Watchman is not the book Mockingbird is

21 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Go Set a Watchman': Might Harper Lee actually be trolling us all?.

HarperCollins announced on Monday that Go Set a Watchman in its combined print, electronic and audio formats has sold 1.1 million copies in the US and Canada, a figure which includes first-week sales and months of pre-orders. Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” has gone from being debated and discussed to becoming more than just a media sensation: It has already sold more than a million copies. The publisher stunned the world in February when it revealed that a second novel was coming from Lee, who had long insisted that To Kill a Mockingbird would be her only book.

The sequel, or first draft, or both, to the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the novel brings those characters, including a less benevolent Atticus Finch, into the racially divisive 1950s. Lennon — forever the Liverpool lad when it came to criticism — called it “the shittiest load of badly recorded shit” the world’s greatest band had ever produced. For decades, Nelle, as her friends call her, divided her time between her apartment in Manhattan and the modest, book-filled house she shared with her older sister, Alice Finch Lee, in their south Alabama hometown of Monroeville.

We spoke to Angela Shaw-Thornburg, a scholar of American and African-American literature at South Carolina State University, about the book, its characters, and what they all tell us about where America is now. She chauffeured Alice, whom she fondly called “Atticus in a skirt,” to and from the law firm where Alice had practiced for nearly 70 years. “Driving Miss Alice,” Nelle would say with a smile. It made headlines with its depiction of noble lawyer Atticus Finch as a racist and bigot, a stark contrast to the idealistic, younger Finch of Mockingbird who put his principles on the line to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. When I lived next door to the Lee sisters from the fall of 2004 until the spring of 2006, she and I would sometimes take an exercise class for seniors at the community center. HarperCollins, a unit of News Corp, said yesterday it had ordered reprints several times and now has a North American print run for Watchman of more than 3.3 million.

HarperCollins has increased an initial print run of 2 million copies for ‘‘Watchman’’ to 3.3 million. ‘‘Watchman’’ was completed before Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘‘Mockingbird,’’ but is set in the same Alabama community 20 years later. Because of course Watchman is actually a first draft, the writer’s equivalent of a mediocre recording session — and with its pro-segregation arguments and one casual instance of domestic violence, it’s safe to say this particular recording session has not aged well. Critics and readers were startled to find the heroic Atticus of Mockingbird disparaging blacks and condemning the Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw segregation in public schools. The extremely secretive, fast-tracked release of Watchman has prompted fears of an overreaching lawyer nudging an isolated 89-year-old woman into publishing a manuscript of dubious provenance.

Citing sprawl development and a need for more Mexican-American elected officials, ‘‘Breaking Bad’’ actor Steven Michael Quezada said he is jumping in a heated race for county commissioner in Albuquerque. State officials in Lee’s native Alabama, where she resides in an assisted living facility, met with her and concluded she was alert and able to make decisions about Watchman, which Lee attorney Tonja Carter has said she discovered last year. Quezada, who played DEA agent Steven Gomez in the hit AMC series, told the Associated Press Monday that he will make a formal announcement on Tuesday that he’s seeking the Bernalillo County Commission seat. ‘‘I think I bring a new face to the Democratic Party,’’ said Quezada, a Democrat who is a member of the Albuquerque school board. She’d insisted on releasing it exactly as-is, not even caring to make the so-called sequel’s details mesh with Mockingbird (was Tom Robinson acquitted or wasn’t he?), not caring that many of the passages are identical to ones in Mockingbird. They liked the long profile I published, “A Life Apart: Harper Lee, the Complex Woman Behind a Delicious Mystery,” and invited me to continue visiting.

Young, who performed in concert Sunday at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction, appeared earlier with Governor Peter Shumlin and donated $100,000 to a special fund devoted to defending Vermont’s GMO labeling law from legal challenges. Young has stepped up his activism on agricultural issues, and makes reference to the Vermont law in one of the songs on his new album ‘‘The Monsanto Years.’’ Young’s donation brings the total in the Vermont Food Fight Fund to $550,000. We skipped merrily through the first 70 pages or so, hailing Lee’s champagne-dry wit like an old friend — even as it became clear that the old friend didn’t really know where she was going, and was just recounting childhood anecdotes in a similar style to Mockingbird. Garrison Keillor, creator and longtime host of ‘‘A Prairie Home Companion,’’ says the next season of the popular radio show will be his last as host.

We furrowed our brows around page 100, when Atticus Finch attends a meeting at his courthouse — aha, here’s that racist old Atticus we were warned about. But Atticus doesn’t wander around ranting like a bigot from this point on, though it might have been better for the narrative if he had. (I was fascinated by the concept of a Fox News-watching Atticus Finch, or his 1950s equivalent, but that’s not really what we get.

Scout is distraught at what she overheard, but largely limits her response to fading into childhood nostalgia again — only this time without the dry wit. I won’t exactly spoil the end, but suffice to say there are talkative confrontations all around, the NAACP is repeatedly trashed, and a dreadfully paternalistic tone arrives like cavalry in a Confederate war film. But when I read the novel, and think of it from my students’ perspective, I realize there’s not a lot of space given to black voice in that novel. As the group walked away, I thought to myself how pleased they looked, how many times this encounter would be told and retold, surely a favorite story.

She agrees with Atticus at one point “that they” [Southern blacks] are “backward, that they’re illiterate, that they’re dirty and comical and shiftless and no good, they’re infants and they’re stupid, some of them.” She only disagrees, she adds, on their essential humanity and need for hope. The novel comes out at a strange time in America’s racial history: How does this echo against things you see in South Carolina — the state that instigated the Civil War, that recently saw a brutal shooting in a black church, and where the Confederate flag just came down.

Even though I was decades younger than the Lees and the friends with whom we socialized, the autoimmune condition forced me to live at a slower speed. Worst of all, Jean-Louise’s uncle Jack literally slaps some sense into her — with an effect that’s portrayed as ultimately both positive and calming.

For Uncle Jack hasn’t come to change her pro-integration mind, but he has come to drop this knowledge bomb on Jean Louise: “As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God.” Now there’s a meta line. As we grew up, almost unknown to ourselves, we confused Atticus Finch with God — even though, as Malcolm Gladwell argued in this very prescient piece from 2009, Atticus was clearly part of the Southern establishment. But in the wake of that, there’s been some real hardening of racist attitudes: Instead of peace and redemption we’re seeing the worst, most vocal white supremacists coming out in force. Even on the evidence of Mockingbird alone, the “courthouse ring” that ran towns in a paternalistic, law-abiding, almost liberal manner, but kept the legal side of Jim Crow firmly in place even as they protected defendants from lynchings. I would not think they had a white-supremacist bone in their bodies, or conservative views of race, or that they were harboring deep fears about what full participation by African-Americans would look like.

The closing conversation between Atticus and Jean Louise reads like a spare-no-blushes report of their political conversations, in which her father is directly compared to Hitler. I’ve been off of Facebook for the last couple weeks because I’ve been, “I really didn’t want to know that about you.” That kind of schizophrenia, where people say, “Some of my best friends are black …” On a small scale they can see individual African-Americans as human beings; on a large-scale issue, they’re not able to. In her teens and twenties in the 1940s, Nelle Harper Lee wore a bomber jacket, smoked a pipe and used language described as “salty.” She dropped out of college, went to New York, hung out with the artsy set, stole quarters from parking meters and tried to bash truths out of a typewriter. One recent critic called him a “plaster saint.” He’s the ultimate icon of fatherhood and the law, and it seems clear now that’s never what he was intended to be.

You could see the girl in them at these moments, still proud daughters all those years later. “I adored my father and wanted to be just like him,” Alice said. She practiced law with him, shared the Lee home in Monroeville with him until his death, and, like him, was deeply involved with the Methodist church. I think the combination of those events encouraged her to open up to me even more. “I know what you can call your book,” she told me one day over coffee at Burger King. Similarly, I think — I hope — Lee is directing us to see Atticus as he likely would have been at that time of extremism, to see history as it really was.

She leaned in and stabbed her finger in the air, as she often did when making a point: “’Having Their Say.’ I know they used it with the Delany sisters, but titles aren’t copyrightable.” Nelle beamed. “Having Our Say” was a bestselling book about two African American sisters, one sweet and one salty, looking back on their lives. Then she looked at me again. “Sometimes,” she said. “But then it passes.” Now, she has another book generating record-breaking sales. (HarperCollins reports that the book is the fastest-selling in its history.) She has the intensity of the media spotlight she avoided for many years. In 2011, she wrote to me, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” Alice Lee died in November, at 103.

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