‘Mockingbird’ actress hopes ‘Watchman’ will become classroom classic

15 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mockingbird’ actress hopes ‘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. Local book lovers flocked to Sacramento stores Tuesday to purchase Harper Lee’s newly released novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” lining up early outside Barnes and Noble and collecting copies they ordered months ago at the Avid Reader. “People were rushing in, saying they wanted a first edition copy,” said Pam Rasmussen, store manager of the Barnes and Noble at Arden Fair. “Everything today is first edition.” Ann Hamilton, an assistant at Avid Reader in Sacramento, said there has been high demand for the book and that the store had received 30 pre-orders months in advance.On the afternoon of Monday, February 2, Jason Arthur, a publisher who has worked with everyone from Martin Amis to James Ellroy, was called into his boss’s office and let in on a secret that would become the publishing story of the decade.

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 novel that was the source material for the movie is a classic of science fiction, and the prospect of seeing its innovative battle sequences on screen was tremendously exciting. Hamilton said customers have voiced some concern about the “Watchman” portrayal of attorney Atticus Finch, the hero of Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” who defends an African American man in the South during the 1930s. Lee submitted her manuscript to a New York publisher in 1957, where it came into the hands of the editor Tay Hohoff, a chain-smoking veteran who had joined the firm of JB Lippincott 25 years earlier.

The unpublished book is a crime story called “The Reverend” based on a true story involving a pastor who killed three people and was acquitted of murder, said Auburn University professor Wayne Flynt, who has known Lee for more than 30 years. “I know it exists because (Lee’s) sister Louise told me,” Flynt, a lecturer on Southern culture, told reporters in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Reviews have already touched on the new novel’s stiltedness; told in the third person, it hasn’t yet discovered the fluid immediacy of Scout’s voice. 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.” Written before “Mockingbird,” “Watchman” is set 20 years later, in the 1950s. But in the years since “Ender’s Game” was originally published, author Orson Scott Card had become famous for something else: his vociferous opposition to gay rights. While Atticus Finch’s character has changed – reviews say that he exhibits racist tendencies in “Watchman” despite his long-held place in American culture as a civil rights hero – readers are looking forward to the recently unearthed text.

Conversations can sound like academic debates brined lightly in regionalisms. (“Hell…I’m a healthy old man with a constitutional mistrust of paternalism and government in large doses.”) Chapters wander off like dairy cows—you can skip the section on a Methodist church service, and skim many of the scenes with love interest Henry Clinton—and various themes get poked, confused, abandoned. 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. The idea of giving him money –whether through ticket sales that he might possibly get a small portion of, or by boosting the profile of a movie in a way that might increase book sales — that he might use to fight marriage equality was distasteful to a lot of my readers. (I was then writing at the progressive news site ThinkProgress.) What was a science fiction devotee to do?

She worked closely with Lee, suggesting she draw the action away from the Fifties back to the Thirties and retell the story of Scout’s childhood from the young girl’s point of view. Jean Louise, once a tomboyish rapscallion, has had to wrestle herself into womanhood: There are fascinating but underdeveloped nods to menstruation, sexuality, gender performance, and feminism.

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. I wrote a series of recommendations, but the one that really seemed to resonate with readers was a proposal for a kind of financial offset, like the carbon offsets some people buy when they take airplane flights: “As a ballpark,” I wrote. “I’d suggest twice the price of your ticket purchase to Freedom to Marry, an exceedingly canny organization that does all sorts of wonderful marriage equality work.” Carbon offsets have dubious efficacy. She said she thinks race is portrayed differently in the media and that Lee’s book may be a more accurate reflection of race issues at the time the book was written. “It sparks even more interest in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” she said. “People are saying, ‘Gosh, I haven’t read that since high school.’ ” Carter said on Monday she recently found pages of typed text and other documents in a safe-deposit box belonging to Lee that would be examined and authenticated by experts over the next few months. “Something else was in the … box.

The shooting set off an impassioned national debate over modern use of the Confederate battle flag, which has historically been associated with slavery. Mockingbird is a modern classic, telling the story, through the eyes of a young girl, Scout Finch, of how her father, Atticus, a lawyer in Alabama, defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

The manuscript for ‘Watchman’ was underneath a stack of a significant number of pages of another typed text,” Carter wrote in a commentary for the Wall Street Journal. “Was it an earlier draft of ‘Watchman’ or of ‘Mockingbird,’ or even, as early correspondence indicates it might be, a third book bridging the two? Jean Louise, independent, stubborn, sarcastic, does more than satisfy our curiosity about what a grown-up Scout might look like—she’s right wonderful to follow. Lee’s status as a legend of American letters was only enhanced by her retreat from the public eye and her decision not to publish another written word. You sense some of Harper Lee’s own rebelliousness and humor in her; as with Mockingbird, author and character seem beautifully intimate with one another. The novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton advised Charles Dickens to change the ending of Great Expectations from one where Pip and Estella definitely don’t get together to one in which, in that wonderfully ambiguous final line, Pip sees “no shadow of another parting from her”.

She is now 89, extremely deaf, has failing eyesight and lives in an assisted-living facility in Monroeville, Alabama, the town she immortalised as Maycomb. A set piece in which Jean Louise entertains the preposterous corseted meringues who make up Maycomb’s lady society is delicious, all acid-tipped niceties and suppressed boredom.

That this book should suddenly emerge now, just months after the death of her beloved older sister, Alice, who had acted as her lawyer and gatekeeper, struck many as fishy. Another scene—Scout’s failed reunion with her black housekeeper Calpurnia, who is suddenly and devastatingly closed to the white woman on her doorstep—is almost a reversal of the empathic connection Scout made with Boo Radley in Mockingbird.

A number of readers wrote in to flag Caring Across Generations, which has a range of advocacy efforts centered on caregiving, including access to home care and the relationships between caregivers and their clients. As their correspondence shows, though, Perkins made pertinent suggestions, including rounding out Gatsby’s character as well as better telegraphing his dodgy business affairs.

In Mockingbird, of course, Jean Louise’s father (seared into our corneas and souls by Gregory Peck) represented the town’s saintly, moral heart, a lawyer committed to “equal rights for all and special privileges for none,” a staunch believer in racial equality. And my friend Harold Pollack, who studies the relationship between poverty and public health policies, directed me toward the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, based out of Georgia Southwestern State University, for anyone who might be particularly interested in donating to an organization based in Harper Lee’s region. Even though people you trust are telling you that this is true.” In April he travelled with his doubt to Monroeville and became one of the few people to be allowed to enter Lee’s private world and discuss her work with her. “I was very keen to go over and sit with Nelle (her first name, used by intimates) and discuss our publication plans. She absolutely wants this book out there and she is very excited about the publication.” Lee has lived in Monroeville since she suffered a stroke in 2007 and moved back from New York. “There has been a lot written about Nelle being a recluse,” Arthur says. “She is not reclusive at all: she retired from public life. Eliot replied: “Perhaps, but so are most writers.” It was a cute response from a man whose most famous poem, The Waste Land, had been edited by Ezra Pound, and who edited other poets and novelists as part of his job at Faber & Faber.

Between Mockingbird and Watchman, Lee has rescaled her hero’s disillusionment, transferring it from the realm of Society to the more intimate level of character. The toppling of Atticus as a moral icon feels attractively modern and nuanced—and true to this ambivalent racial moment, in which white police officers can gun down black teenagers, but we’re beginning to perceive the poison stitched into the Confederate flag. Monteith thought the book should leap straight to the island scenes and he asked William Golding, then an unpublished schoolteacher, to take another look.

She is not alone.” The first time Arthur met her was at a performance of King Lear in Montgomery, the state capital, which she had sponsored. “She has great recall. She was reciting the play as it went along.” The next day they talked at her assisted-living facility. “Her room is full of books, piles of them on every surface.

Watchman’s focus on universal human frailty seemed jaded and stale—less compelling, at least, than the first book’s image of virtue flashing forth, then extinguished, again and again and again. The watchman in the title comes from a biblical verse, where it figures the human conscience. (“I need a watchman…to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice,” Jean Louise broods.) Atticus, too, is introduced as a “watchman”—he’s literally a man who “wore two watches…an ancient watch and chain his children had cut their teeth on, and a wristwatch.” Morally, then, Atticus has a doubleness about him. (You could call it hypocrisy, if you wanted to be uncharitable; Lee would probably prefer contradictoriness.) And much of the novel’s drama flows from Jean Louise’s struggle to stop worshipping her father as an infallible light, to “reduce him to the status of a human being,” as her uncle puts it, and love him despite his flaws and inconsistencies. Precisely because of his distance from her material about African-American lives, he could tell her when he thought she was preaching rather than dramatising. Yet coupled with the Atticus-as-watchman motif is a recurring metaphor about Jean Louise’s blindness. “I never opened my eyes,” she grieves toward the end of the book. Her mind is as sharp as I am sure it has ever been.” They talked about a summer she had spent studying in Oxford after she gave up her law studies and about CS Lewis, whom she knew and whose work she loved.

She’s not talking about failing to see her father’s politics clearly—she means that she’s been too stubborn to cast off her own ideological blinkers. When John Masefield, a friend of Lewis’s, came up in conversation, Lee recited two stanzas of his poem Sea Fever. “Nelle was very clear that she didn’t want to make substantial changes to the script,” Arthur says. What reviewers didn’t realise was that although the raw material was Carver’s, his editor Gordon Lish was extremely influential in creating that distinctive style. Was it because he’s a goodhearted trickster? ‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s because he has very big ears.’ As we left Nelle shouted: ‘You all take care.

Carver pleaded with Lish to have his own words back: “My very sanity is on the line here,” he wrote to him. “If the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story.’’ Eventually he accepted what he called this “surgical amputation”. I love every one of you’.” A few weeks ago Lee attended a lunch with some of those involved in the publication, including Arthur, at a restaurant in Monroeville owned by Tonja Carter. “We had a gumbo starter, followed by chicken and fish courses.

Readers can now compare the original draft with Lish’s version: 20 years after Carver’s death in 1988, his wife helped into print Beginnings, the original uncut stories. Nelle drank iced tea.” If Lee is so happy about the publication, why has it taken six decades to appear? “That’s a big question and, you know, I do believe the story that this manuscript just went missing,” says Arthur.

But Lee was taken aback by the success of her debut and the angry response of Monroeville (Maycomb) residents. “Her father and sister had a really tough time of it. A society highly paradoxical, with alarming inequities, but with the private honor of thousands of persons winking like lightning bugs through the night?” (This to explain Atticus’ participation in the racist citizen’s committee.) “No war was ever fought for so many different reasons meeting in one reason clear as crystal,” Finch continues. “They fought to preserve their identity.” But self-actualization myths aside, they, the gray-clad army, fought to preserve slavery. And when Jean Louise’s uncle declares that “what was incidental to the War Between the States”—e.g. the fate of black Americans—“is incidental to the issue in the war we’re in now”—e.g. the Civil Rights Movement—I felt ill. It was as if, in crafting a moral arc for Scout that went from dogmatism to loving acceptance, Lee was signing off on a vision of the Civil War as a noble clash of empires, each worthy in its way.

But I reckon it could still go down another 200 pages. (For one, I wouldn’t miss the wheelchair-bound Quebecois terrorists.) When Wallace was writing for magazines he had to be reined in for reasons of space. In the wake of intrafamilial tragedy, the book suggests, echoing Lost Cause talking points, what matters is not petty differences of opinion but restoring unity. His hilarious essay about going on a cruise, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, is even funnier in the shorter, punchier version published by Harper’s Magazine as “Shipping Out”. Reports of a dispute over a Lee biography said that when she was alive Alice wrote a letter in which she said: “Poor Nelle Harper will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” Arthur is unconvinced. “That’s not the Nelle I met on any of the four occasions I spent time with her.” He disputes the suggestion that Carter is controlling Harper Lee. “That’s a harsh characterisation and an unfair one. I guess it’s like an airplane; they’re the drag and we’re the thrust, together we make the thing fly.” Would the Atticus of Mockingbird agree that bigots help keep the aircraft of state aloft?

Speaking of that beleaguered Atticus, I reject the notion that he has to answer to Lee’s new book (which smells like a discarded draft of Lee’s old book). Do you want them in our world?” “One felt like the rug was being pulled from under oneself,” says Arthur, “but I have lived with this novel for four months and the more I think about it I don’t see a massive discrepancy between this and the portrayal of Atticus in Mockingbird.

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