The Harper Lee Backfire

Don’t you think the whole debacle about Harper Lee’s “new” novel sounds like a Christopher Guest mockumentary?

For Your Consideration movie poster

For Your Consideration movie poster

Guest’s satires on American foibles about dog shows (Best in Show), folksingers (A Mighty Wind), small town theater (Waiting for Guffman) and the Academy Awards (For Your Consideration) portray big, big hopes for greatness building up all over the place in ways that are so, so stupid and so incredibly American that we have to laugh, even if the parody stings a little bit.

Go Set a Watchman jacket

Go Set a Watchman jacket

In the case of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, big, big print runs and really absurd hopes for another To Kill a Mockingbird are backfiring all over the place while a lot of people are making big, big money whether the author wanted the book published or not.

You have to admit, it’s funny.

On the one hand, we have America’s beloved dad figure and heroic defense lawyer, Atticus Finch, turning into the worst, most fatuous and disgusting racist of the new century.

On the other, what timing! Go Set a Watchman comes out in the midst of kill-a-mockingbird-1edwhite police officers killing African American men more frequently than ever, the mass murder of an African American bible study group in Charleston and a President calling for new gun control laws that prompted this no-nonsense patriotic reply: Yes SIR, Mr. President! Our response to mass murder by yet another white supremacist is to … remove the Confederate flag! That’ll show we in the South mean business. Just ask Atticu– well, better not.

In fact, a mockumentary might use this occasion to get to the heart of the real problem about Harper Lee’s first book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

First, just to confirm: It’s a fine novel that deserved the Pulitzer Prize, and I’m glad it’s taught in schools.

But come on. To Kill a Mockingbird is a white person’s view of racism that’s set the tone for scores of books and movies since its publication in 1960. It says that bad white people created slavery a long time ago, so now good white people have to fix the damage. African Americans get to stay in the background for the sake of this heroic modern story.

John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me

This view also goes back to that awful 1961 book, Black Like Me,  in which a white person darkened his skin — under a doctor’s care, mind you — so that he could travel in the South and tell the world what it’s like to be black.

We couldn’t trust African Americans to tell us this same thing because after all, they’re black. It could be emotional and confusing to explain their experience to objective white America.  As Atticus Finch says in that new blockbuster from HarperCollins, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”

Isn’t he great?  Such a kind man, and he shows us why truly committed white writers are needed to set history straight. Wouldn’t Atticus have loved William Styron, for example, the humble white author who in 1967 wrote  The Confessions of Nat Turner in the voice of slave-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

The Confessions of Nat Turner

“I was especially lacerated and hurt that [The Confessions of Nat Turner]  was labeled racist,” Styron told an audience at the Library of Congress. “That was hard to take for a writer who attempted to expose the horrors and evils of slavery.”  Aw.

But see? Here is another  kind white man generously pushing African American writers aside so that he can become the heroic figure. “Basically it is a very politically incorrect book written by a white man trying to seize his own interpretation  and put it into the soul and heart of a black man.” What a guy. He knew the words “politically incorrect” would shield him from increasing criticism only for a while. In the end, he said, what really mattered was creating “a powerful book that satisfied my ideal for a novel.” Who else would know?

Also, a good mockumentary about Go Set a Watchman would feature heartfelt comments from all the legal advisors who’ve been in and out of the author’s nursing home for years. You’ve got to hand it to them. They not only helped Harper Lee unearth the manuscript that she herself kept buried for decades.

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, including "One Flew Over the Cosmo's Nest."

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, including “One Flew Over the Cosmo’s Nest.”

They also took helped her apply for a trademark in 2012 on important To Kill a Mockingbird merchandise (there’s a Tequila Mockingbird guide to cocktails, you know), and create Mockingbird Co., a nonprofit company to control literary rights like a spinoff play that’s been running in the famous courthouse of Lee’s hometown (though it’s now closed, apparently because of the nonprofit).  Royalties from the novel still bring Harper Lee something like $3.2 million a year, so you know she’s anxious to pick up extra dollars for those hardworking agents and lawyers and friends who’ve recently stepped into her life.

The mockumentary would also interview the publisher at HarperCollins who ordered only a “light copyedit” of the Watchman manuscript so that nobody could be blamed for Atticus Finch turning into a big, fat American bigot.

Of course, the question could be asked:  What about those dedicated lifelong editors with high editorial standards who might have advised Harper Lee to be careful of shocking readers over the abrupt transformation of Atticus Finch? Well, those editors got to stay in the background, too. Who, after all, would want to change a word of the historic question Atticus poses to white people everywhere: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do  you want them in our world?” Nobody was going to touch that one.

As to marketing, that’s easy in the case of Go Set a Watchman, the publisher could say: You just make a big, big deal of its relationship to To Kill a Mockingbird and keep silent about its, um, difficult contents right up to publication date. That way readers could pre-order millions of copies and have the fun of discovering an all new Atticus Finch by themselves.

Finally, wouldn’t it be great if the mockumentary concluded with big, big dumpsters all over the country collecting piles and piles of a book everybody bought but no one wanted to read? Nothing like a giant literary embarrassment that never should have seen the light of day mucking up the legacy of “our national novel,” as Oprah Winfrey called To Kill a Mockingbird.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

As the credits roll, the camera could then go back to the classroom and show us books being taught that all audiences love, written for example by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Walter Dean Myers, Octavia Butler, Cornel West, Nikki Giovanni, Al Young, Ntozake Shange, Ernest Gaines, Terry McMillan, Zora Neale Hurston, Alex Haley, Sherley Anne Williams, Bell Hooks, Walter Mosley, Paule Marshall, Malcolm X, Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, Edward P. Jones, Jewelle Gomez, Ishmael Reed, Marita Golden, Lalita Tademy, Frederick Douglass, Gloria Naylor, Henry Louis Gates, Cynthia Bond, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Jesmyn Ward, J. California Cooper and Pearl Cleage, to name a only a few.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “The Harper Lee Backfire

  1. Erik

    I taught this book four years in a row at the beingnnig of my teaching career, and it was an unforgettable experience. When I was first hired, I was 23 years old. It was early August, and I’d be starting with the students in just a few weeks. There were a thousand things I had to do, and I had no idea how to do any of them.To Kill a Mockingbird was part of the seventh grade curriculum, so I thought I’d start with that. It had been years since I read it the first time, and I didn’t really remember too much about it. I assigned it to the kids right away and started re-reading it quickly.But I was only about 50 pages ahead of them, and I had been teaching the novel for some time before I came to the verdict of the trial. Wait! He lost? I thought he won! I couldn’t believe it!I went home that night and finished the book. On one hand, I felt foolish that I thought Atticus would win the case when he tells us right away that they’re going to lose. But on the other hand, I felt as swept up in the amazing and heart-rending story as my students were.

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