Looking Beyond Controversy as Readers in Manhattan Welcome Harper Lee’s …

15 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Go Set a Watchman': Why the new Atticus Finch is different than you think (+video).

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.Fans are still in a furor over Harper Lee’s new book “Go Set a Watchman.” The novel hit bookshelves today officially but was in the news long before that – remarkable first for the fact that it existed at all and then for its depiction of beloved character Atticus Finch.

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. From the moment publisher HarperCollins announced “Watchman” in early February, reactions of ecstatic disbelief have been shadowed by concerns about the book’s quality, the 89-year-old Lee’s involvement in the release and the jarring transformation of Atticus Finch. “I don’t think it’s going to damage Harper Lee’s legacy,” Susan Scullin, a reading teacher in New York City, said of “Watchman” as she prepared to buy a copy at the Barnes & Noble in Manhattan’s Union Square. 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.

Then earlier this year, news broke that another book by Lee had been found and that it centered on characters seen in “Mockingbird.” The book was officially released July 14. “Watchman” focuses on “Mockingbird” protagonist Scout as an adult when she travels back to her hometown of Maycomb, Ala., and visits her father, Atticus. “Mockingbird” fans know Atticus as the heroic lawyer who defended an African-American man accused of raping a white woman, so many were shocked to hear that the Atticus character in the new book opposes desegregation following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in the case Brown v. Lee’s father, the model for Atticus, abandoned his segregationist views later in life, as the author worked on revising “Mockingbird.” Some said these issues would be especially resonant after a year of protests around the country against police killings in confrontations with unarmed black men, South Carolina’s Confederate flag controversy and other racially charged news. The 38-year-old remembers reading it as a high school sophomore just outside of Chicago, hoping right to the end that the fate of Tom Robinson was not truly sealed. 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.

But other ardent fans of “Mockingbird” said they are heartbroken that they might no longer be able to present Atticus to their students as a pure icon of justice. Lee’s only previous novel is considered a 20th Century classic that defined racial injustice in the Depression-era South of the United States and became standard reading in classrooms across the world. 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. Some are aghast over this change, while others praise the book as a more complex look at the town of Maycomb and the South in general and still others feel that Atticus expressed some dubious views in “Mockingbird” itself. The debate will no doubt divide literary fans for years to come, but one thing is important to remember in deciding how you feel: the path of “Watchman” to publication. “Watchman” is not a sequel to “Mockingbird” and Atticus in “Watchman” is not the reader catching up with the Atticus of “Mockingbird” years later.

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. Not only that, but there was also a hint this week from Lee’s lawyer who discovered the manuscript that she also found some additional pages, raising the tantalizing possibility there could even be a third book. 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. In slightly varying accounts, Lee attorney Tonja Carter has said she came upon the “Watchman” manuscript last year while looking through some of the author’s papers. “Watchman” was written before “Mockingbird,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

For now, fans are delving into the second tale of Scout, who is 20 years older than when we left her, and dealing with personal and political issues involving her father as well as the turbulent events of the small southern town she grew up in. On the evening before this “historic literary event,” as publisher HarperCollins billed it, Indigo teamed up with Cineplex to present five countrywide screenings of the book’s 1962 film adaptation.

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. Also interesting to note: Lee’s father Amasa Coleman Lee, who some call an inspiration for Atticus, first supported segregation and then reportedly had a change of heart while Lee was writing “Mockingbird,” becoming a supporter of integration. The screenings were sold out, but those in the Toronto audience seemed to have come as much for Gregory Peck’s iconic performance—perhaps more so. “I’m here because I want to see this on the big screen, and I haven’t seen it for many years,” said 60-year-old Cheryl Devall, adding that she’s a big fan of Lee’s original. 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.

Jago, associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at University of California, Los Angeles. “These are not easy conversations to have with students, but avoiding the conversation isn’t going to get us closer to the nation that we want to be.” Some teachers said they might use historical documents to deepen students’ understanding of Alabama in the 1930s and 1950s, the settings for “Mockingbird” and “Watchman,” respectively. 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. The way “Watchman” turned into “Mockingbird” through a laborious editing and rewriting process will be eye-opening to teenagers used to instant publication of their words on Facebook FB -0.47 % and Twitter, said Matthew Morone, an English teacher at Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, N.J. “Great writers realize writing involves this painstaking approach,” he said. “You write the initial version and you might build it up and tear it down or leave one beam intact.” Mr. 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. Leo MacDonald, HarperCollins Canada’s senior vice-president of sales and marketing, said the publisher shipped out 200,000 books for the day of the release, the most he’s ever seen.

Although it had Harry Potter hype, with Canadian media all over it, it didn’t get a Harry Potter launch. “We’ve sold a good number of copies this morning, and there’s definite interest, no doubt about it,” said Joanne Saul, the owner of the Toronto independent bookstore Type, which was nearly sold out of its stock of 50 by day’s end. “But is it the same kind of phenomenon? I loved it and I thought, ‘Give it a go.’” Lee, also known as Nelle, was expected to spend the day as she usually does at the 15-person assisted-living facility in Monroeville where she is closely guarded and only a short list of pre-approved visitors are allowed to see her. 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. Wayne Flynt, a historian and author, said he met with her on Monday and handed her an inch-thick stack of news articles and printouts about the release of “Watchman.” While Lee’s day is expected to be normal, “normal means monotonous and boring, except when you just took over the media of the entire world, in which case it’s a lot more exciting,” he said.

But more than this, it’s a reflection of a changing industry, where sales are increasingly coming through online purchases or in ebook forms, and where readers can get the book quickly, with less fuss..

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