Virgin No More (Book Review, Part 2)

2015-08-02 18.08.33I just finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. I read Go Set a Watchman when it first came out last month, and read it before reading the beloved old favorite. And despite all the drama, histrionics and harrumphing by TKAM’s defenders of the holy tract and the way things have always been, I must say, I don’t see the issue. Atticus Finch is a racist. How is that shocking?

Small-town Alabama, in the Great Depression (TKAM) or in the fifties (GSAW), was racist. It’s still quite racist, from what I hear and read. (I’ll be traveling there in October and will give a first-hand account of my experience then.) But so are lots of places in the USA. Racism is still prevalent, pretty much everywhere. I grew up in super liberal Marin County and I learned racist slurs and rhymes. Racism is everywhere. To express shock that the fictional character in a book written about either of those time periods — but especially in the thirties — wasn’t racist seems naive.

Since I don’t have the baggage of having read TKAM a dozen times (or even once) since my adolescence, I certainly don’t have the same attachment to envisioning and sanctifying Atticus Finch in one particular way. But I can relate, to an extent. A set of books I grew up on, The Little House books, has a character, Pa (Charles), based on the author’s real father, who is also just, true and faithful. Always loving to his daughters, always dreaming of a better life. What would I say if Pa had been exposed later as a racist or a man with feet of clay? Would that show me the angst people are feeling now over the loss of their dream-daddy, Atticus? It might.

But that event, in fact, has happened. I have read everything I could find about Laura Ingalls Wilder precisely because I am such a fangirl, and some of that reading has been distinctly eye-opening. Pa was a fly-by-night poet and a dreamer who “married up” to Ma’s social class, and she (a shameless racist herself) had to fight to keep them in one place long enough to get an education for her daughters. Laura’s loving glances at her father, and his returned gaze, have been interpreted as incestuous by some  critics. And the family stories themselves were doctored by Laura’s probably bipolar daughter Rose, a staunch Libertarian (and cofounder of the political movement) who urged Laura to fudge the facts to make a better story.

How did I feel about that? Chagrined, of course, but also not surprised. Stories are stories, and facts are facts. I don’t think it’s possible for this white family in TKAM to have lived in small-town Alabama in the 1930s with a Negro housekeeper and a segregationist society and not be affected. Aunt Alexandra was affected. Uncle Jack, Atticus, not so much. The kids saw color. They didn’t understand the background so much, but they knew there were issues.

In TKAM, Scout and Jem attend church with Calpurnia and are confronted by a black church member who doesn’t want them to attend. At that moment, the children understand fully what it’s like to be excluded on the basis of race. The rest of the church allowing the two white children (of a prominent citizen) to come in and feel welcome shows less openness and more — well, maybe self-preservation. Just as Tom Robinson was doomed from the moment Mayella Ewell saw him passing by and asked him to come chop her firewood or whatever else she wanted — the church couldn’t refuse hospitality to Calpurnia’s employer’s children. Tom couldn’t say no and live; the church membership, despite all appearances of merely being hospitable, also couldn’t say no. That’s how ingrained the racism was.

It seems clear that Atticus is a man of character. He sees injustice in Mayella’s (or her father’s) accusation against Tom. He hates an unfair fight (which is why he stopped using guns as a youth, when it was clear he would kill anything he aimed to shoot). And Atticus is a man of duty — he was assigned the case; he didn’t seek it out. He saw through to the end, as far as he humanly could, that the case got his best work. He is a solid man of his word, and he remains that way through both narratives. In other words, Atticus doesn’t change substantively in TKAM, any more than he has “changed” in GSAW. And the mark of a central character is that he or she changes. The arc of growth is the story. Atticus himself is static in TKAM — and he’s still the same, only older, in GSAW.

So the focus of both stories is Scout — what she sees and knows. She grows up by three years in TKAM and learns that people are multifaceted and not always trustworthy. Her experience of getting to know Boo Radley, of working for the hated Mrs. Dubose, and of seeing Calpurnia in the world (Scout’s house) and at home (Calpurnia’s church) taught her that there is more to most people than meets the eye — a worthy lesson: Don’t judge. Scout, as the adult Jean Louise, has also learned about people, having broadened her horizons in New York City. Coming home, she sees at last how small-minded her neighbors are, her Aunt Alexandra, and even her father. She has changed — and again has to grow and change to accept people (even her social inferior, her fiance Hank) for who they are.

Either way, these are Scout’s stories. This is her arc. Although Harper Lee wrote GSAW first, and her editor set her to rewrite, bringing us TKAM, I don’t think it’s the lesser story. I’m perfectly comfortable with GSAW as a sequel — or even a prequel — for TKAM. I believe they are both necessary and valid, now that they are both out in the world.

I wonder if I could have concluded thusly had I read TKAM first?

Your thoughts?

The Cause of Conscience: Go Set a Watchman (Book Review, Part 1)

2015-07-19 15.29.15(WARNING: Spoilers)

I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird. This is cause for alarm among you many literate people, but you needn’t think me unlettered. In high school I read Poe, Shakespeare, JD Salinger and Carson McCullers; lots of plays, many short stories, and certainly some fat summer beach reads, too (The Thorn Birds, Jaws, Roots, Shogun and Hotel, to name a few). In college I majored in journalism and had no cause for deep American reading, and no affinity for Southern lit, but I did read Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. I went on to study early 20th-century British literature for my master’s degree, and drank my fill of Woolf, Joyce, and Orwell. I still read scads of early and mid-century Brit lit. It’s my crack. But I didn’t have Harper Lee on my radar for pleasure reading until now.

I’ll add a caveat to my preamble that I realize there is an issue with the release of Lee’s first draft/second book. I have read her biography and understand the nature of her friendship with Truman Capote, her anxiety about meeting people and the “sophomore slump” that often hits young, successful authors who feel unequal to producing as fine a work again. I also recognize that there are claims of elder abuse and mixed opinions about the role of Lee’s sister as protector or as censor. History will judge those who abused Lee’s trust, I’m sure.

With all that in mind, I set out to read Go Set a Watchman before reading TKAM, in hopes of seeing which felt the more true. GSAW was written first, as the earlier draft of TKAM, so they say, but her agent and editor did not think it would sell. Lee rewrote the story from the young Scout’s viewpoint and had a bestseller on her hands. She eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for her work. That’s pretty heady stuff.

“For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees.” Isaiah 21:6

It is but a quirk of fate that in the past month, there was an assassination of nine African-Americans in Charleston, SC, and the Confederate flag has at last begun to come down. The #BlackLivesMatter and #Occupy campaigns have raised the African American issue in the media — and a new generation of activists are tired of waiting for justice and equality. As well, in the past few months I have been engaged in family history research and have been grappling with my own Alabama roots and heritage of slave-owning in my DNA. White privilege? Yes. So much yes.

* * *

I opened Go Set a Watchman with virgin eyes and no idea other than generalities on what to expect. And was — riveted.

Scout as a young woman — Jean Louise — is New York City-cynical, streetwise, on vacation to Maycomb, Alabama. Her brother is dead. Her beau, childhood friend Hank, is on hand to woo her back to small-town life. Attorney Atticus Finch, whom she calls by his first name, is her father, crippled by arthritis, a longtime widower living with his pushy Southern matron sister, Alexandra. Adult Jean Louise is a sexual being, pushing the boundaries of Southern small-town mores by behaving like the child Scout; a late-night swim with her beau creates a furor. She’s also enlightened, having crossed the border into Yankee territory and lived and worked alongside a rainbow of skin-tones. She returns to find Maycomb charmingly simple, the same as always, but smaller in size and in their way of thinking. The problem isn’t that home has changed; it’s that she has changed.

The era is the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement is underway, with integration and the like on the agenda. The whites of Maycomb don’t like it, and their “citizens’ committee” looks a lot like the KKK. The N-word is thrown around with vitriol and Jean Louise is alarmed — she thinks of herself as color-blind. There is an incident whereby a white neighbor is accidentally killed by the grandson of Calpurnia, Jean Louise’s African American surrogate mother — their housekeeper as she and Jem were growing up. When Jean Louise comes face to face with a grieving Calpurnia, the young woman knows everything is different, that black and white are not the same, at least not down in Maycomb. And when she discovers her father and fiance in a citizens’ committee meeting, she realizes her whole life has been a lie.

I will say no more about the plot — too much already, perhaps. But to turn to the Atticus problem: I am familiar with the figure of righteous Atticus waving his figurative sword at prejudice and racism, despite not having read TKAM or seeing the entire movie. He shows up as a cultural touchstone in films, books, essays and news articles. The Atticus I find in GSAW is an aging man of his era; he was steeped in racism in small-town Alabama from his youth, and whatever his personal beliefs, the tint of the standard philosophy is going to seep in. I read his protests to adult Scout as plausible — he’s at the meeting to keep an eye on things. He’s in the group but not of the group. Hank is there because he wants to succeed in small town life; it would be social suicide not to participate  — plausible today but frankly, reprehensible. Atticus is a character with his own moral compass who’s dragging his feet into the new era; he is less obstructionist and certainly less vocal and violent about it than his sister or the neighbors. Is he a good guy? A bad guy? He’s a racist — but they all are. What I don’t follow is Dr. Jack Finch, Scout’s uncle (Atticus’s brother), teaching a brutal lesson fraught with bizarre classical literary references, to Jean Louise on hero-worship. That final episode seems overwrought and histrionic in the extreme. Dr. Finch is the oddball in the bunch, acting as Greek chorus to show Jean Louise her errors.

What is hard to read, especially in light of current events — and as I said above, I read a lot of novels from the early 20th century, weekly, in fact; I am used to seeing non-PC expressions like “nigger in the woodpile” or “worked like a nigger” in those dated texts — what strikes me as much harder to swallow is the infantilization of the African American race as a whole by the characters, including Jean Louise, that continues today. “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people…They’re [the NAACP are] trying to wreck us,” Atticus says. While Jean Louise argues for a race’s humanity, all the characters accept the belief that the Negroes have miles to go before they sleep, even as the population is being oppressed and prevented from enjoying their civil rights (no wonder they have so far to go). I see this attitude still alive in the world today; African Americans are “that way,” are “like that,” fill in the blank as you wish. They are Different from white people, and don’t know better, and have to be protected from themselves (cue talking heads nattering about black-on-black violence instead of the centuries of causes for violence in a shell-shocked community). And the stratification endures.

As a text, as fiction, Lee’s work is stellar. Jean Louise is a thoughtful character, sympathetic and well drawn. The scenes where African American characters have agency are few and far between, despite a story that purports to have their interest at heart, but what is there is sharp and very keenly felt. Calpurnia calling Jean Louise “Miss Jean” for the first time upon the girl’s menarche, or Calpurnia’s silence when Jean Louise arrives to commiserate over the tragedy, speaks volumes about the strict racial divide. Hank’s unsuitability as a mate for Jean Louise, the class division of this same society, is portrayed in the subplot. Setting, language, dialogue, plot and characters are beautifully crafted for a first novel, and I am in awe of Lee’s youthful skills.

Where the book fails for me is the denouement, the confrontation between Scout and her father. I don’t think it works. The strange tutelage of Uncle Jack feels dropped in from another planet. I have trouble following his Red Queen logic, and so does Scout, for that matter. And I certainly don’t buy the neat reconciliation that ends with Jean Louise remembering not to bump her head on anything difficult in life, like racism in her town, or her beau’s KKK connection.

2015-07-19 15.30.45
Ophelia has thoughts on being black and white, but prefers to leave it to the reader. #catsofwordpress

I have not yet cracked the spine of TKAM. I look forward to reviewing that story, and then, comparing and contrasting the two, side by side, as an author’s oeuvre and as documents of our national racist heritage.

Your thoughts? Tell me.