Tomorrow will be one of the biggest dates in book history, not Fifty Shades of Grey history, perhaps more like Grapes of Wrath history. After more than five decades, a companion to America’s most beloved book, To Kill a Mockingbird, will be released in stores nationwide. Go Set a Watchman was actually submitted to author Harper Lee’s publishers in 1957, prior to writing her iconic 1960 novel. Her publishers rejected Watchman when she submitted her debut attempt, and asked Lee instead to write another novel that focused more on the illustrative childhood flashbacks of Jean Louise Finch, better known to millions as the young lead character in Mockingbird, Scout.
The difficulty is assessing whether or not to call it a predecessor or sequel to the classic novel. In the upcoming release, a sexually liberated 26 year-old Jean Louise now lives in New York as an aspiring painter, although she contemplates marrying her hometown suitor, Henry Clinton. The book focuses on Jean Louise in the 1950s, twenty years after the events surrounding Mockingbird, and her return to her small Alabama hometown of Maycomb. The first chapter, released courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, illustrates the lead character returning to meet with her ailing 72 year-old father, the legendary literary attorney, Atticus Finch. Some have questioned if the 89 year-old Lee, who never wrote another novel after Mockingbird, is mentally competent to authorize the uncovered manuscript, as she suffers from dementia living in an assisted living facility in her Alabama hometown. She has been quoted on several occasions as happily giving permission for the release.
While apologizing for the SPOILER ALERT!!, the biggest controversy over the release comes not from the plot, but from the stunning portrayal of Atticus 20 years from the time he risked his life and reputation to prevent an angry white mob from killing a black man he represented who was falsely accused of rape. It turns out that Atticus is one of the town’s leading segregationists in the immediate aftermath of 1954’s Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision. A leading line in the novel, and from what early reviews indicate, the leading driver in the plot, is Jean Louise saying to her legendary father, “You’re the only person I’ve ever fully trusted and now I’m done for.”
Gregory Peck’s award-winning performance of Atticus in the in 1962 classic film adaptation provided thousands of future law students and established lawyers the model of the perfect public advocate; however critics of that portrayal for being too clean will now be vindicated. The attitude, while likely shocking to lovers of the 1930s version of Atticus, is a much truer reflection of the South during the mid-1950s, where many felt that states’ rights were being trampled upon by civil rights legislation. As a reaction to the movement, many states, including South Carolina, began reintroducing Confederate symbolism in public displays.
On Friday, South Carolina officials pulled the confederate flag from the statehouse grounds to rest in the nearby Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum amid great pomp and ceremony. My colleague Jay Belle Isle and I had a heated text conversation while the ceremony was taking place. I personally did not want to watch it because I did not want to celebrate something that was years too late in the making. I did acknowledge to him, however, that I thought it was indeed a sign of progress for humanity. I just wish it didn’t take an event like the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church to cause such as turnaround. Governor Nikki Haley made an abrupt about-face, as did many state legislators in the days and weeks since last-month’s shooting. I surmise the entire event may not have had to occur had the 21 year-old white supremacist murderer grown up in a post-Confederate flag state. Would he have portrayed the hateful messages that he did on websites or conducted the tragedy if legislation for the flag’s removal would have been passed a generation ago, the last time it was a hot-button issue? At the same time, as with most human endeavors, the future of progress comes from the pain of the present.
This is why I so eagerly await Tuesday’s release. From what I gather, the novel does not contain the hair-raising drama of the iconic classic, but it may contain something even more appropriate for the modern era, complexity. It is hard to believe that many in the South Carolina legislature, or even Haley herself, can give such heartfelt arguments against the Confederate flag’s controversial heritage as Representative Jenny Horne, but many are likely warming up to the idea of how someone else can be influenced and/or offended by its symbolism. I have a hard time giving credit or love to someone who views any human being as lesser than them based on superficial characteristics, including people from my former circle in my own hometown.
There is an inherent danger involving this sort of shaming, that the shamer begins down the same path toward prejudice as those he or she shames. Much like the elder version of Atticus’s fear of being bullied by the federal government, and more succinctly, the “Yankees,” lukewarm Confederate converts today fear the same kind of big-government intrusion on their traditions by more progressive outside bodies. The book may be a lesson, a bridge so to speak personally, to understand and accept to some degree the transformation many current southerners are dealing with. The timing of Watchman’s release is appropriate given the current context of North/South cultural relations. We know from the classic novel that Atticus is at least in part, a noble individual, but we now know that he is not perfect. South Carolina’s abrupt about-face on the Confederate flag may demonstrate that while those mulling the complexity of their Confederate heritage may not be perfect, they can still be noble.
Christian Science Monitor – Greta Kauffman
The Guardian – Mark Lawson
Wall Street Journal (blog) – Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg