Jean Louise & Virtue Signaling: A Meditation for Millennials

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been my summer read, and it has been so cathartic for its giving language to the experience of coming into one’s own views, views which necessarily create tension with the community that raised you.

I’ve been drawn to this novel since I charged into Better World Books in downtown Goshen, Indiana, on July 14, 2015, the official release day of the book, determined to be one of the first customers to buy it. I’m fascinated by its historic publication, and how it functions alongside Lee’s better-known work, To Kill a Mockingbird (published a full 55 years prior in 1960). It’s said that Go Set a Watchman is actually a 1957 draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, a draft that publishers did not accept (I have my own reasons for why they did not – the angsty vitriol from which Lee does not hold herself back, the neatly tied ending that offers resolution prematurely for Jean Louise’s conflict with her community, the “telling” rather than “showing,” the lack of character development, etc).

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It is this vitriol for which TKAM fans are shocked. How can the same author who wrote the heart-warming tale of 6-year-old Jean Louise produce a profanity-laced manifesto against Atticus Finch? TKAM fans revere their beloved Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends an innocent black man who was unjustly accused of raping a white woman. But in Go Set a Watchman, readers are shocked to discover that Atticus Finch not only sits on councils approving of segregation but was at one time a member of the KKK. This shock, this jolt, is the main experience of Finch’s daughter, Jean Louise, throughout the whole novel, as she comes to grips with the way that her conscience has formed apart from her father’s.

I do not offer my comments here as any sort of comment on current events, rather, as a few observations on the topic of the individual vs community, a topic which is a bit of a mainstay here at Shasta’s Fog.

I’m particularly drawn to the fact that Lee was 31 when she wrote this draft about a 26-year-old woman returning from the urban environment of New York City to visit her rural southern town one summer, as race issues pushed to the forefront in the news and in her daily life. Not only are urban vs rural tensions incredibly significant for us today, but also Jean Louise’s experience of facing realizations about her hometown is a thing so common among 20-somethings.

For me, in a world where virtue signaling has taken the place of coming to grips with one’s own emotions upon finding the disparity between one’s conscience and the community in which you live, I can’t think of a better time to reflect on Lee’s novel. There’s something about Jean Louise’s experience that speaks to the anger, fear, and disgust one experiences upon realizing that your conscience no longer aligns with the community that raised you. For Jean Louise, those issues are related to race. For the 20-somethings reading my blog, it could be that issue, but it could be many more.

A few observations:

1. First, we ought to be aware that Jean Louise is blessed with physical proximity to the issues that plague her, related to community.

She does not wake up in New York City, flip to her phone, and see an inflammatory comment from a former classmate on social media. These comments only come to her after a long train ride to from New York to Maycomb, Alabama, and even then, she has to endure a grueling hour of Aunt Alexandra’s ladies’ coffee before she can get into with Hester Sinclair. It is not that she does not engage with the tensions, but it is that she does not have to engage every day, especially in a space like social media in which very little helpful dialogue occurs. The anxiety, anger, fear, and disgust that comes from processing your community’s endless opinions on a daily basis are largely absent. This is not to say that she does not “know” her community; she could have accurately guessed how any one of them would have responded to any such event. But she did not have the burden of needing to process all of it at once, especially while sitting on her bed on any given day, reading some New York newspaper.

2. Jean Louise is used to living in community with people who believe and say really unreasonable things.

(Aren’t we all.) Jean Louise sneaks into a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, and she notices a gentleman about to speak: “She had never seen or heard of Mr. O’Hanlon in her life. From the gist of his introductory remarks, however, Mr. O’Hanlon made plain to her who he was—he was an ordinary, God-fearing man just like any ordinary man, who had quit his job to devote his full time to the preservation of segregation. Well, some people have strange fancies, she thought” (108).

You can hear the you-know-the-type in Harper Lee’s narration. This is a characterization that folks from religious communities are familiar with – we’ve all had the experience of sitting under some visiting somebody who says legendary unreasonable things that nevertheless strike a chord with our community, and we can’t believe how comfortable everyone is with it.

Jean Louise, too, is familiar with this type of visiting somebodies.

3. But what she’s not familiar with is her loved ones putting up with it.

“She stared at her father sitting to the right of Mr. O’Hanlon, and she did not believe what she saw. She stared at Henry sitting to the left of Mr. O’Hanlon, and she did not believe what she saw… …but they were sitting all over the courtroom. Men of substance and character, responsible men, good men. Men of all varieties and reputations… …She knew little of the affairs of men, but she knew that her father’s presence at the table with a man who spewed filth from his mouth—did that make it less filthy? No. It condoned” (110-111).

Jean Louise is shocked by two things: presence and silence. She is shocked to return to her hometown for a 12-day summer visit and spend the first day back watching her father and her kind-of-boyfriend listen politely to this pro-segregation discussion. Further, she is incredulous that the rest of the home folks are complicit as well, content to let a monster drone on with his political meanderings.

A comment: we’ve just come through no less than two culture wars, and I’m guessing that many young Mennonites have had this same experience. (Yet due to the pandemic, this shock is experienced virtually rather than in physical proximity.) You have been shocked by your community’s shares, likes, and posts. The whiplash you experience in your feed is divided into the following categories: urban vs rural, educated vs ignorant, and occasionally there are age dynamics (whereby sometimes age dictates fear and an aversion to conflict & dialogue). Additionally, you have had significant experiences which shape your understanding of any number of issues, and these experiences are included but not limited to: classroom education, the reading of books, urban work and urban living, and living and moving around to different states/countries.

When your loved ones do not share these experiences, and when they do not fully understand how they form your worldview, you feel silenced, or even betrayed. You feel so different, and when you realize that your conscience is continually being formed apart from a collective conscience (or collective conscious?), there is an anger that arises from the pain of separation.

Jean Louise’s language for this, for her father sitting at a council meeting where someone speaks about segregation, is one of hurt and betrayal: “The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, ‘He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,’ had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, shamelessly” (113).

4. Not only is there pain and anger, but Jean Louise experiences a disgust for home folks who speak in ignorance.

She quietly sits at an awful coffee organized by Aunt Alexandra, and she tries, she really tries. She throws a dress over her head, bothers with lipstick, and endures conversations. But she silently seethes.

You are fascinated with yourself. You will say anything that occurs to you, but what I can’t understand are the things that do occur to you. I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its ways through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. We were both born here, we went to the same schools, we were taught the same things. I wonder what you saw and heard” (175).

Notice her irritation. At the coffee, Jean Louise vacillates between amusement at Claudine McDowell’s description of New York (“We saw a stage show at Radio City Music Hall, and Jean Louise, a horse came out on stage”) and graciousness:

Claudine: “I wouldn’t want to get mixed up with all those Italians and Puerto Ricans. In a drugstore one day I looked around and there was a Negro woman eating dinner right next to me, right next to me. Of course I knew she could, but it did give me a shock.”

“Do she hurt you in any way?”

“Reckon she didn’t. I got up real quick and left.”

“You know,” said Jean Louise gently, “they go around loose up there, all kinds of folks.”

But when Hester Sinclair goes on to parrot her husband’s views related to race, Jean Louise engages with her head on. For her, there’s an incredulous horror at the “acceptable” opinions, and Jean Louise is mystified how these people made her.

5. But they did make her, and it’s not as if Jean Louise is a product of some liberal agenda at a liberal arts college. In fact, she doesn’t feel at home there either, and maybe even feels the need to “defend” her hometown to more liberal communities, in some ways. She feels conflicted about who she is and where she belongs. When the conversation dies down, one overly powdered lady turns to Jean Louise in a shrill voice:

“‘WELL, HOW’S NEW YORK?’

New York. New York? I’ll tell you how New York is. New York has all the answers. People go to the YMHA, the English-Speaking Union, Carnegie Hall, the New School for Social Research, and find the answers. The city lives by slogans, isms, and fast sure answers. New York is saying to me right now: you, Jean Louise Finch, are not reacting according to our doctrines regarding your kind, therefore you do not exist. The best minds in the country have told us who you are. You can’t escape it, and we don’t blame you for it, but we do ask you to conduct yourself within the rules that those who know have laid down for your behavior, and don’t try to be anything else.

She answered: please believe me, what has happened in my family is not what you think. I can say only this—that everything I learned about human decency I learned here. I learned nothing from you except how to be suspicious. I didn’t know what hate was until I lived among you and saw you hating every day. They even had to pass laws to keep you from hating. I despise your quick answers, your slogans on the subways, and most of all I despise your lack of good manners: you’ll never have ‘em as long as you exist” (178).

And this is the experience of so many – we have been formed by communities that make us, and we’ve had a falling out with them, but here’s the thing – they’re not monsters. I mean, at least – we don’t think they are.

6. Jean Louise is angry, and there’s a lot of language.

Ahh, uh, this is, actually, in reality, how 26-year-olds talk. They feel so much. Everything matters. Everything is vital. That is why the experience of realizing how you depart from what’s acceptable in your home community is so destabilizing.

7. Also, Jean Louise wants Maycomb not to mean anything.

She wants to be free to run away from it and not care a nit-wit about her hometown. It’s one of the things she lauds New York for: “In New York you are your own person. You may reach out and embrace all of Manhattan in sweet aloneness, or you can go to hell if you want to” (180).

But is she kidding herself? Some people are able to fly away to urban anonymity, but Jean Louise is not that naïve. Note her conversation with a gentleman at a grocery store:

“‘You know, I was in the First War,’ said Mr. Fred. ‘I didn’t go overseas, but I saw a lot of this country. I didn’t have the itch to get back, so after the war I stayed away for ten years, but the longer I stayed away the more I missed Maycomb. I got to the point where I felt like I had to come back or die. You never get it out of your bones.’

‘Mr. Fred, Maycomb’s just like any other little town. You take a cross-section—‘

‘It’s not, Jean Louise. You know that.’

‘You’re right,’ she nodded.

It was not because this was where your life began. It was because this was where people were born and born and born until finally the result was you, drinking a Coke in the Jitney Jungle.

Now she was aware of a sharp apartness, a separation, not from Atticus and Henry merely. All of Maycomb and Maycomb County were leaving her as the hours passed, and she automatically blamed herself” (153-154).

There is a reckoning that Jean Louise must have with her hometown. It is not so disposable; it is not so able to be curated. She spews out at Atticus: “You cheated me, you’ve driven me out of my home and now I’m in a no-man’s land but good – there’s no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I’ll never entirely be at home anywhere else” (248).

8. Finally, instead of owning the way that her conscience has formed differently than her loved ones, she takes on these issues personally and begins a very negative internal dialogue – that there’s something wrong with her.

You can hear Jean Louise’s desperation: “Something’s wrong with me, it’s something about me. It has to be because all these people cannot have changed. Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me—these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me” (167).

The religious language continues, and is paired with cynicism and an emerging fatalism. Also note how the narration vacillates between the narrator and Jean Louise to the point that we can’t tell if this is Jean Louise or Harper Lee herself. And it all converges: “Hell is eternal apartness. What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party” (225).

To my millennial readers, I say, if that isn’t a mood, I don’t know what is.

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If you’ve read Go Set a Watchman (especially recently) I’d be curious what your thoughts are regarding the way that Harper Lee characterizes the conflict between the individual and community (and the individual and family) as one of conscience. In some ways, we rarely hear that language anymore, and instead the conversation is immediately politicized (for example, conversations of race, gender, the economy, etc). I wonder if it could be helpful to describe these conflicts as one of conscience, and if a certain humanizing could occur by that appeal. This is what Harper Lee seems to suggest in her final chapters, particularly through the appeals of Dr. Finch and Atticus, and while I initially resisted this move, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while and would be interested in your thoughts.

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Also, Big Reveal:

To my beloved readers: I have been blogging at Shasta’s Fog for 9 years now. In the past, you’ve received free monthly content (and one year, even bi-weekly content) on this platform. I have never monetized my blog. You’ve scrolled through awkward ads, reading free literary essays, travel diaries, and academic recaps. This writing takes time. Sometimes I don’t even know why I bother putting stuff out there. In fact, I contemplate deleting my blog every summer. One of these times I will.

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6 thoughts on “Jean Louise & Virtue Signaling: A Meditation for Millennials”

  1. Maybe I’m a millennial at heart because I FELT all of this–as I was reading, for the past 4 months, and really for many years.
    Individual, community, conscience…and how did the same cultural recipe produce both their views and mine?

    1. Yes, it is an experience that extends beyond the demographic I mentioned here. In fact, your writing and work deals with many of these issues, in a sense, and does so very graciously.

  2. I read Go Set a Watchman soon after it first came out, and I remember not really liking it because of the plot issues you mentioned (plot is a big deal to me). I like your thoughts here… you make me want to read it again. These are some of the same themes that are found in Tara Westover’s story. I have definitely experienced all the feelings… betrayal, confusion, separation. There is also this feeling of being a betrayal, that I have to either betray my community or betray myself. The separation for me has happened gradually over the last 15 years or so, but the current events have certainly brought some of these feelings to the forefront again.

  3. Thank you for writing this analysis. It inspired me to read the book again during this challenging season. I wish I could say that I’m not still reeling much like Jean Louise, but as a healthcare worker the stakes feel even higher. But I think I understand Lee’s message more fully today. Thanks again!

  4. I enjoyed reading your reflections on this book. I am especially interested in how you describe the community versus the individual. You mentioned the young adults dealing with some of those tensions between those experiences.
    I am far older than a twenty something, but I have had conversations dealing with similar tensions, although what you may be referring to are more sophisticated than what I knew. Nevertheless they were real enough to me.
    In hindsight, I think the things I felt was more along the lines of how do I fit into this when I feel so different? A shift came in my thinking when I began to see the community as who I am…the good, the bad, and the ugly. I am them, they are me.
    I can stand outside to critique, but by the time I’m fifty, I’m still just “the community” to some twenty something whose point of reference is themselves.
    Like the protagonist of your book, idols will come down, but what is left is the relationship, and the love. This is me, these are my people, this is who I am. They disappoint, but they are mine.

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