Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sunday Review: Harper Lee’s two novels

Some thoughts

By William Silveira

Publishing is a field of endeavor that is suffering from lack of readers. But HarperCollins Publishers has managed to pull profits not only from a book that was published 50 years ago, but also from another book, written by the same author (and initially rejected by publishers), that preceded the book published 50 years ago.
    No doubt some of the interest in these books was created by the stellar publicity efforts of HarperCollins in its debut of the more recently published book. But was the rest driven by the inherent merits of the books themselves or by something else? I am referring to the two novels by the Southern writer Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird, first published in 1960, and Go Set A Watchman, published in 2015.
    Both Watchman and Mockingbird are told from the point of view of Jean Louise Finch. (True to Southern convention, she carries the nickname, Scout.) In Mockingbird, she is the precocious, tomboyish 8-year-old daughter of Atticus Finch, a small-town Alabama lawyer. In Watchman, she is Atticus’s 26-year-old daughter. She has finished college and is now residing in New York City. Mockingbird is set in the early Depression years of the 1930’s. Watchman is set in the early 1950’s – at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
    The Finch family is an old staple of southern literature – particularly of that genre known as the Southern Renaissance. They are the genteel descendants of an old, pioneering, and successful plantation family. The money is mostly gone, but not their good manners and sense (at least in Atticus) of noblesse oblige. The African Americans in Mockingbird are sympathetically portrayed as hardworking, loyal, and victims of monstrous racial prejudice by the white folks (except the Finches?). In Watchman, African Americans are portrayed as having a sullen hostility toward white society. The old camaraderie with the Finches of the 1930’s has been laid low by NAACP agitators in the early 1950’s and Brown v. Board of Education. (Don’t you know, honey, they were happy before these outside agitators came in?)
    In both of these novels Harper Lee, through the character of Scout, struggles with the problems of a white society full of racial bigotry where family, religion, and community (with your fellow white man) assume an outsize role in the lives of the residents. Unfortunately, Scout comes out as an emotional prisoner of that rotten borough. Scout is not a bigot, but she is unable to reject the world that nurtures and cradles bigotry. Ultimately, it’s more important to accept the moral failures of the South and accept its denizens with love, despite their faults, than to attempt to change them or get out.
    In Watchman, Scout is horrified that her father and her boyfriend are attending meetings of the local White Citizen’s Council. They resent “outsiders” who come to the South to challenge and change their ways and their traditions. Scout hates the bigotry of these groups, but is sympathetic to their dislike of outside interference in their world. Unfortunately, it took the “interference” of the Civil War to end slavery. And it took the modern civil rights movement to end American apartheid. And that was started by black people in the South, not by white Southerners.
    While it is perhaps cruel and unkind to say so, I think Harper Lee’s paean to the old South in these novels is best summed up in the ironic lyrics of Tom Lehrer in “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie,” particularly the last two lines, “Be it ever so decadent, / There’s no place like home.”
    “Southern Renaissance” labels a group of writers of Southern literature in the 1920’s and 1930’s. They were in contrast to the historically revisionist school of literature of the post-Civil War era, which glorified life in the pre-Civil War South. A prime example of this the post-Civil War genre is Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. (It’s ironic that this vastly popular book – and later, movie – could still resonate with the American public, although its literary genre was vastly passé.) The writers of the Southern Renaissance took a more realistic view of what Southern society was. It is my view that Harper Lee was strongly influenced by this group. However, like these writers, she cannot leave behind sentimentality for the old South. And she cannot resolve the inherent contradiction of upholding a racist social structure and yet hating bigotry.


Copyright © 2015 by William Silveira

12 comments:

  1. Bill, your opening sentence might pass most readers by without much notice. Is publishing really "suffering from lack of readers"? Whenever I go to Costco, I marvel at the huge piles of books on display, knowing that Costco isn't doing that just to make that section of the store colorful.
        However, I don't think you'd make the statement without some evidence (even if you withheld it), and I did find this January 2014 article in The Atlantic: "The Decline of the American Book Lover," which states, for example: "Without question, the American bookworm is a rarer species than two or three decades ago, when we didn't enjoy today's abundance of highly distracting gadgets. In 1978, Gallup found that 42 percent of adults had read 11 books or more in the past year (13 percent said they'd read more than 50!). Today, Pew finds that just 28 percent hit the 11 mark."
        And, though I still read books (both fiction and non-fiction), I do think I read fewer of them, and I rarely don't spend at least one hour an evening before our TV monitor to watch a movie or an episode of a TV serial, usually down-streamed from this provider or that. So many hours to read a book, and so few to watch a movie or TV episode!

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    1. Publishing used to be a staid, old-fashioned business. Technology, our beloved system of capitalist financial manipulation, and other factors have contributed to a decline of profitability of many publishing ventures. My thoughts are best summed up in harvardmagazine.com/2010/07/fifteen-percent-of-immortality.

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    2. Bill, thanks for the reference to 2010 article in Harvard Magazine. I haven't read it yet, but I hope to soon. Despite appearances at Costco and elsewhere, it is certainly evident that print publication has suffered.

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  2. Bill, another statement made almost in passing bears further consideration: "It’s ironic that this vastly popular book [Margaret Michell's Gone with the Wind] – and later, movie – could still resonate with the American public, although its literary genre was vastly passé."
        For I think it really DID resonate, which raises the question, How could it have resonated, without a wide blindness to reality? And who or what was responsible for that blindness?

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    1. With the political compromise of 1876 the Republican party conceded control of Southern state politics to the planter class, who maintained power through the creation of American apartheid and the concomitant racial bigotry upon which it rested. The Republican party had become the party of the new plutocrats in making and weren't interested in a continuing battle to right the wrongs of slavery. All of this was aided and abetted of an outpouring of a vast clap trap of revisionist history and fiction painting the image of a by gone Arcadia that the South still revered. The propaganda was successful. You only have to see DW Griffiths, "The Birth of A Nation" (1917) to see how Southern revisionism was still in full swing in the early 20th century. I am sure that this immensely popular film, besides all the saccharine novels of the post civil war era, helped cement the Margaret Mitchel view of history in the American imagination. Old lies die hard And, I think, the bigger they are the harder they are to kill,.

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    2. Thanks, Bill. This strikes me as eminently cogent. And it reminds me of the highly successful corporate campaign to sell religion to American officialdom, in, for example, making "In God we trust" the national motto. I read about this somewhere recently and I think even referred to it in one of the posts. Maybe this was it: Wikipedia's article on "In God we trust."

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  3. I read the Atlantic article. True, and bad news. I've found my own book count declining in recent years. A column, someone?

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    1. Chuck, if I don't write one first, I look forward to reading YOUR column!

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  4. Bill, Lynn Saeger comments on Facebook:

    Oh dear, Morris. I have not read them [Harper Lee's two novels] as yet but have heard that the recently released Watchman offers up not so much a betrayal as an enriching context. As a slow and chewy reader I am still fighting the French Revolution with Hilary Mantel, taking time off only for the fall of tsarist Russia. My waiting book pile never shrinks!

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  5. I posted (or thought I had posted) two items under my review of Harper Lee's books. One was a commentary I read in an Op-Ed section of the Los Angeles Times by a writer who's written a book on voting rights as enacted into legislation in the 1960's and the various initiatives since then that have weakened what was created to correct a vast wrong. The writer, whose name I can't recall, wrote admiringly of President Carter and his efforts to utilize the tools given in the legislation to ensure the implementation of the law. He also recalled that Carter, before he held any political office (when he was a peanut farmer and warehouseman in Plains) was asked to join a local White Citizens Council. He refused, saying that he would rather flush $5.00 down the toilet than pay it in dues to join the organization. And this was in the face of a threatened boycott of his business!
        Reagan, who followed him, said in a political speech in Texas that he was a believer in states rights. (And we know what those code words mean!).
        In Watchman, Atticus and Scout's boyfriend did join the White Citizens Council. This was all on the heels of Brown vs.Board of Education.

    I also mentioned (in one of the comments that failed to get posted) that the Wall Street Journal's had taken up To Kill a Mockingbird for its book club.
        I'm summarizing what I had to say.

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    1. Bill, I simply love the anecdote about dear Jimmy Carter. It's a good one to tell just now, after the recent news that he has brain cancer.

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    2. [Posted on Facebook at about midnight last night:]

      Sorry I have not responded until now. We have been very busy trying to get our house remodeled, which entails almost moving out without the advantage of having a shiny new place to move into.

      There were many ways Atticus could have responded, but I feel that he really tried to do a good job of moving people’s attitudes by how he lived. Would boycotting his town’s council have made a stronger statement to his towns folk? Perhaps, but by continuing to keep the dialogue open between both races and trying to understand how both races felt at the time he did some good in moving the townsfolk towards a better understanding of what it was to occupy one another's skin. Some people learned a lot by occupying the polar positions, and it seemed that many in Watchman learned a lot from positions that started much closer to either side of the center. Not so much my style but then I lack most of Atticus’s skills and I didn’t live in a small Southern town. A world apart.

      Time to sleep, I have painters coming at 8 a.m. I get to sleep late because it is Saturday. These guys need a union….but then they might disagree.

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