More Reflections On Harper Lee

Michiko Kakutani, the principal book reviewer for The New York Times, has some thoughtful observations on the two books that Harper Lee wrote, To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman.

Kakutani finds a place for both novels in our culture, but her views do not persuade me to change my own opinion that the original novel (Go Set A Watchman) was wisely rejected and reshaped fifty-six years ago on the advice of Lee’s editor and publisher.  I would not argue that the racist attitudes expressed by Atticus Finch and Scout in the 1950s of Go Set A Watchman didn’t exist.  They did, and it would be foolish to claim otherwise.  I would argue that to have presented Go Set A Watchman rather than To Kill A Mockingbird to the public in 1960 would have been a grave mistake.  It was easy–too easy–to simply depict the racist world that we all knew, that I knew, as a child.  What was more challenging–and this is what made To Kill A Mockingbird such a unique, brilliant book, though Lee had to step back into the 1930s to do it–was to present a world that was changing, even as Klan-driven racism was drawing its last breath.

In 1962, the year the movie To Kill A Mockingbird came out, my father was late one afternoon picking me up from the Cerebral Palsy Treatment Center in Houston, where I attended kindergarten and first grade.  It was about 5:30, so it wasn’t terribly late, but the sun had gone down.  It was dark, and that meant I was going to have to hang out with Duncan, the black janitor, inside the building, until Dad got there.  Duncan was a pleasant fellow who made his rounds wearing a fedora, but on this day, I was anxious, and not in the mood for his usual banter.  I smarted off to him and went to a phone to call home.  I still have the image in my head of standing at that phone, receiver in my hand, and looking over my shoulder to see my father walking through the door to pick me up.  Duncan ratted me out.  He told my father what I had said.  I cannot remember whether I got a whipping that night, but I do remember that my father made me apologize to Duncan the next day.  It was the right thing to do, and my father wasn’t about to raise a son who was deliberately disrespectful of anyone, regardless of his race or how he made his living.

This was the world that was taking shape in 1960, the world that, through the child’s eye of Scout and of Jem, was struggling to be born in the 1930s.  I will grant–because I must grant–that social progress was terribly, shamefully slow in the 1930s, but it was there, mixed in with all sorts of troubling images.  For instance, I watched the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races (1937) the other night on Turner Classic Movies.  A major set piece of that comedy is a song-and-dance routine by a black troupe performing, among other things, “All God’s Children Got Wings.”  It’s a spirited number, and the performers have fun with it, but the filmmakers can’t resist indulging in the black stereotype of drinking and rolling eyes, as if the darkies really don’t have a care in the world.  Most unsettling.  The actors had to be aware of the stereotype, and they were, but they also knew it was a paying job.  The context out of which that number comes includes the African-American cinema that existed for years alongside Hollywood and from which Hollywood would borrow performers when it suited them.  It also included the perpetual round of “servant roles,” the “I-don’t-know-nothin’-’bout-birthin’-babies,-Miz Scarlett” role that Hattie McDaniel was to win an Oscar for two years later in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel was criticized both before and after Selznick’s movie for taking that role, but she always shrugged off the criticism.  She knew it fed the stereotypes, but she also knew that by investing it with her own dignity, it would be a baby step forward for every black actor who would come after her.

By 1960, then, to have offered anything other than To Kill A Mockingbird to the reading public would have been an injustice.  We already knew, and were moving away from, the world of Go Set A Watchman.  What we didn’t know, and didn’t know how to express, was what the world was like at the moment we were truly born–the size of that world, its shadows, its terrifying shapes, and the anxious adults around us.  Lee gave us the voice we needed to articulate what we were learning about that world.  Turns out, it was an adult voice, the voice of a woman looking back thirty years or so toward the warmth and safety of a family living through a troubled time, but that was all right.  Her voice, Scout’s voice, was one we recognized.  We recognized it because her voice was ours, too.


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