Not as well-written, but far less reductive about racism. Photo: Getty
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Why Go Set a Watchman is a much better novel than To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee's newly released novel may not win another Pulitzer, but it's far more honest and mature about the complexity of racism in the South.

Go Set a Watchman turns out to be a hot mess of a book. The flashes of lyrical genius and ability to evoke the intensity of childhood play that come to fruition in To Kill a Mockingbird are in evidence, but so too are rather obscure discussions on constitutional law and the tenth amendment, an irritatingly pert main character, and a dull love interest. It’s nowhere near the novel Mockingbird is. It is much better than that.

In the days running up to Watchman’s release, Mockingbird fans – for there can be no other description, mere "readers" or "admirers" won't suffice – set aside difficult ethical discussions of whether the 89-year-old Harper Lee was capable of really consenting to the publication of what many believed amounted to a rough first draft of her work.

Instead fans took to twitter with their wishlist of what they hoped for in the sequel. Some hoped Scout and Dill would be married. Some hoped Jem and Scout spent Christmases together, filling Maycomb County with the happy chatter of their adorable precocious children. Some hoped Boo Radley was out and about, perhaps working in telesales. Curiously though, no one seemed to be hoping that Atticus was a fully paid-up member of the White Citizen’s Council, bending his arthritis-addled hands to the fight against integration, and explaining to Scout: “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people”.

Funny that no one saw that coming. Really, they should have. Because outside the white liberal fantasy that is To Kill a Mockingbird, the reality, the historical record shows us that (spoiler alert!) the vast majority of white Southerners were racist and didn’t want to sit next to black people in the theatre.

We did know that the so-called white trash Southerners, the KKK members, the Bob Ewells, the ignorant poor, didn’t want to sit next to black people. Mockingbird taught us that. What Watchman tells us, and tells us rather powerfully, is that racism is not confined to people who are so clearly not like us.

Some commentators on Watchman have suggested Atticus becomes racist as he gets older, as if some kind of dramatic ideological transformation has taken place in his worldview since Mockingbird.  It’s nonsense. He was racist in Mockingbird, but just politer about it. He thinks everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, and everyone should be able to access justice. He doesn’t want Tom Robinson to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit. He thinks Tom Robinson is a good man. But he doesn’t want to sit next to him in a theatre.

Racism is not, and never has been, a yes/no question. Many white Southerners who risked considerable personal danger to challenge some forms of racial injustice were perfectly comfortable with other forms. The Committee on Interracial Co-operation, founded in 1919 in Atlanta in response to a wave of racial violence across the South, wanted to improve communication between white and black people in the South. But they didn’t want to end segregation. The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, founded in 1930, sought to protect people like Tom Robinson from the horrors of the lynch mob. But they didn’t want to end segregation.

Politeness in the South has always masked the kinder, gentler racism practised by middle-class whites. Shocked by the Supreme Court’s determination to force Southern states to abandon segregation, men like Atticus Finch – the “men of substance and character, responsible men, good men”, the men Jean Louise sees at the White Citizen’s Council  stop being polite.

The mistake made by so many fans of Mockingbird was to assume that a passion for justice and the rule of law went alongside a commitment to racial equality, and a determination to overcome prejudice. Sometimes, it didn’t. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton has said that Watchman, “reflects the reality of finding out that a lot of those we thought were on our side harboured some different personal feelings”.

This is what makes Watchman better than Mockingbird. It’s not better written, I doubt it’s going to win another Pulitzer, and since its release the list of actors queueing up to play Atticus in Mockingbird 2 got a lot shorter. But Watchman is a lot more honest. It doesn’t feed white America the comforting version of civil rights history where the bad guys are easily identifiable ignorant hicks, the good guys are heroic and noble white men with impeccable manners, and the black people are all subservient, respectful and endlessly patient.

Mockingbird is a child’s book, told by a child. Watchman is for grown-ups. It asks serious questions about what racism is. And it comes at a time when American desperately needs a grown-up conversation about race. 

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era