"She Forgot": Obscuring White Privilege and Colorblindness in Harper Lee's Novels

Citation metadata

Author: Dwight Tanner
Date: Spring 2019
From: South Atlantic Review(Vol. 84, Issue 1)
Publisher: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,115 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

In the opening pages of Go Set a Watchman (2015), Harper Lee evokes the transitory and self-engendered nature of memory as she describes the now grown-up Jean Louise's train ride from New York City to her childhood home in Maycomb, Alabama, where she is going to visit her father, Atticus Finch. In many ways, these vivid opening passages reveal one of the fascinating, and unintended, consequences of the book's complicated release history--Go Set a Watchman was written years before Lee's wildly popular To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), is set almost twenty years after the events depicted in Mockingbird, but was not published until 2015. Thus Go Set a Watchman's description of Jean Louise's train ride home effectively mirrors a more figurative journey for readers, who are similarly journeying back "home" to visit a familiar town and benevolent father figure who has been almost universally beloved and revered by generations of readers.

During the train ride, Jean Louise (the grown-up Scout from Mockingbird) recalls other train rides to and from Maycomb. As the train pulls out of the Mobile station for the final leg of her journey, Jean Louise remembers an old fear: "When she was a child and went to the capital with Atticus, she was terrified lest the swaying train plunge down the riverbank and drown them all. But when she boarded again for home, she forgot" (6-7). While the passage clearly intends to communicate the unique comfort of returning home, it nevertheless also invokes powerful notions that link home and forgetting. Jean Louise's fear of derailment, and subsequent forgetting of this fear, highlights the power of context and the contextualization of meaning--the ways that events and experiences are often read and felt differently depending on the specific situation or locale, sometimes even to the point of being ignored or completely erased. Indeed, an underlying desire for oblivion through a rewriting of the past, especially as it relates to certain aspects of Jean Louise's home and hometown, pervades the text. This desire for erasure becomes particularly evident whenever the novel engages with issues of race and racism, two things that dominant U.S. culture has continually struggled to confront and reconcile.

The momentous 2015 release of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman was a unique and controversial literary event fraught with its own conflicts of remembering and forgetting. From the initial announcement that Harper Collins had secured the rights to the novel, a flurry of competing narratives and controversies flooded the mainstream press--ranging from questions about the book's authorship to the ethics of releasing the novel. There were even doubts regarding the professed story that the text of Watchman had been lost and then found by Lee's lawyer. (1) On the one hand, the onslaught of media coverage surrounding the book's release was not surprising given the nearly universally beloved status of Lee's only other novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the "Cult of Atticus" that has developed in the wake of the book's popularity. Indeed, the book and its...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A579714485