Parents Change 14-Month-Old Son Atticus’ Name After Go Set a Watchman Controversy

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee – review.

I grew up in a leafy, upper-middle-class section of Nashville, well stocked with lawyers and businessmen and the occasional Vanderbilt professor. The Colorado parents chose to name their 14-month-old son Atticus after the long-revered literary hero of To Kill a Mockingbird because “we wanted to see the ideals of Atticus Finch instilled in our son,” Christen tells PEOPLE.By now, a consensus has already formed among critics: Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman” is unsuccessful as a novel, its structure shoddy, its tone uneven and its voice strangely calibrated. It was lily-white save for a single black doctor, whose residence brought a perverse sense of pride to the moderate white professionals who lived around him – proof, however specious, that we were an integrated community.

One morning, when I was in middle school, an elderly man was driving with his wife down Granny White Pike, our main thoroughfare, when he had some sort of seizure and slammed into a telephone pole. Then came the hard part – explaining their decision to their friends and family, including their 3-year-old daughter, Ayala. “She doesn’t really understand at all why we changed the name,” Christen says. This is not the same Atticus who said in “Mockingbird,” “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” You could argue that the portrayal of “Mockingbird’s” great moral hero might be a logical progression for a character living from “Mockingbird’s” 1930s to “Watchman’s” 1950s, when advances in civil rights made even honorable, open-minded men like Atticus nervous. Although the parents plan to tell both of their children the full story when they’re older, for now they’re just focused on getting their son’s new name to sink in. “He was very responsive to Atticus for months and months and months now,” Christen says of her son. “We’re using Luke so much around the house, just for us to get used to it; and for him, we’re saying it more than we normally would.

It comes across as the draft of a first novel that had inside it the seeds of a better book, one that would become “Mockingbird.” The flashback scenes to Scout’s childhood in “Watchman,” for example, read like scenes that were purposefully left out of “Mockingbird.” There’s even a casually mentioned variation on the Tom Robinson rape case, only with different results.As for the rest, it’s just … average. Set in the backdrop of one of the most monumental changes in American society, as we see increasing civil rights tensions and an end to segregation, more divisions become apparent.

But by the end of it I felt like the grown-up Scout in “Watchman,” who says to Atticus at one point, “You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible, but don’t let it worry you, because the joke is entirely on me. Narrated from a third-person intimate point-of-view, it focuses on a 26-year-old Jean-Louise (Scout) Finch, who has returned to her hometown of Maycomb to visit her ailing 72-year-old father, Atticus, and his protege, Henry (Hank), who also happens to be her boyfriend.

Jean-Louise has been living by herself in New York City, where her feminist leanings have become more pronounced and her sense of social justice more refined. Both my memory and her book shatter a myth that Lee’s previous work, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” did so much to reinforce: that Southern racism was limited to vicious, ignorant white “trash”; that educated, middle-class, “respectable” whites, like my neighbors, like Atticus Finch, understood the injustice of the Southern way of life and stood for tolerance and justice; that as the region opened up and Jim Crow faded, we would all become Atticus Finch. While in Maycomb, she learns of Atticus’s and Hank’s involvement in the “Citizen Council,” an organization devoted to maintaining the racially segregated status quo of the town. Deeply disillusioned, she confronts her father about his hypocrisy, decrying his racism and seeming coldness in the face of the struggles of people Jean-Louise considers neighbours and even family.

The book has been described as a more complex, perhaps more cynical take on race relations than its predecessor. “Mockingbird” appears regularly on high school curricula, and has been praised for its simple and uplifting message. As a high school English teacher, I would argue that “Mockingbird’s” text is rich and layered, and that most teenagers who study it today are more aware of nuances of race and striations of morality than we give them credit for.

It is, in fact, impossible to begin a unit on “Mockingbird” without some discussion of contemporary race relations, given the preponderance of the N-word in the text. Perhaps, but I would counter that, unlike the film version, this story does not belong to Atticus Finch; it has always been Scout’s to tell — and Scout’s is a voice many young people, especially women, respond to with passion. What makes Scout’s “Mockingbird” voice so compelling is not just that it is rooted in a precocious and gutsy girl-child’s sensibility, but also that it is haunted by the spectre of an older Scout, looking back on this particular and powerful time.

In the voice of “Watchman” — as raggedly articulated as it may be — I recognize that older Scout and that, I imagine, will be very exciting to many readers. It is hard to see what we are.” What I appreciate about the “new” novel is its openness to the notion that coming-of-age is not an isolated rite confined to puberty, but an ongoing process. Here I’m just spitballing, but the deeper philosophy mingled with bits of comic relief works so well to create a read that’s both entertaining and topical. It is literally moonlight and magnolias: She goes skinny dipping one night with an old boyfriend, and she recalls fond memories of the black maid who helped raise her. In their novels both Lee and Green show the loss of idealism in youth and their disillusionment as they grow up, warning about the dangers of idealising people to such an extent we turn them into gods.

While it is true that students of writing will value this text as an insight into Lee’s creative and editorial process, anyone who recognizes that fiction can help us make meaning of our lives will also see this imperfect companion novel as a fascinating glimpse into the messy processes by which we construct the self. A few pages later, she sneaks into the “blacks only” balcony of the county courthouse, where she looks down on a meeting of the local, pro-segregation Citizens’ Council. There she watches a traveling racist demagogue holding forth about “mongrelization.” Her father and newly rekindled flame are among the audience, as are several other men from the town’s professional class.

In the North, she thinks to herself, newspapers talked about Citizens’ Councils as another form of the Klan, “the same people who were the Invisible Empire, who hated Catholics; ignorant, fear-ridden, red-faced, boorish, law-abiding, one hundred per cent red-blooded Anglo-Saxons, her fellow Americans – trash.” And yet here is the cream of the community – “men of substance and character, responsible men, good men” – sitting alongside vile racists. But I’m pretty sure Scout (and maybe even Harper Lee herself) would advise you to subvert the system and check it out of your library — if only to judge for yourself what all the fuss is about. So is it with civilisation.” This captures the era so brilliantly, as the political unrest and civil tensions brought out both the best and the worst in people.

Lee uses Maycomb as a microcosm of American society and through Scout’s eyes we see the reactions of different communities and how policies made to bring people together began to drive them apart. Or when I learned that the expensive “Christian academy” I attended from third to fifth grade had been founded in 1971, not long after the federal government started to push public-school integration, as a way for well-off whites to escape having to send their children to school with blacks. Sure she’s not as much of a tomboy as in TKAM, but it was nice to see she’d remained true to her ideals, being a symbol for feminism and a refreshing contrast to the stereotype of Southern womanhood, as seen in Aunt Alexandra. I can say only this – that everything I learned about human decency I learned here.” This isn’t new ground, this paradox of loving and hating the South. Too many people have been left disappointed to their own misimaginings of this book, but if you read it with an open mind (and try not to compare it too much to TKAM) I think you’ll be surprised.

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