Thursday, September 27, 2018

THE RELUCTANT LEGACY OF HARPER LEE



I recently read Go Set a Watchman, the late Southern writer Harper Lee’s second—depending on whether you believe Rupert Murdoch’s Harper-Collins or investigative reporters at The New York Times— and last published book. It is a work of fiction that was never meant to be published but ended up being marketed, allegedly but perhaps not necessarily factually, to help finance care for the elderly author, who died in February of 2016, at the age of 89. Not unsurprisingly, it ended up being a lot more lucrative—an enormous bestseller—for Murdoch than for Lee, who barely lived long enough to see it published.
I remember when I first read Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. It was a fairly new book then, since it was, perhaps, 1964 or so when I read it. But it was already a very popular novel, a book that had won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize. And in 1962, it was made into a blockbuster movie. Fortunately, I read the book before I saw the film. Both were good. The book was infinitely better. I have re-read it every decade or so since then. It is, without a doubt, a literary work of art.
Mockingbird was on one of our high school reading lists. When I read it, I remember being surprised that it was on the list. Ours was a small conservative Ohio town, and rape, which figured as a principal element in the plot, wasn’t the sort of subject that usually formed any part of the curriculum. I figured my teacher knew what the book was about, but I couldn’t imagine that the school board did. It was known and touted as a “coming of age story”, which might have made it seem more like a book for adolescents, which indeed it was, if for adults as well. But to me it came as a surprise to find such a book on any reading list that could wend its way into the Wapakoneta City Schools system.
The other thing that surprised me enormously, however, was how a lot of my classmates got that it was also a story that delved deeply into racial inequality, but that they couldn’t seem to see any moral or social equivalency with our own town. Perhaps it was that the book underscored, for us, what we’d had ingrained in our thinking from infancy—namely that the deep South was a hotbed of racial discrimination, a place where African Americans, whom we still called Negroes back then, were segregated from the white community and that this segregation was upheld by local laws that went against every tenet of the Bill of Rights. And that those laws were in turn upheld not only by local law enforcement but also by vigilante justice—which often overlapped.
Jem, Scout and Dill in the 1962 movie version
It was a North-South thing for many. We were the “good Northerners” who had stood with Abe Lincoln, freed the slaves, formed part of the Underground Railroad and saved the Republic, and they were the “bad Southerners” who had committed sedition, precipitated the bloodiest war in our history, and continued, right up to the present, to discriminate against blacks—even though “we” had “whipped the South” during the Civil War, in the name of freedom and justice.
So how was it, then, that we lived in an all-white town? Not even a single token black in the population? Perhaps it was because our town, like so many other small towns in the North, had long fostered a more hypocritical brand of racism than the open segregation practiced in the South at that time. If you asked around, many people in our community would have declared themselves “not racially prejudiced”—they just didn’t want blacks living in our town, or going to our schools, or attending our churches. In fact, there was an unspoken rule that it was crucial that “the sun should never set” on a Negro in our town.
It was well-known, if a tacit truth, that the one in charge of maintaining that rule was our chief of police, who had been chief for as long as just about anybody could recall. And that was one of the reasons why. What was less well known was that the Ku Klux Klan—which many of the more naïve among us thought of as an odious Southern white supremacist vigilante organization—was alive and well in our Ohio town. In fact, it was alive and well in the entire area. When my father was a young boy growing up in nearby Lima, Ohio, the KKK had held one of its most successful public rallies in the country, drawing a crowd of more than a hundred thousand “nice white Northern people” and choking the arteries of the downtown area of the Ohio oil-boom town.
In Wapakoneta, however, especially during the formative years of people of my grandparents’ generation, it was more like a secret lodge, the classified roster of which included some of the most prominent of the town’s male citizens, who lent their support to the police chief’s anti-black crusade. But nobody talked about it. It was only the occasional whispered reference overheard among people of my parents’ generation that fed my curiosity.
My mother seldom mentioned race. But I recall her once saying that she was glad to see how racially unprejudiced my sister and I were. Maybe, she said, this was how all the hatred and ugliness would eventually be overcome—gradually, generation by generation. Her father was an unapologetic racist whose language was often peppered with the most hateful of terms when referring to African Americans. She, on the other hand, was much less so. She made it clear that she would be disappointed if any of us kids ever decided to date or marry a black person, but that was mostly, she said, because it would make the world a lot tougher place for us to live in, and it would surely be a burden for any mixed-race children we had. But she went on to say that perhaps by our children’s children’s generation, it would no longer be an issue, and that would be a great thing—the world, she assumed, finally as God wished it.
In Mockingbird, the narrator is a grade school girl named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. Although she talks a lot about growing up in a small Southern town in the 1930s, and about the adventures she has with her older brother Jem and their friend Dill, who comes to stay each summer with his aunt who lives next door, the main element of the plot is the corrosive nature of racism in early-20th-century Southern society.
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) defends Tom Robinson 
(Brock Peters)in the 1962 movie version
The backdrop for this entire narrative is the ill-fated trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a young white woman (who, in fact, we surmise, is being abused by her father). The hero of the story is Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, the highly principled and highly respected defense lawyer who takes on Robinson’s case, even though it brings pressure to bear on him from local Klansmen and from the father of the alleged rape victim. This man, Bob Ewell, will eventually seek to harm Scout and Jem in revenge for his and his daughter’s public humiliation in court, but the Finch kids will be saved by the mysterious “Boo” Radley, a shadowy, frightening and almost supernatural character in the summer fantasy world of Scout, Jem and Dill. 
Despite all evidence to the contrary, and in spite of Atticus Finch’s best efforts, the jury ends up convicting Tom Robinson. The point and the lesson that the book proffers is that the racist nature of the white supremacist society in the South of the early part of the 20th century places all odds against Tom Robinson. He cannot get a fair trial in Southern white society. Finch’s attempt to prove him innocent is a quixotic fool’s errand that only such a principled man as he would take on.
Author Harper Lee with Mary Badham who played Scout
in the film version of Mockingbird
It is disturbing, then, to read Go Set a Watchman, since the Atticus Finch whom we have raised, like Scout and Jem in Mockingbird, to the status of mythical hero, here is portrayed as a flawed character who disappoints his now grown-up daughter (and us) by demonstrating that he too views blacks as inferior to whites and by joining other local movers and shakers in resisting the interference in Southern society of federal lawmakers and of the NAACP.
In Watchman, Scout in now Miss Jean Louise, a sophisticated 26-year-old woman who makes her home in New York City. She is back in her home town of Maycomb, Alabama, for a visit. Her father, Atticus, is now an aging town icon, plagued by arthritis, but still practicing law, although now with the assistance of Henry Clinton, Jean Louise’s childhood friend, later boyfriend and now suitor. Henry has taken Atticus as his mentor and plans eventually to take over the Finch law office. He hopes it will be with Jean Louise as his wife.
In this “new” book, Dill is but a faded memory and Jem has long since dropped dead from a heart attack. But while these characters have been cruelly erased from the scene—for those of us who loved them almost as much as we loved Scout—a new and colorful character is introduced: Atticus’s brother, Jack, an eccentric doctor who has a cynical view of the world and takes comfort in his huge collection of books. It is Jack to whom Jean Louise will resort when her world appears to be coming apart at the seams later in the book.
And then too, there is Alexandra, Atticus and Jack’s sister, who has been living with Atticus and caring for him ever since Jem’s death—her husband having long since “moved to the fishing camp”, where he won’t have to put up with her overbearing personality any more.
Harper Lee in her latter years
Alexandra has sent home another beloved character from Mockingbird, Calpurnia, the black maid who was practically a mother to the Finch children after their own mother died. For Jean Louise, Calpurnia was everything, disciplinarian, counselor, friend, mother. She misses Calpurnia terribly and finds her aunt a poor replacement. Opinionated, meddling, unbearably pious, as well as a gossip, Alexandra is the complete opposite of Jean Louise and as such, they clash constantly. Alexandra is furious when she finds out that Jean Louise has visited Calpurnia. To her mind, Negroes have always been treated well in Maycomb, but now have grown uppity, at the prompting of the NAACP, and should be ignored for their ingratitude.
Calpurnia, for her part, receives Jean Louise coolly, and speaks to her with the practiced manner that Scout recognizes as the talk blacks reserve “for company”. She is devastated. It’s like being given the cold shoulder by her own mother.
But there’s something deeper going on here. Zeebo, a relative of Calpurnia’s, has been involved in an auto accident in which he was speeding and a white person was killed. Atticus has decided he will defend Zeebo. But this time, his motives are not as noble as those invoked when he defended Tom Robinson. This time he has taken on the pro bono job to prevent the NAACP from sending in a lawyer of their own and turning the trial into what the people of Maycomb see as a potential media circus and unwanted interference in the town’s race relations.
Jean Louise ends up spying from the empty “colored balcony” of the county courthouse on a private meeting of Maycomb movers and shakers in which both Atticus and Henry are present and active, and in which all manner of racist statements are tolerated by them both. She becomes, literally, physically ill and has to leave the place.
The rest of the book is about her struggle with these new and hurtful feelings and how her liberal Uncle Jack helps her to come to grips with them. She feels as if she has gone insane. She and her aunt are at loggerheads, her beloved Calpurnia treats her like a stranger, Henry, she is now convinced, is a racist with whom she can have nothing more to do, and Atticus has betrayed every moral tenet in which she was brought up to believe. She begins to wonder if perhaps she hasn’t truly gone mad, because it seems impossible to her that she has suddenly been dropped into a bizzaro world in which everything is the opposite of what it should be.
It is her Uncle Jack who eventually convinces Jean Louise that her father is no racist, that he is simply working from the inside to change minds and customs little by little. A sort of if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em approach it would seem. I was immediately reminded of my own mother’s description of how each generation might become less and less racist. I wasn’t terribly convinced of that then, and although Jean Louise eventually takes her uncle’s explanation as valid and forgives her father, I’m still not very convinced of it now. Nor did I come away from this story feeling that working in the midst of, and as part of, a corrupt, bigoted and unjust system so as to “improve it little by little from the inside,” or at least to mitigate somewhat the evil it engenders, was in any way a strategy bound for success.
The controversy about Watchman that has rocked the literary world has to do with whether it was a second book by Harper Lee or if it was an earlier draft of Mockingbird, which editors at the writer’s original publishing company, J.B. Lippincott, convinced her to re-write with a more upbeat message. Indeed, the writing in Watchman is a starker, less meticulous example of the author’s enormous talent, if still a compelling and well-written book. The charge is that Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, waited for the writer’s sister and long-time protector, Alice, to die so that she could take the manuscript of Watchman to Murdoch’s Harper Collins where it was seen as the money-grab of the decade. Although Carter fought to keep the contents of Lee’s will a secret, a suit filed by The New York Times eventually forced her to make the contents of the will public. The will named Carter the sole executor of Lee’s estate.       
Beyond the controversy about whether Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman before or after she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps its message, like the one my mother imparted on me all those decades ago, is that no matter how much laws might change in the search for justice and equality, social change, unfortunately, takes a lot longer and can’t be legislated. It takes each generation becoming ever more moderate, ever more liberal, ever more tolerant of diversity and intolerant of racial prejudice. And perhaps that’s the greatest danger of the kind of fundamentalist times in which we’re living right now, when the new normal seems to be, one step forward and two back.

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