Friday, July 17, 2015

Second Thoughts on Harper Lee

This title has a double meaning.  I have not read more than the first chapter of To Set a Watchman, and probably won't for a while.  I have about 100 books ahead of it, but I'll read it before I watch the movie, promise. I also have to cowrite an open-resource, no-cost textbook for our basic communication course in the next four or five months, along with preparing to teach three classes, work full time as an administrator, try to market my latest novel, write my next one, and oh, yes, live.

However, back to the point.  In reading various comment boards and social media on the new release (hers, not mine--I would love to even get some negative press on mine, and it's much cheaper than hers!), I have been perplexed by the reactions to the way that Atticus is portrayed--as a segregationist, which is to most synonymous with racist.  I have even read posts that say "I was going to name my son Atticus--so glad I didn't!"  (Are you kidding me?  Would you name your child Huckleberry?)

First, let me remind the reader---Atticus was a fictional character.  Harper Lee had the right to do what she wanted with her characters, and she did.  (That doesn't mean the book is good or bad, or the choice good or bad, just that it's her book, and it was published, so, so be it.)  The disillusionment posters have expressed over a fictional character makes me think they need to get out and meet some real people.  I know, I know, I sound mean, but seriously.  I am more upset Jem is dead in this book than about Atticus' being a segregationist, because there is no surprise there for me. 

The second point is that Atticus, and probably the man it was based on, is a humanly drawn character, and to be a segregationist and still want justice for a falsely accused black man and to still want rule of law are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  Yes, we see them so today, but someone in 1950s Alabama would not.  He still had to grow, as we all do.  This is in no way a defense of segregationists, who were as a whole either pretty clueless or pretty mean, but from the way I think the book is written, Atticus is conflicted, not an ideologue.  He is being faced with a South and an America he has not had to face before, and we are all likely to entrench ourselves when faced with change, especially in old age and especially when it seems to upset social order (as in recent SCOTUS decisions).

Now, none of this bears upon whether H. Lee wanted the book published after all, and how much it was edited (apparently not much, because I think the editors would have messed with Atticus).  I don't know.  I just believe a writer has a right to write.  No one has to like it--don't buy the book, don't read it. 

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