Does Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman kill a Mockingbird?

15 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mockingbird’ Film’s “Scout” on ‘Watchman’ Race Controversy: “Put Your Mindset in That Time”.

Fans of “Mockingbird” have been crestfallen and disbelieving that their hero could be so changed, but perhaps no group more so than those who chose that name for their children. Harper Lee’s second novel flew out of stores Tuesday in one of the most eagerly anticipated book releases in modern publishing history and half a century after her masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird” hit the shelves.He was the hero of our school years – the charismatic Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, linked inexorably with Gregory Peck’s heroic lawyer and champion for men and women of colour in the film adaptation two years later. In Lee’s hometown of Monroeville in Alabama, where the 89-year-old lives in strict privacy at a nursing home, queues stretched out of bookshop doors to snap up copies of “Go Set a Watchman,” and some stores in the United States and London opened at midnight for the occasion. For years, Lee’s sole novel of Deep South racial prejudices moved students and non- students alike, and the only controversy was over rumours that her childhood friend, Truman Capote, had bitchily hinted that he had helped with the writing of it.

Badham, who read from Mockingbird and Watchman at a Tuesday event at New York City’s 92nd Street Y in honor of Watchman’s release, told Harper Lee: American Masters director Mary Murphy that the passages in the new book that reveal Atticus Finch to be racist are a product of the era in which they were written. The Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe in Monroeville, which is selling special editions with embossed title pages, laid on a 12:00 am launch party before reopening their doors to brisk morning trade. “We have so much going on right now and so many customers, we’ve got people out the door,” said one woman who answered the telephone, too busy to give more details. Fast forward fifty-something years to the discovery – in a safety deposit box – of the now elderly Nelle Harper Lee’s original first novel, the precursor to Mockingbird and a novel of a very different hue. Badham believes that Watchman, which Lee wrote and then set aside almost 60 years ago, deserves to be taught in schools, just as Mockingbird is, “especially now with what we’ve got going on in this country [regarding race tensions].” She added: “The root of all evil is ignorance.

Scout Finch, now a grown woman known by her given name Jean Louise, is visiting from New York, unsure of whether to marry a local suitor who she has known since childhood and enduring a painful contrast between her new life and the ways of her hometown. Released yesterday to great trumpeting within the publishing world and already ranked number two on Amazon, ‘Go Set A Watchman’, has created its own controversy. Education is the key to freedom.” When asked whether she has kept in touch with Lee since the film, Badham said she was in Mississippi years later and went to Lee’s home to visit the famously reclusive author. Scout is no longer the tomboy we know from “Mockingbird,” but has transformed from an “overalled, fractious, gun-slinging creature into a reasonable facsimile of a human being.” She is “oppressed” by Maycomb, finds it petty and provincial. It turns out that the wonderful Atticus, who alienated an entire town by defending a man of colour accused of rape, is now a racist who is terrified that black people will get the vote.

It was almost a joke.” Over the past couple of years, Campbell said, he and his wife, Jennifer, have watched with some dismay as the name Atticus became increasingly common. However, a later trip to visit Lee in the nursing home was more successful. “She [told me], ‘Young lady, don’t you ever come by here and don’t say hey to me,’ ” Badham said. “Ever since then, everything’s been fine.” Badham, who remembers that she wasn’t told much information about the film’s plot back when she was filming the role as a young girl, also shared fond memories of working with Gregory Peck (Atticus), whom she referred to as a father figure, since her parents died when she was a young age. “Gregory Peck was truly Atticus,” the actress said. “What we got at home was what you see up on the screen. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1954 that declared segregation in schools is “inherently unequal.” There is nervous talk of blacks holding public office, and marrying whites. The literary world was upended when HarperCollins announced in February that it was publishing a second novel, seemingly discovered from Lee’s safe-deposit box in still-unclear circumstances.

She’s the same independent, headstrong person she was as a child who idolised her widowed father, Atticus Finch, the wise, kind lawyer who defended a black man falsely convicted of rape; the moral centre of Mockingbird. Lee wrote the manuscript in the late 1950s, but her then-editor suggested she recast the book from the childhood perspective of Scout, which in turn became “Mockingbird.” Pre-orders turned “Watchman” into an overnight number one bestseller at online retailer Amazon, and publisher HarperCollins has ordered a first print run of two million copies. And no matter how beautifully written it is, it’s still an early draft – the publication of which would have most authors reaching for the beta blockers with anxiety. ‘Watchman’ is the tale of an adult Scout – going by her grown-up name, Jean-Louise.

By 2014, it had flown up the list, ranking as the 370th most common boy’s name in the country, sandwiched between Enzo and Kash. “We’ve always wanted to have names for our kids that aren’t super-popular,” said Christopher Campbell, whose 11-month-old daughter’s name is Edith (No. 627). “In a way, we’ll probably get our wish.” Some parents have responded to the Atticus news by questioning the author’s intent: Nearly 60 years after the writing the book, did Lee truly want it published? But many Lee fans have been hurt, embarrassed and even angered that Scout’s adored father Atticus has turned into a bigot, a fall from grace for one of America’s most loved literary heroes.

Privately, he wonders why “reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up.” “I just hope that Jem and Scout come to me for their answers instead of listening to the town. Others have taken comfort in the fact that “Watchman” is said to have been written before “Mockingbird,” and so it was a draft, they say, not the evolution of their cherished Atticus. At 72, he is almost crippled by rheumatoid arthritis – perhaps a symbol of atrophy and inflammation in the South as the civil rights movement sweeps in. With the help of Hohoff (with whom she became so close, that Lee gave him an abandoned kitten she found) Harper Lee spent at least two years working and reworking this novel. But there are those who worry that the book will prompt an unfortunate questioning of their children in the future: Which Atticus were you named for? “It’s so disappointing because it’s the opposite of what we loved about the character,” said Oscar Boykin, who lives in Maui, Hawaii.

You can see how she and Tay must have discussed the themes, and one can only imagine the conversations: ‘How about if Scout’s father was not a racist of his time?’, or ‘How about if he was that good man, the man who risked all to save someone else’s life’? Mary McDonagh Murphy, a filmmaker whose program about Lee aired recently on PBS, told AFP that they had briefly communicated by writing down notes when they met last month. As a writer, that relationship between author and editor can be such a joy – the third eye sees what you cannot, the editor finds a strand of story you had abandoned and brings it to the fore.

Maybe Harper – brilliant, talented Harper – had always toyed with the idea of an anti-racist Atticus Finch but needed the confidence of her editor to run with it. Or in the beginning, when she turned up at the offices of BCE Lippincott with her draft in her hands, maybe she thought the power of her heroine’s story would be stronger if she came back to the Deep South, where the trees bore Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit (lynched black bodies), and told people about another way of life where people of all colour could live together in equality. While Mockingbird was narrated by Scout 20 years earlier and seen through her innocent and sometimes mistaken eyes, Watchman is told in the third person and observes Jean Louise coming to terms with change. Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. There are familiar flashback scenes from Mockingbird, such as the history of the Finch family estate, and the trial of Tom Robinson, who is unnamed and acquitted in this one-page summary of the case.

As she once secretly watched her father in court, Jean Louise watches him now at a meeting of the segregationist Citizens’ Council, and she flies into a rage of disillusionment. But in “A Letter to the North,” he sounds like Atticus as he considers the impact of the Supreme Court ruling. “I have been on record as opposing the forces in my native country which would keep the condition out of which this present evil and trouble has grown. But just as his decency in Mockingbird did not make him a saint, a calm reading of this book can find him still a conservative and pragmatic but decent man who supports justice and free speech. It jumps around too much between present and past, has some drawn-out passages about children’s games and a school dance, and too much preachy dialogue.

But here is Lee’s dry humour and some sparkling portraits of characters we might never have known, including Jean Louise’s eccentric uncle Jack Finch.

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