent "shut-up signal," I said that they, of all people, who had lost so much, could not prejudge others as evil because of skin color or religion or anything else tribal. They began to speak of "other" black people who were good people, but still, said that most black were "lazy, dirty, bad.” 

I knew that a family member had been the one to introduce their daughter to illicit drugs. This family member had suffered no ill effects, but the daughter was still, at that time, struggling to break her addiction after years. I repeated my point. I feared I had offended and hurt these first members of the family of the man I hoped to marry. No resolution came. My now-husband said privately, "you're not going to change their minds," but as I told them, I had an obligation to always speak out. 

I am still glad did so. I think we are obligated to speak up, speak out, though I try to do so in the way that will be most likely to be heard. That means speaking gently, and listening to the other person’s perspective. I still have a strong connection with this family, and am so grateful to have them in my life. 

LeGuin posits that Lee never wrote again because "because she knew her terrifyingly successful novel was untrue. In taking the easy way, in letting wishful thinking corrupt honest perception, she lost the self-credibility she, an honest woman, needed in order to write." 


I would guess that's a possibility, but I would also suggest that Ms. Lee suffered deeply from her mentally ill mother who was, by all accounts, much like the hated Aunt Alexandra–“like Everest, she was cold and she was there." Mrs. Lee ignored her fierce, funny, tomboy daughter except to find her lacking. Her mother had died shortly before both books were written, but Ms. Lee’s adored older brother, the novel’s Jem, had also recently dropped dead with a cerebral hemorrhage. 

Nelle "Harper". Lee showed extraordinary verve when she catapulted out of a strong, southern orbit at a time when the youngest daughter was pre-determined to care for parents in their old age. By the time To Kill A Mockingbird was published, Harper's older sister, Alice, had been parent and parent-care-taker for nearly twenty-years. Alice was ready to turn those responsibilities over to another daughter, and Nelle was the only choice, given their third sister’s husband and children in another town.

Also, I'm not sure how thrilled the family was at their baby daughter's success.  Father, AC Lee’s reported response strikes me as sparse and a little chilly. “I never dreamd of what was going to happen. It was somewhat of a surprise and it’s very rare indeed when a thing like this happens to a country girl going to New York. She will have to do a good job next time if she goes on up. I feel what I think is a justifiable measure of pride in her accomplishment, and I must say she has dsiplayed much determination, confidence and ambition to give up a good job in New York and take a change at writing a book.” 

And  of course, Sister Louise told her son’s teacher that “To Kill A Mockingbird” was just “ridiculous.” 

When you think about it, though, this coolness or ridicule was for a fairly benign book that showed AC Lee as a veritable saint.  Had “Go Set A Watchman” been published, one can only imagine the response of both family and hometown. Think about the reaction of Pat Conroy’s family after “The Great Santini” and “Prince of Tides.” 

So, think of the raw bravery of and insight of "Go Set A Watchman." Imagine an author, still young, but bold as a falcon, getting her pin feathers clipped by Lippencott’s editors,  her family waiting to hood her to prevent further flight. It's amazing that she wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I'm sure we all wish that she had managed to write much more. 

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