Friday, February 19, 2016
Twice Blessed: Harper Lee's Novel
I am sorry to read that Harper Lee has died. She wrote one book, To Kill a Mockingbird, thetis standard fare in high schools, and is an undisputed classic. She played a major part in the creation of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
And then decades of silence.
Last year, Go Set a Watchman, an earlier draft of the novel that became Mockingbird, was published, giving rise to questions of exploitation and legacy tainting. After all, the Atticus of Watchman is a cranky old racist, whose daughter catches him betraying his own values on the very courtroom in which he embodied them.
But this is the Atticus we all love to think of:
Through the glories of pre-ordering, I got a copy of Watchman on the day of publication, and read it immediately. For what it's worth, I think that while Mockingbird is the more artfully crafted of the two, it also has the easier lift. Ultimately, it's reassuring--Tom Robinson dies, but if he hadn't broken and tried to escape, Atticus liked his odds on appeal, we're told. Even more reassuring, the Judge who assigned Atticus, and the Sheriff, Mr. Heck Tate, each try to even the playing field, and Atticus himself, the ultimate avatar of the lawyer as hero, leaves everything on that field, pulling out all the stops to save his client. Mockingbird is a beautiful, funny, tender book--but it isn't challenging.
Watchman, by contrast, undermines the heroism of Atticus's younger days--Robinson is acquitted and survives, the trial is accorded only a few lines--but, worse, confronts us with the awful identity of the racist: Someone we love. Someone who helped form us, a parent, a good and wise person in so many ways--but the oppressor and racist. He betrays Calpurnia, by representing her grandson, intending to steer him into a guilty plea. He both is and is not the Atticus we love. He did give Scout her moral compass, but his own has gotten distorted somewhere.
It's an extraordinary achievement, if you read the books together. The flaws Atticus demonstrates in Watchman don't contradict the man in Mockingbird. If you trim the lines in Watchman about the trial to harmonize with the events of Mockingbird, they're the same man--Atticus in Mockingbird has a paternalistic superiority that is not edifying, if you look close enough.
That's in fact how I read the two: together. The rough edges of Watchman work for me, because the writing is good enough to carry me along, and to bridge the distance between the nostalgic hindsight of Scout's childhood memories, and the baffling complexities of the adult Jean Louise struggling with the aging, flawed man before her.
Together, the books have greater life than either on its own.
Harper Lee wrote one novel, after all. A two volume classic, with both the soft-focus, hopeful story of heroism a child discovering the harshness of the world needs, and the moment when we let go of reassurance, and see our parents in the round, flaws and all. It's a novel that will live.