Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Go Get On Google: A Guide for Mystified Readers of Go Set a Watchman

(Cross-posted at The Megaphone.)

A good friend bought me Go Set a Watchman for my birthday, and I've been making my way through it - slowly. The reason for the less-than-brisk pace: it isn't so that I can savour the quality of the prose and the turns of phrase: frankly, the prose is no more than serviceable and the turns of phrase are often clichés.

It's just that, this being the first draft of the book which many, many drafts later became To Kill a Mockingbird, and having been written in the mid-‘50s, it contains references to then-current events and examples of then-popular culture which, all these years later, have receded into the mists of time. Quite often, while making my way through the book, I have been stopped dead by a reference to something that was probably clear as day (an example of the sort of cliché Harper Lee uses here) back in 1955 but which in 2015 is entirely cryptic, necessitating a quick trip to Google for clarification.

Thus the most shocking fact about this book is not that it made a sudden reappearance after being hidden away in a drawer lo these many decades. It is that it was released to an unsuspecting, Harper Lee-mad public without any explanatory notes. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, and as a service to readers who come after me, I have taken it upon myself to elucidate a few of the author's mystifying references:

Page 12: Jean Louise declines Henry Clinton's impromptu marriage proposal, telling him:
"I want to be like Dr. Schweitzer and play until I'm thirty."
"He played all right," said Henry grimly.
Explanation:  Dr. Albert Schweitzer wrote books and composed music until he was 30. At that age he
answered the call of "The Society of the Evangelist Missions of Paris" which was looking for a medical doctor. However, the committee of this French Missionary Society was not ready to accept his offer, considering his Lutheran theology to be "incorrect".[39] He could easily have obtained a place in a German Evangelical mission, but wished to follow the original call despite the doctrinal difficulties. Amid a hail of protests from his friends, family and colleagues, he resigned his post and re-entered the University as a student in a three-year course towards the degree of a Doctorate in Medicine, a subject in which he had little knowledge or previous aptitude. He planned to spread the Gospel by the example of his Christian labor of healing, rather than through the verbal process of preaching, and believed that this service should be acceptable within any branch of Christian teaching.
I'm not sure why Henry answers in this way. Clearly, Henry's no fan of Schweitzer's "playing"--or of the man himself - but it is not at all clear why this would be so. I assume it has something to do with reasons political and/or religious.

Pages 17-18: When Jean Louise arrives home for a visit - she is now living in New York City - a book called The Strange Case of Alger Hiss is on a music stand in front of his chair. Regarding the book, Atticus comments to his sister Alexandra, who lives with him:
"I don't understand how a man like this can have the brass to give us his views on the Hiss case. It's like Fenimore Cooper writin' the Waverley Novels." 
"Why dear?"   
"He has a childlike faith in the integrity of civil servants and he seems to think Congress corresponds to their aristocracy. No understanding of American politics a-tall."
Explanation: The Strange Case of Alger Hiss, a 1953 book defending the then-alleged Soviet spy and attacking Hiss's accuser, Whittaker Chambers, was written by William Allen Jowitt. Jowitt "was a British Labour politician and lawyer, who served as Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain under Clement Attlee from 1945 to 1951." He was later raised to the peerage, and served in the House of Lords.

James Fenimore Cooper was the American who wrote such distinctly American novels as The Last of the Mohicans. The Waverley novels, a series of books set in Scotland, were written by Sir Walter Scott who was, yes, a Scotsman.

Atticus is making the point that there's no way a foreigner, a member of the British House of Lords, could understand the nuances of the American Hiss episode.

Pages 19-20: Jean Louise's face changes when she makes a sassy comment to her aunt:
...one corner of her mouth was raised dangerously.
When she looked thus, only God and Robert Browning knew what she was likely to say.
Explanation: "Only God and Robert Browning" refers to a line in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, a play that was popular in Watchman times but that is little-performed today.

Page 24: This exchange occurs between Atticus and Jean Louise
"Certainly, Jean Louise, he said suddenly, "how  much of what's going on down here gets into the newspapers?" 
"You mean politics? Well, every time the Governor's indiscreet it hits the tabloids, but beyond that, nothing." 
"I mean the Supreme Court's bid for immortality."...
Explanation: In 1955, the governor of Alabama, where Watchmen, (like Mockingbird) is set, was Jim (a.k.a "Big Jim") Folsom. His "indiscretion:" he got a waitress pregnant and was slapped with a paternity suit, the event that "hit the tabloids."

The "Supreme Court's bid for immorality" was its ruling in "Brown v. Board of Education," which, as it turned out, became very famous, indeed.

Pages 35-36: Jean Louise doesn't like something judgmental her aunt says and this ensues:
Jean Louise saw the glint of gold-rimmed spectacles slung across a sour face looking out from under a crooked wig, the twitter of a bony finger. She said: 
“The question, gentlemen - is one of liquor;
You ask for guidance - this is my reply;
He says, when tipsy, he would thrash and kick her,
Let's make his tipsy, gentlemen, and try!"    
Explanation: Jean Louise is pretending to be the be-wigged judge who sings these lines in Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial By Jury. (I find it hard to believe that, back in 1955, many of Lee's readers would have known their provenance. As for me, I have a glancing acquaintance with G&S, and know a smattering of lines from their more popular works - for example, "I am the very model of a modern major general" - but until I looked it up, I had no idea of Lee's source for this bit of doggerel.)
And the "twittering" finger? Unless that, too, is from the operetta, it should have be red penciled by an editor (because, I don't know about you, but I have never heard a finger make such a sound).

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