10 Beautiful Lines From Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

14 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A book of great literary interestIn “Go Set a Watchman,” Scout Finch discovers her 72-year old father Atticus Finch has attended Klu Klux Klan meetings and advocates for segregation. Bookshop worker Kate Hanley (17) from Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, gets a peek at ‘Go Set a Watchman’, the new novel by Harper Lee, author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, at Chapters Book Store in Parnell Street, Dublin. The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wasted no time expressing her shock that in the first version of the novel that was eventually released as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” beloved father and enlightened rural Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch was a bigot.

Later, the admired lawyer from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was included in a charming book titled The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived. How did the Atticus the world thought it knew — portrayed in Mockingbird as owner of “a civilized heart” — become the cranky racist of Lee’s new-but-older novel Go Set a Watchman?

Now, with reviews out that say Lee’s beloved character Atticus Finch is depicted as a racist in the new work, fans are more inquisitive than celebratory. But this, like all key pieces of important literature, asks us key questions about ourselves,” one man said. “To have something that is a property that was unknown about for such a long time to be released is so huge and the interest surrounding this is just phenomenal,” Lita Weissman said.

Although we moved away when I was a small child, my family returned often to visit my parents’ best friends, who lived two doors down from the famous author. Yet even in its coarse state – where scenes are sketchy, third-person narration shifts haphazardly and leaden lectures on the Southern States’ racial history stand in for convincing dialogue – it is the more radical, ambitious and politicised of the two novels Lee has now published.

Because the book wouldn’t be available to the general public for days, we had only the analysis of a few privileged critics to go by. “The depiction of Atticus in ‘Watchman’ makes for disturbing reading, and for ‘Mockingbird’ fans, it’s especially disorienting,” Ms. It deals with the scourge of racism in civil rights era America (found in the hearts of otherwise “morally upstanding” individuals like Atticus) whose trajectory can be traced to America’s relationship with its black community today and to the Charleston shootings. Kakutani writes. “Scout is shocked to find, during her trip home, that her beloved father, who taught her everything she knows about fairness and compassion, has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion.

In the hours before Tuesday’s official publication, Mockingbird fans were shocked to learn the aging Atticus was bitter at the successes in the 1950s of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and at the demise of the Old South. In this sense, it has contemporary relevance where ‘Mockingbird’ is safely sealed off as a piece of American history, with all the hope its ending brings for Maycomb’s growing racial tolerance. Instead of the anachronistic saint of “Mockingbird” whose progressive ideas about race in backwater Alabama in the 1930s could only have existed in science fiction novels, the Atticus of “Watchman” is a flawed, white Southerner filled with racial anxieties that will be familiar to bigots and xenophobes. Dutifully, I would write a letter explaining who I was, and why I was the one journalist who should be allowed to score the elusive interview with her.

In other words, in the original version of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Harper Lee portrayed Atticus the way a lawyer of his race and class in the deep South during the 1950s would have actually comported himself. “Watchman,” according to early reviews, is about the tension between a grown-up Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her elderly father as their deeply racist Alabama town resists inroads by the insurgent civil rights movement. In the end, this is the most shocking aspect of Lee’s novel, published 55 years after she was advised to discard it and focus on the children’s story instead – that we will never be able to read ‘Mockingbird’ in the same way again and never see Atticus in the same light again. It was also never clear what shaped his atypically liberal outlook, why a Finch had — as one Maycomb, Ala., crone put it — “gone against his raising” to defend a black man.

Lee’s editor, didn’t believe American consumers were sophisticated enough to read such an uncompromising indictment of American racism when it was submitted for publication in 1957. Lee was a teacher, then a bookkeeper, moved to Monroeville, Ala., on which ’s Maycomb was based, in 1912, met and married Frances Finch (who provided Atticus’s surname) and began his upward mobility. A few years later, I published my first novel, A World Made of Fire, a Southern Gothic tale written in iambic pentameter, set in the Alabama countryside of the early 20th century. He was elected to the Alabama legislature, became a church deacon and publisher of a local newspaper — using that pulpit to promote frugality and morality. Despite the boldness and bravery of its politics, this is a very rough diamond in literary terms, made up of flashbacks into childhood in which Jem and Dill are still Scout’s playmates and memories of teen angst that lack the emotional detail and impact of ‘Mockingbird’.

But as Charles Shields chronicles in his 2006 book Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, “A.C. was no saint, no prophet crying in the wilderness with regard to racial matters.” “Like most of his generation, he believed that the current social order, segregation, was natural and created harmony between the races,” Shields wrote. “Blacks deserved consideration and charity as fellow creatures of God; and the law should protect them. There is a moving scene when Scout visits the former, black housekeeper Calpurnia, in which Cal refuses to look Scout in the eye and sees her merely as the enemy – the “white person”. She remarked on the coincidence of “you, me, and Truman all from the same little town.” She said nice things about my writing and wished me luck going forward. By the time Mockingbird was published in 1960, A.C. was almost 80 and “counted himself an activist in defending the civil rights of Negroes,” Shields wrote. It cannot match Mockingbird for its bewitching prose, its brilliance in capturing the southern American demotic, its exquisite picture of childhood play and innocence, corrupted by an adult world of racial injustice.

Through all the joy and pain of first publication, Miss Nelle’s kind words made me feel as if I had been officially welcomed into the club. “HELL NO” had magically become “HELL YES.” I finally did get to meet her, on a hot summer day when my Daddy and I were having lunch at David’s Catfish House in Monroeville. As Watchman ends, she ruefully welcomes Atticus, her one-time idol, “to the human race” — in all its contradiction and disillusionment, the state in which it labours still.

The storyline is limited, too, hinging on one incident – Scout’s shocking discovery that her father is not the unimpeachable moral force that she thought he was. He’s no longer too good to be true, but he is “real.” Just as supporters of the Confederate battle flag insist it is a genteel heirloom of Southern heritage, the Atticus Finch of the last half century has been a fake, too, in a way.

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