Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman': Don’t write Atticus Finch off as a racist …

13 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

For Harper Lee fans, the wait is almost over.

It’s the biggest literary surprise of the 21st century: On Tuesday, 55 years after the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the reclusive 89-year-old Harper Lee will publish her second book. “Go Set a Watchman” was written two years before “Mockingbird,” and details of the plot are scarce. Careers were launched because of him, children named for him, with high hopes from the parents that their offspring would grow up into a better, more equitable world. She advised Lee to scrap the story of an adult Scout visiting her elderly father, instead setting it 20 years earlier and telling it from a child’s point of view. In Watchman, Atticus Finch—a white lawyer heroized for defending a black man accused of rape in Jim Crow-era Alabama—turns out to be a rabid racist.

She is a lifelong Harper Lee fan, and named her daughter, age 6, after the author. “A lot of people are upset about this change they didn’t see coming in his character. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, filled the role of guest reader from 11:30 a.m. to noon and said he didn’t mind that nobody actually sat, or stood and listened during his 30-minute session. “I just love the book; it’s a wonderful classic,” Sandack said. “Harper Lee is kind of a mysterious character. The fact that “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been assigned in junior high and high school classes for decades, and that Gregory Peck’s performance in the 1962 film captured the character’s quiet dignity, didn’t hurt. “Becky Dennis, who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma named her now 5-year-old son Atticus—and her dog Scout—because ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has long been one of her favorite novels,” a Slate story reports. “Dennis estimates that she’s read the book 10 to 15 times since middle school.” “Atticus Finch is such a strong character, and we wanted to give [our son] a strong name,” Dennis told Slate. “He was such a strong force in my life growing up, reading it and re-reading it over the years.

I’m always reminded that as long as there are people like Atticus Finch—even though it’s fiction—in the world, we should all be OK.” And now, it turns out, Atticus is a racist. It is said to have been only “lightly edited” and differs markedly from Mockingbird – Atticus Finch is depicted as a bigot and the explosive trial that ended with Tom Robinson’s conviction for rape by a racist jury now merits only four paragraphs and ends with his acquittal. “I believe a good editor is indispensable. The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani additionally points out that, in Mockingbird, the man who Atticus defends in court (Tom Robinson) is ultimately convicted.

I think there will be more conversations about the character of Atticus and the complexity of who he is, and maybe we can transfer some of that discussion into what’s going on with race in our world today.” The Denver Public Library will have 252 copies of “Watchman,” including large-type, regular type, e-books, audio books and 11 Spanish translations. I’m really looking forward to reading it.” “I didn’t now they were doing this, but it’s kind of cool; it’s a book just about everyone has read,” he said. “I haven’t ordered the new book, but I’ll probably get it. The Douglas County libraries have long waiting lists, too — 405 people signed up for one of 160 hardbacks, 79 readers are on the list for large-type, and 59 listeners are anxious to hear the audio book.

In a history of Lippincott, Hohoff gave a tantalising insight into her working relationship with Lee: “When she disagreed with a suggestion, we talked it out, sometimes for hours. And sometimes she came around to my way of thinking, sometimes I to hers, sometimes the discussion would open up an entirely new line of country.” She remained close to Lee in the years that followed and was adamant that the publicity-shy author should not publish any other work with which she was not entirely happy. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.” So, Watchman isn’t so much a sequel as it is an entirely separate story—in which the principle characters share names and a few characteristics—taking place in a superficially similar yet intrinsically distinct parallel universe.

Nobody really thought about how it would be different when told from the viewpoint of a 30-something-year-old returning to her hometown, she said. “But that change is something that many of us (who are) that age, or older, experience when we go home, and we see our parents with adult eyes.” Is it a fully congealed story, or simply a collection of author’s notes and half-written scenes compiled and manicured by a zealous editor? “Who knows?” seems to be the running theme. It’s an Atticus Finch philosophy, a way of rebalancing history.” An internet search for Atticuses (Attici?) throws up all sorts: a Shoreditch production company called Atticus Finch (whose sister company is Scout Films); a vintage emporium in Buckinghamshire called Jack & Atticus (named after the owners’ dogs); and countless individuals, including the offspring of both Casey Affleck and Jennifer Love Hewitt.

Atticus, perhaps, was not the only genteel white liberal pushed in an unexpected direction during those transformative times, which would open the door to the even more divisive civil rights era. By the time the book came out to so much acclaim it was a done deal.” But she did recall meeting Lee at cocktail parties. “The parties were in the house. The frenzied anticipation is fueled largely by the unique place “Mockingbird” holds in American culture: It’s beloved by millions, critically acclaimed and still relevant.

Eventually I track down Atticus Ingram Rowe from Cape Cod. “I never knew another Atticus growing up,” he tells me. “In 1974, there were less than five people born in the US with the name. He refers to America’s black population as “a set of backward people” and asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?” Lee’s lawyer hinted that there may be a third book in the offing, and claimed to have a made a fresh discovery in the Alabama safe deposit box only last week.

Making books available for advance reviews is usually part of the ramp-up to a title’s release, except in cases where there are big spoilers or fear that the critiques may be extremely harsh. But one critic who has read it, David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times, begins his review today by saying, “It would be a mistake to read Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as a sequel” to “Mockingbird.” Nearly every novelist has a shelved novel in his or her closer or desk drawer: Trying out ideas that don’t work out is how writers learn. And novels go through enormous revisions over time, especially with an assertive editor. “Watchmen” may tell us less about the transformation of the white South or Atticus Finch himself, and more about the financial pressures that lead what could have been framed as a work of scholarship into a vehicle for explosive front-page news. The first chapter of “Watchman” ran in two newspapers Friday: the Wall Street Journal (which, like the book’s publishing house, is owned by Rupert Murdoch) and the Guardian in Britain. The author was assumed to be one-hit wonder by the literary world — even Lee’s longtime attorney, her older sister, thought she was done with publishing.

And it might be said that Rowling’s convictions have changed as her stories, originally scribbled on napkins in an Edinburgh cafe, have expanded into pop-cultural touchstone territory. Filmmaker Murphy recalls that when she interviewed Alice Finch Lee, who died in 2014 at 103 but was still practicing law at age 100, “She said she did not believe there were any other novels. Lee suffered a stroke in 2007 and, according to various legal documents, is partially blind, deaf and easily manipulated, prompting speculation about whether she has been a full participant in the decision to publish this book.

Whether this dilutes the quality of the narrative is a matter for debate, but it does tell us something poignant about how consumption of art and media is changing. We thirst more for the trivial details of a constructed universe than the story it was built to sustain. (See also: the Marvel movie universe.) Perhaps Harry Potter is a story that lends itself to such obsession with detail.

Dispelling rumors about her lack of well-being, Burnham said, “She’s excited about the release.” Aside from questions about how this book came to exist and why it’s taken so long to reach the public, there is the issue of taste: Will the views of a shy Southern writer in the late 1950s stand up to contemporary scrutiny? Lee, 89-years-old and still dealing with the reverberations of a devastating 2007 stroke, may not be. (Jezebel’s Michelle Dean reported in 2014 that Lee “can’t see and can’t hear,” and will “sign anything put before her by any one in whom she has confidence.”) All of this poses a rather sad question about the merits of Watchman: has our hunger for additional information about Atticus and Scout and the denizens of Maycomb ameliorated or damaged our understanding of this American classic? Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov were all published after their deaths. “Invisible Man” author Ralph Ellison, who never followed up his classic with another novel, struggled for years to complete one. After his death, an untitled manuscript, which filled 27 boxes, was published in two forms: a truncated, edited version that was considered not to meet his vision and an 1,100-page version that revealed all the narrative dead ends he’d never fixed.

Unlike those authors, Lee — however reclusive — is still alive, making “Watchman” unprecedented. “There’s nothing quite like this,” publisher Burnham says.

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