Thursday, April 7, 2016

To Kill a Mockingbird

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch - the image of the stalwart white attorney, standing up for the rights of the downtrodden blacks.   But did he?


At a recent law conference, we discussed the two (and only two) books published by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the recently published Go Set a Watchman.   Like most of you, my impression of Mockingbird was set by the movie of the same name, which was very faithful to the book and apparently well-liked by Ms. Lee.

In the book, Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the mythical Maycomb, Alabama (based on Ms. Lee's home town of Monroeville), defends a young black man wrongly accused of rape.  He takes the case knowing that the rest of the townspeople will castigate him for it.   He sits up all night at the jail house and talks down a lynch mob.  He then cleverly exposes the accuser and her Father as having an incestuous relationship - the reason behind the wrongful accusation.

Of course, this being Alabama, the young black man is convicted anyway, and later killed trying to escape from prison.

The narrative we are fed is that Atticus is a hero, "doing the right thing" for the poor, downtrodden blacks, who treat him with reverence.  "Step aside, Scout, your Father's coming through" Calpurnia says, as Atticus makes his way through the Negro crowd whose heads are bowed in respect.

A nice white man's fantasy, of course.  Atticus "did the right thing" even though he knew his client would be railroaded.  But the man got a fair trial, and that's all that mattered.  He demonstrated that the system worked, right?   Too bad if he dies anyway.

Of course, there is another viewpoint to all of this.   You might argue that the book is a bit condescending to blacks.   That they are treated as secondary characters who bow and scrape to the likes of Atticus, happy to get a "fair trial" even if the outcome is predetermined.

And you might argue that if Atticus was a real hero, he would have helped the young man escape from jail and flee northward, rather than stand trial in a kangaroo court.   Far-fetched?  Perhaps, but many people did just that, before the Civil War, arguing (as many Quakers did) that a higher authority than the law justified their actions in helping slaves flee the South.

I would like to see the Quentin Tarantino version of Mockingbird - something along the lines of Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained, although maybe the latter is in fact his take on the matter.  Screw this "we did the right thing" nonsense, let's just start gunning down racists!  Well, it is a juvenile fantasy, which Tarantino specializes in.

But Atticus was bound by the law - right?  He was an officer of the court and sworn to do his duty, no matter what the outcome.  This is the definition of legal ethics and professionalism.   Or is it?   You see, later in the book, Scout and Jem are attacked by Bob Ewell - the incestuous Father who never forgave Atticus for exposing the affair with his daughter in court.   The recluse Boo Radley, who was demonized by the children, comes to their rescue, stabbing Ewell with Ewell's own knife. 

The Sheriff arrives and decides to report that "Ewell fell on his own knife" as that would make the police report easier and Boo Radley would not be forced to testify as a result.   Atticus reluctantly goes along with the Sheriff's plan, even though they are both breaking the law.  The hypocrisy of Atticus Finch is exposed here - to save the life of a black man, he won't take extra-judicial steps.  But to save a white man embarrassment he is willing to falsify a Police Report.

Of course, one of the gaping plot holes in Mockingbird is why Atticus Finch didn't ask for a bench trial in front of the Judge (who was sympathetic to the defendant) rather than in front a jury, which was sure to convict in that era.   I suspect, however, this was a mere plot device and most readers would not realize that a defendant has such an option.

But Atticus "did his duty" and defended the young black man to the best of his ability.  And that's all we can do, right?  Doing the right thing, even though it is futile?

Sadly, that is the attitude among many in the South - excusing racism and segregation with a shrug and a "well, I did all I could working within the system" kind of attitude.   Lynyrd Skynyrd put it best, in their Sweet Home Alabama:
In Birmingham they love the Gov'nor, boo hoo ooo
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth
To Kill a Mockingbird started a cult following.   Harper Lee started to acquire groupies, much as Ayn Rand did.   And a lot of people I know in the South identify with Mockingbird and cite it as a major influence on their lives.

I am not sure what Ms. Lee thought about all of this, but right before she died, after her caretaker sister passed away, she apparently green-lighted the publication of the Prequel/Sequel to Mockingbird, a book called Go Set a Watchman.

The book is controversial in a number of ways.  Some say Lee never authorized it, but rather greedy relatives wanted it published to make money.  Some critics say it should have been locked away at a University somewhere for scholars to study - but not for the general public to read.  Why that is, we'll get to shortly.

And one other controversy is whether it is a "rough draft" of Mockingbird or a sequel to it.  It appears to have been an initial draft of a similar story, but Mockinbird was rewritten so extensively that Watchman really reads like a sequel.  And it is a good read for anyone who has read the original book, as it fills in a lot of gaps.   It also raises a  few more controversies.

Harper Lee never wrote anything after Mockingbird although she started a number of projects.  Other than that one Pulitzer prize-winning bestseller, she wrote a few short stories and that's it.   And maybe one reason for this, is that she had a co-writer on Mockingbird.  Her editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, read the initial draft (which later became Watchman) and worked with Lee over the period of a two and a half-years to help Lee completely rewrite the story, changing the time period, focus, outcome, and a number of other factors.  Only Maycomb and its residents remain intact.  After reading both books, it becomes apparent to me that Hohoff should be given credit for the real genius of the story in Mockingbird, as Watchman is so disjointed.

All of this, of course, is heresy to the Harper Lee groupies.  And I wonder if Lee wasn't giving them all the middle finger by publishing Watchman before her death.  According to some sources, Lee chuckled when critics decried Watchman.   Chuckled, because her last act on this earth was to destroy the legend of Mockingbird and expose Atticus Finch as a racist and hypocrite.

You read that right.   Watchman is set in the 1950's, after Jem has died of a sudden aneurysm (as he did in real life).   Jean Louise (no longer "Scout") returns to Maycomb to take a break from her hectic life in New York and "go home" again.   She toys with marrying her high school sweetheart, who is now her Father's Law Clerk.   But it all comes screeching to a halt when he sees both of them attend a "Citizen's Committee" where a guest lecturer drones on about the "Negro Problem".

It is, to say the least, a revelation.   While set in a time period after Mockingbird, the book, through flashbacks, tells the original story, with some inconsistencies.   For example, the young man accused of rape back in the 1930's was acquitted in Watchman.   The point of the latter book is not the "fair trial" of Mockingbird but how racial attitudes had changed over time.

There is a contemporary trial in Watchman as well - a young black man is accused of running down a white man.   And Atticus agrees to take the case - not to get the young man acquitted, but to prevent NAACP lawyers from taking the case and getting him acquitted.  This is a far different Atticus Finch than we had in Mockingbird.

Or is it?   In Mockingbird, by defending an innocent man who he knows will be railroaded anyway, isn't Atticus merely lending his moral authority to the whole proceedings?   The townspeople can pat themselves on the back, say that the fellow got a "fair trial" because after all, the great moral Atticus Finch defended him.  In reality, Atticus didn't help the young man at all, but merely gave legitimacy to the whole proceedings, and moreover made everyone keenly aware that a miscarriage of justice had occurred.

Like I said, maybe he should have helped him escape, instead.

There is a lot of talk today about equal rights for minorities and "white privilege".   And I think to some extent there is a nugget of truth to all of this.  White folks love movies and books like Mockingbird or Driving Miss Daisy as we can point to them as examples of how white folks try to "do the right thing" even if the right thing doesn't change the outcome one iota.

Watchman drives this home.   When real change comes to Maycomb in the form of desegregation, Atticus Finch isn't doing the right thing anymore, but fighting it tooth and nail.   When the NAACP shows up with their army of legal help - which might actually get a defendant acquitted - he doesn't welcome them with open arms, but instead tries to stand in their way, and have their client work out a quick plea deal of guilty.

I think Harper Lee is laughing her ass off right now.  And maybe she waited to publish Watchman until now for a very good reason.   Rather than sit around waiting for "decent white folks" to "do the right thing" for them (as in Mockingbird) in Watchman, the blacks are taking charge and fighting for their own rights - and realizing that the white folks, even those with the best of intentions, are not necessarily their friends.

If you harbor charming romantic notions about To Kill a Mockingbird, then maybe you might want to skip Go Set a Watchman, as it will shatter your image of what the first book was about.   But then again, maybe it is time that image is shattered.  It presented a patronizing and condescending "white man's burden" attitude toward race, and idolized the folks who stood by and did nothing, while horrific things happened in the South, and "good decent folks" did all they could do.

* * * 

So why did Hohoff persuade Lee to rewrite Watchman into Mockingbird?   And the answer, I think, is marketing.   It was the 1950's and desegregation was on everyone's mind and in the news.  A book about the racist South would sell well - in the North.   But a romantic novel about decent Southern folks, doing all they could to help the black man, well that would sell on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

Folks up North can read it and tsk-tsk at the racism of Southerners.   Southerners can read it and bask in the glory of Atticus Finch, a true Southern Gentleman, doing the right thing for the servile and subservient Negros.  It is marketing, plain and simple.

Sadly, I think this sold an entire generation a false view of life in the South.


UPDATE:  The denouement of Go Set A Watchman is somewhat disappointing.   After finding out that her fiance and her father (and uncle) are closet (or not so closet) racists, Scout confronts her Dad, telling him she wants to leave Maycomb and never come back.   That would probably have been a good move on her part.

Why?  Because she realized that she would never fit into Maycomb's incestuous society (literally - the book makes note that everyone in town is married to a second cousin).   She cannot marry her fiance -and does not.   She could, however, make a new life for herself in New York, where she is happier and more productive and could achieve greatness.

Instead, her Dad talks her out of it, claiming that Maycomb and the South "need good people" like her to set an example for others, which in some perverse way is going to fix the racism of the South.   And Scout agrees with him and settles in Maycomb for the rest of her life as a spinster.

Sadly, art reflects real life.   Harper Lee ended up moving back to Monroeville Alabama, which eventually became a "Mockingbird" tourist trap in her honor (and she had to sue the town for royalties from sales of Mockingbird merchandise).   Whether her presence changed the attitudes of anyone in Alabama is debatable.   Well, not really, given how things are going in Alabama these days.  It is still at the bottom of the heap in America, right up there with Mississippi.

And as I noted before, she never went on to write anything else.  She sacrificed her life and career on the altar of "family" to appease her Father and relatives and the sensibilities of her neighbors.   Maybe she was destined to be a one-trick pony.  It is hard to say.  But I am not sure that anyone has a "duty" to return to their jerkwater small town just because Dad says so.

In fact, it is a pretty shitty idea.

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