Saturday, July 11, 2015

Atticus Finch Defends Jim Crow in ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Well, with all these newspaper blurbs for Harper Lee’s new novel, it’s not like the plot’s going to be a surprise.

I’ve been seeing tweets all week saying that Atticus defends the racist Jim Crow system, or some such thing.

So here’s the review at the New York Times, «Review: Harper Lee's 'Go Set a Watchman' Gives Atticus Finch a Dark Side«:

We remember Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's 1960 classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird," as that novel's moral conscience: kind, wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hatred in the 1930s. As indelibly played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie, he was the perfect man — the ideal father and a principled idealist, an enlightened, almost saintly believer in justice and fairness. In real life, people named their children after Atticus. People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus.

Shockingly, in Ms. Lee's long-awaited novel, "Go Set a Watchman" (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like "The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people." Or asks his daughter: "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?"

In "Mockingbird," a book once described by Oprah Winfrey as "our national novel," Atticus praised American courts as "the great levelers," dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal." In "Watchman," set in the 1950s in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he denounces the Supreme Court, says he wants his home state "to be left alone to keep house without advice from the N.A.A.C.P." and describes N.A.A.C.P.-paid lawyers as "standing around like buzzards."

In "Mockingbird," Atticus was a role model for his children, Scout and Jem — their North Star, their hero, the most potent moral force in their lives. In "Watchman," he becomes the source of grievous pain and disillusionment for the 26-year-old Scout (or Jean Louise, as she's now known).

While written in the third person, "Watchman" reflects a grown-up Scout's point of view: The novel is the story of how she returns home to Maycomb, Ala., for a visit — from New York City, where she has been living — and tries to grapple with her dismaying realization that Atticus and her longtime boyfriend, Henry Clinton, both have abhorrent views on race and segregation.

Though "Watchman" is being published for the first time now, it was essentially an early version of "Mockingbird." According to news accounts, "Watchman" was submitted to publishers in the summer of 1957; after her editor asked for a rewrite focusing on Scout's girlhood two decades earlier, Ms. Lee spent some two years reworking the story, which became "Mockingbird."

Some plot points that have become touchstones in "Mockingbird" are evident in the earlier "Watchman." Scout's older brother, Jem, vividly alive as a boy in "Mockingbird," is dead in "Watchman"; the trial of a black man accused of raping a young white woman, while a main story line in "Mockingbird," is only a passing aside in "Watchman." (Interestingly, the trial results in a guilty verdict for the accused man, Tom Robinson, in "Mockingbird," but leads to an acquittal in "Watchman.")

Students of writing will find "Watchman" fascinating for these reasons: How did a lumpy tale about a young woman's grief over her discovery of her father's bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father? How did a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech (from the casually patronizing to the disgustingly grotesque — and presumably meant to capture the extreme prejudice that could exist in small towns in the Deep South in the 1950s) mutate into a redemptive novel associated with the civil rights movement, hailed, in the words of the former civil rights activist and congressman Andrew Young, for giving us "a sense of emerging humanism and decency"?

How did a story about the discovery of evil views in a revered parent turn into a universal parable about the loss of innocence — both the inevitable loss of innocence that children experience in becoming aware of the complexities of grown-up life and a cruel world's destruction of innocence (symbolized by the mockingbird and represented by Tom Robinson and the reclusive outsider Boo Radley)?

The depiction of Atticus in "Watchman" makes for disturbing reading, and for "Mockingbird" fans, it's especially disorienting…

Still more at the link.

And buy the novel, at Amazon, Go Set a Watchman: A Novel.

I’m just going to read it for myself.

American Power

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