‘Go Set a Watchman’ Sets One-Day Sales Record for Barnes & Noble

15 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mockingbird’ actress Mary Badham, who played Scout, hopes ‘Go Set a Watchman’ will become classroom classic.

The actress who brought Scout Finch to life in an Oscar-winning movie more than 50 years ago hopes Harper Lee’s controversial new novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” will become a staple in literature classes, just as its beloved predecessor did. Mary Badham, who was 10 when she played Scout in the 1962 movie adaptation of Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird,” told a packed audience at a Manhattan reading on Tuesday that she thinks readers will learn a lot from the new book. The 278 page book can’t quite stretch its central theme, colloquially identifiable as “daddy issues,” far enough to hide its lack of structure or drive. She then recited the words she often asks students to repeat back to her when she visits schools: “Ignorance is the root of all evil, and education is the key to freedom.” It depicts lawyer Atticus Finch, seen as a symbol of tolerance in the face of Southern racism in “Mockingbird”, as a bigot who opposes desegregation and has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting. “I think it’s so timely for right now. ‘Mockingbird’ came at a perfect time for our country.

Told in a faltering third person voice that occasionally swerves into first, the novel fails on the level of character development, plot, and in some instances, language itself. It allowed us the ability to discuss subjects rationally and intelligently without getting way up here,” said Badham, 62, motioning above her head. “And now that things are way up here with our country, I think this will help a lot.” The novel, published on Tuesday, went on sale a month after a gunman, identified by authorities as a 21-year-old white man, killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.

Then, after Jean Louise cusses out Atticus, after a conversation where her Uncle Jack plays a white supremacist Yoda who rationalizes segregation to her, Jean Louise and Atticus reunite. The shooting set off an impassioned national debate over modern use of the Confederate battle flag, which has historically been associated with slavery. “You have to put your mindset in that time period, and you have to understand what we lived through,” she said. “When you read the book, you’ll get it.” Badham, who appeared in only a handful of films after “Mockingbird,” said the movie allowed her to experience a world beyond Birmingham, Alabama, where she grew up. “It has all of life’s lessons condensed into one little, simple book,” she said. “It’s impacted my life in a growth process to accept the world and be tolerant of people and other ways of thinking and other ways of doing things.” Atticus tells her he is proud she stood up to him and his supposed racism, and Jean Louise lovingly replies: “I don’t understand men and I never will.” So the book ends with the white American family intact. Like Jean Louise, white characters in this novel have simply gone about the business of becoming white women and white men, and unbecoming white girls and white boys, at the expense of terrorized black women and black men. She finds that the place has changed in her absence, and at 26 years old, spoiler alert, she sees her father, a 76-year-old lawyer, as a flawed human being for the first time.

The novel has very little in the way of arc — it takes place over two days of one summer, and the main character, Jean Louise, is haphazardly rendered. If you’ve stayed abreast of the controversies that have dogged the publication of Watchman, you know it was written first, before Mockingbird, and that Lee’s editor at Lippincott persuaded the first-time author to drastically revise her story. The characters, narrator or author are capable of listening and reckoning with the contours of what black women like Calpurnia “seeth” and “declare” to themselves about the horrifying, meandering spectacle of American whiteness.

Atticus has lived his life serving the county’s legislature, and is depicted as a somewhat stern man whose emotional reserve is the product of a cool intelligence. Jean-Louise is, by contrast, hot-headed and dreamy in equal measure — she is bullishly progressive by the standards of her time, feeling uncomfortable about the expectation that she perform stereotypical gender roles; her aunt is constantly remarking on her unfeminine wardrobe, and during a coffee ceremony, where her aunt invites most of the ladies in the next town over to receive Jean-Louise while she’s at home, she feels trapped and alone in her inability to behave according to some custom of femininity: “She glanced down the long, low-ceilinged livingroom at the double row of women, women she had merely known all her life, and she could not talk to them five minutes without drying up stone dead. The Watchman manuscript, meanwhile, was shelved, all but forgotten for more than half a century, until recently, when Lee, according to her lawyer and her publisher, agreed to publish it.

I can’t think of anything to say to them.” The drama of the novel is character-driven; for the book to satisfy its own apparent ambitions, readers would need to know who these people are so that we might better have a sense of the power of Jean-Louise’s reckoning with her changed relationships. Jean Louise’s struggle here is to confront the racism of seemingly white liberals and allies within one’s family at the start of the civil rights movement. For decades, she has insisted that she would never publish another book, so the suspicion arose that a nearly deaf, nearly blind woman in a nursing home was being manipulated or lied to, and perhaps that is true. Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, now 26 and living in New York, comes home to Maycomb, Alabama for a two-week vacation, where she ponders marriage to an old beau, endures the pestering of her Aunt Alexandra, and discovers a horrible secret about her father. It is hard to swallow that until the action of the book, Jean Louise could have remained wholly unaware of the racist sentiments of her own friends and relatives.

There is one story that goes like this: In February, Tonja Carter, Lee’s attorney, happened upon the manuscript amidst some other papers (which are themselves already subject to speculation that they may yet herald a third Lee novel). It lacks Mockingbird’s sculpted scenes and the almost fanatical attention to detail that makes things so vivid, right down to the way women perspired through their talcum powder in the summer heat until they resembled tea cakes. Watchman is clearly the work of the same author—Lee was a natural when it came to sketching a character in a few lines of dialogue, and her comic eye never fails her regarding the rituals of small towns, be they religious revivals or ladies’ morning coffee gatherings.

But clearly in rewriting and rewriting and rewriting the original manuscript (I’d say maybe 10 or 15 pages of the first book found their way, along with nearly all the characters, into Mockingbird), Lee learned a lot about what does and does not work in fiction. Thus, in Watchman, which the publisher says is pretty much what Lee submitted in the first place years ago, whole chapters devolve into set speeches and debates that at times read like PowerPoint presentations.

The stories meet, after a fashion, when you consider what changed in Lee’s life between 2011 and February, 2015, when HarperCollins announced its plan to publish Harper Lee’s “lost” novel. In November of 2014, Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s sister, whose facility with the law positioned her to become an ideal executor of Lee’s estate, and whose love of her sister protected the famously reclusive author from being taken advantage of, or really pestered in any way, died. The Maycomb of 1955, after all, seems rife with fears we can only call racist ones: of school desegregation following Brown v Board of Education, but also of miscegenation. Jean Louise’s uncle, for example, takes her through a kind of logic game that justifies their position as segregationists, which reduces to: “The black man will ultimately marry our daughters, or our daughter will want to marry black man, so the segregationists are right, am I right?” Jean Louise’s answer reads to me as doublespeak, too: she doesn’t want to marry a black man, so why worry about it? Within a few pages, her suspicions are confirmed: Atticus is a member of the town’s white citizens council, one of those noxious groups dedicated to upholding segregation and the so-called Southern way of life, i.e., white people in power in a Jim Crow world.

Given that she wrote this book in the mid-’50s and given that Atticus is at least partly modeled on her own father, I’d guess Lee was working out a lot of things in this book. There are some passages that are duplicated verbatim across the texts, including (a personal favourite of mine) an anecdote that illustrates the long and muddled history of two of Maycomb’s families, the Cunninghams and Conninghams, the distinction between which, the narrators of both books tell us, has become “academic” at some point along the way.

Instead, she just guns it and gives him what for, handing him lines like this: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Atticus Finch, the character who has meant so much to lawyers and legal professionals over the years — and the creation of whom even earned Lee an award specifically for such a flattering depiction of a lawyer — is not quite the same man we first met in Mockingbird.

Do you want them in our world?” As a Southerner who, as the saying goes, has gone off up North, I am all too familiar with the reception Jean Louise receives upon returning home to Maycomb: the suspicion, encountered at every turn, that she has been brainwashed by Yankees and the concomitant defensiveness about Southern mores. The story was primarily concerned with the preservation of and disruption to white innocence, illustrated by children who seemed to have been brought straight from the set of the Little Rascals.

The fact of his innocence is plain to everyone in the courtroom, but in 1930s Alabama, a white jury finds itself, for reasons young Jean-Louise, or Scout as she’s called, can’t understand, unable to acquit him. The victims of violent racism are of much less interest to Lee – she is more concerned with Jean Louise’s shaky self-image, based as it is on the lie that her father is innocent of racism.

I do my best to love everybody.” He soothes his son, Jem, by explaining the jury pool in Maycomb county is mostly made up of poor, uneducated white people, and that he hopes one day that won’t be the case. And Atticus Finch, as the lawyer who nobly defends Robinson, is never anything less than a white knight, a hero without stain, and in that regard more than a little boring. In Watchmen, set 20 years later, Atticus joins a Citizen’s Council, a group of white men who are trying to prevent the NAACP from advancing the legal interests of the black people of Maycomb.

He compares adult black people to children, citing the fact that most in the county are uneducated, and tries to make his daughter, and the reader, understand why he wouldn’t want black lawyers and black jurors to become part of the county’s legal proceedings. Despite the unseemly politics of both the book and its narrative viewpoint, Watchman provides a rare opportunity to see in reverse some of the steps by which a great novel was born from a mediocre one. There’s a lightness to her troubles, and even during the book’s moral highpoint, where her fiancé is attempting to illustrate for her the privileges she’s been given on account of her family’s last name, and the social positioning “Finch” connotes, the insight falls flat. Her ambivalence is most pointed when face to face with the man she has dated whenever she goes home, Henry Clinton, her father’s protege, who she knows well is waiting to marry her. But it’s moments like these where you can see what an ambitious young writer was trying to do; Watchman very well could’ve been a great book in its own right, if it were given the care it needed to become one.

She is aware she is unlike the women who went before her and that this is one of the conditions of her survival, for all the power this place exerts over her. In many ways I prefer Future Scout, who throws her cigarettes on the couch when she walks into her father’s house, tells her aunt to “pee in her hat” after being lectured on the unsuitability of Henry, tells Henry to “color the water” in her glass with his whiskey on their date. But maybe the kids who read Mockingbird will read Watchman when they grow up and understand that the real purpose of fiction isn’t to give us a lesson you could stitch in a sampler but to clarify dilemmas that can’t be resolved. But she is also self-involved and even infuriatingly so, and this self-involvement is, I think, a feature, not a bug, for how it conspires to show her drifting through Maycomb. The racist features of the place are rendered to her as benign aspects of her hometown’s beloved present or past – it is chilling to read a casual phrase in the narration like “the Klan met there in its halcyon days”.

Yes, Atticus Finch is revealed to be a racist whose defense of an innocent black man is something his daughter understands she mistook for enlightenment.

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