I haven’t read the “new” book by Harper Lee titled “Go Set a Watchman.” Should I? Have you? Will you?
If the author’s name doesn’t ring bells, her more prominent book’s title may, for “To Kill a Mockingbird” has moved generations of readers and led to a fabulously successful movie version. (Though it took me quite a while to get around to reading it, as I described here.) The film was impactful enough that the State Bar of Arizona screened it for a fund-raising evening a few years ago.
Maybe the power of “Mockingbird” is most clearly viewed through the upset people have over the possibility of a newly released book that includes the character Atticus Finch. Simply put, they love that character, and anything that sullies or even complicates their view of the lawyer who does good, best as he can, is not something they want to engage with.
I’ll admit, I’ve at least somewhat shared that view. Besides the fact that sequels usually pale in comparison to the original, I also felt that there are few enough portrayals of compassionate lawyers. Can’t we keep Atticus just as he is? Please?
Two things changed my mind. One was a great magazine story (let’s hear it for the power of magazines). And the other was a political town hall.
For the ABA Journal, Deborah Cassens Weiss examines some previous scholarship about “Mockingbird” in light of the release of “Watchman.”
As Weiss ends her article:
“Though Watchman isn’t Harper Lee’s best work, [Harvard Law Professor Randall] Kennedy says, it ‘does reveal more starkly the complexity of Atticus Finch, her most admired character. Go Set a Watchman demands that its readers abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school lessons about the nobility of the white savior and the mesmerizing performance of Gregory Peck in the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.’”
Ouch. Is sentimentality blocking readers from a fuller and truer understanding of American history? Chagrined, we must admit that such a thing has happened time and again. So am I and others doing that when we seal our “favorite” Atticus in amber?
One clue that the scholars are on the right track is visible when you read the comments following the ABA Journal story. As the saying goes, Denial is not just a river in Egypt.
The second element that leads me to get over my bromance with Atticus Finch occurred this past Saturday, at a town hall featuring two presidential candidates.
I attended portions of the Netroots Nation annual conference mainly to cover the three or so “legalish” panel discussions they scheduled, featuring topics like redistricting and Supreme Court jurisprudence. But in the process, I managed to get into the Phoenix Convention Center room where journalist Jose Antonio Vargas would interview U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, each vying for the Democratic nomination.
What I and 3,000 of my new friends expected was a moderated discussion. What we got was a highly effective staged protest by “Black Lives Matter” activists. About five minutes into the dialogue with O’Malley, activists rose from their seats or came from the back of the room, demanding to be heard.
What surprised was not that there was a protest—after all, this has been a year marked by flash-points in the intersection of policing and race. What surprised were the insufficient responses of the candidates. And that was followed by the irritation of many in the audience that the protestors spoke up at all, or for so long, or so stridently. And I heard from many audience members who professed to be pleased with their candidates’ responses, “given the circumstances.”
But in the era of Ferguson—and of Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray and Michael Brown—it takes a special kind of denial to insist that the view of your candidate not be disturbed, distorted or made more complex by Saturday’s events. Both candidates may have had smart and compassionate things to say about race, the justice system, and people’s lives. But neither said those things. That is worth noting. They had the past tumultuous year-plus to think over their response to these tragedies. They did not take that opportunity. That is worth noting.
One thing that tells me is that the candidates and their staffs should immediately read the report issued just last week on the topic from the ABA and the NAACP. I covered it here.
So for those reasons and more, I’ll get a copy of “Go Set a Watchman.” Sure, the later years of Atticus may show a man who is not a shining beacon of enlightened views. But, sometime between now and a presidential election, we all should grow a little more open to complexity—in our novels, in our history, and in our public policy.
Let me know if you’re reading the book, and what you think. Write to me at email@example.com.
In the meantime, here are some of my tweets from the town hall. You can follow me and read more of my coverage at @azatty.Follow @azatty