Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Killing Mockingbirds

               To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, had already achieved a kind of canonical status by the autumn of 1963, when I taught my first class of freshmen at the University of Wisconsin.  Its staying power for the next four decades, roughly the period of my active career, was phenomenal; and it continues to this day.  After 1970 I cannot remember meeting a new student who had not read it, except perhaps for a few exotic birds with French baccalaureates.  Later still, when I had a more active engagement with high school teachers through a seminar program of the National Endowment for the Humanities and with the College Board,  I came to suspect that it was the only novel that many American seniors had read.  This is not a dig, exactly, though in my own day we had had three: The Scarlet Letter, Silas Marner, and A Tale of Two Cities.

               Like many other people I have been caught up in the hoopla surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s “new” (i.e., old) novel entitled Go Set a Watchman, though as a life-long lover of literature I have been bemused at the tenor of the discussion, much of which is in my opinion painfully wrong-headed.  I am sure you are acquainted with the “problem”.  Atticus Finch, the hero of Mockingbird, is a splendid fellow whose commitment to justice trumps the powerful cultural racism of his native South and inspires his adoring daughter.  Atticus Finch, the aging father of the central character in Watchman, expresses political and racial views that pain and disillusion his once-adoring daughter, now a mature women who has achieved considerable distance from her Alabama girlhood.

               Ms. Lee finds herself in a peculiar situation for a writer.  On account of agreeing to the publication of an old manuscript guaranteed to make small fortunes for herself and her publishers, sage critics are doubting her mental capacities.  On account of revealing that she has a considerable breadth of imagination and the artistic capacity to treat her materials in strikingly different ways, she is charged with some kind of ethical treason.  The explanation, in my opinion, is that many of her fans among the chattering classes lack that imaginative breadth and that experimental capacity.  Many of them also seem to think all this has something to do with Gregory Peck.

               I have not read Watchman, and I am not sure I will read it.  My uncertainty is based largely in the principle of Ars longa vita brevis.  As Chaucer puts it, the life so short, the craft so long to learn.  I am thus far dependent upon the opinions of reviewers, and I’d like the guidance of a few more I trust before making what might be a largely archaeological investment.  Some books merit the archaeology, and others don’t.   Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an important enough book to encourage one to read its inchoate and incomplete germ Stephen Hero, posthumously published.  Mockingbird might be of similar import.  Indeed in terms of its cultural impact and its place in the history of American secondary education it undoubtedly is. 

               Some fine novelists have the power of creating and delineating characters so full and three-dimensional that we feel we known them intimately and with a depth that leaves little room for major surprises, particularly uncomfortable surprises.  This is perhaps odd, given how mysterious even those we know well "in real life" can be.  Whether one prefers a hagiographic Atticus or a clay-footed Atticus is a matter of choice, but a writer should not be condemned for her power of imagining both.  It would be hard to fault the choices that Harper Lee and her editor made half a century ago.  They resulted in a masterpiece.  Yet it sounds as though Watchman is a coming-of-age story that corresponds more closely to my own lived experience than does that of Mockingbird.  The first presidential election in which I took an informed interest was that of 1952.  Eisenhower trounced Stevenson, a liberal Democrat whose only victories were in the old Solid South.  I graduated from high school in 1954, the year of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Brown versus Board of Education.  For the next four years I was an undergraduate at the aptly named University of the South, then all male and all white.  The racial “question” was everywhere around us, and everywhere insistent.  The considerable racial turmoil in the South during those years had a large dimension of the generational both for black people and among whites.   In nearly every era disgruntled elders have judged our college campuses hotbeds of dangerous radicalism.  As the editor of the college paper, a weekly, I got in very hot water for saying things utterly unexceptional among my contemporaries, very few of whom neatly fit the racist stereotype. Practically all of us were in favor of “integration” and “Negro” or  “colored” equality—terms that were then earnestly used by us and by black leaders alike, and only later to be purged from the politically correct vocabulary except where chiseled in stone in the names of venerable Civil Rights organizations.  

               The theme of the generational reverberations of the “racial question” among white southern families is not exactly the heart of the matter of that turbulent era of our national history, so near and yet so far away; but it is a worthy one that an intelligent, sensitive, youngish white southern woman writer setting out in the post-War era might very well elect to explore.  To Kill a Mockingbird has been one of our cherished guides to youth.  Perhaps Go Set a Watchman might one day become a meditation for our elderly.  All children know that fathers disappoint, but you don’t know the half of it until you are a father yourself.


  1. Perhaps I shouldn't admit it, but I have not yet read Silas Marner, the Scarlet Letter, A Tale of Two Cities, or To Kill a Mockingbird. I have read Portrait of an Artist and, if memory serves, Stephen Hero.

    I heartily endorse, however, your bewilderment at the way Miss Lee is being characterized and criticized. To discover, even late in life, a treasure that could bring her a fortune, is surely s nice bit of serendipity, and she is to be congratulated for allowing the manuscript to see the light.

    As for the "change" in her protagonist, I am not sure that there is necessarily a contradiction between the heroic lawyer who defends an innocent man against the prevailing sentiment of his home town, and the citizen who decries the changes in racial policy that he sees around him. One does not have to believe in social equality in everyday life to believe in justice and equity before the law.

  2. I thought you might be interested in this.


  3. Tedious. That one word aptly summarizes Go Set a Watchman. If this were written by any other author I would have quit 50 pages in.

    While I do not share the common complaint about the portrayal of Atticus as racist and while I found the depiction of small town Alabama at the start of the Civil Rights movement to be spot on, I think there are far better period pieces out there--books with plots and characters that develop through the book and who drive the plot. The Help comes to mind immediately. In any event, there's none of that in this book. Scout comes across as a cardboard Northern liberal acting as a foil for the cardboard Southern racists, Atticus among them. On top of that there IS no plot for either character to drive. Boring and, in the end, not particularly enlightening, much less enjoyable.