Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Today in Literary History: Who's Afraid of Harper Lee?

This morning, I read Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. I had pre-ordered the Kindle version and started reading right after breakfast. I was done well before lunch. 

Harper Lee's first novel, the much-loved Pulitzer Prize winner To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), was, until today, her only novel. Lee had declared she'd never write another and had retreated almost entirely from public life. Now, amidst some controversy, a second novel appears. 

GSAW is not really a second novel--it was Lee's first attempt to write a novel. Instead of publishing it, her editors urged her to revise it, and TKAM was the result of two years of revisions. The manuscript of GSAW was filed away, until recently. The fact that GSAW deals with many of the same (albeit much older) characters as TKAM has led folks to think of it as a sequel to TKAM, but it's better viewed, I think, as a rough draft of it.

There's been much speculation about whether Lee really wanted this second text to be released--the matter has even been investigated--but perhaps we'll never know the whole story about how and why this novel is now available to us. (There's even a rumor of yet a third hidden-until-now novel--and there's also some mockery of that rumor out there, too.)

The publication of GSAW may be the most important literary event of the decade?year, and there's been a lot a press and social-media buzz about it, with the first chapter being released online before today and lots of reviewers leaking information about it.

Some people have been reluctant to read GSAW because of the lingering uncertainty about whether Lee truly wanted it to be released; others are nervous because of the alarming news that the much-admired Atticus Finch of TKAM is portrayed in GSAW as a racist. (All this nail-biting has inspired at least one funny cartoon.)

Like some others, I've been a bit frustrated by some of the early negative reviews and by people's outrage at having one of their heroes knocked off his pedestal. So I've been urging folks to read the book. (Apparently, I'm not alone.) One writer asks if it's wrong to teach the book. (My answer is a resounding "NO!") 

There's no doubt it's difficult to see a fictional character you once looked up to now portrayed negatively, but that's what GSAW is all about. The main character is trying desperately to come to terms with the fact that her father is not the man she once thought him to be. Along with her, we all have to come to terms with that. 

Some reviewers are starting to do just that. Some are also reminding us that the Atticus Finch of TKAM was also far from perfect. And if GSAW is less of a literary gem than TKAM, it is perhaps more truthful, more raw in its exploration of issues Lee was dealing with at the time, so raw that perhaps the reading public of 1960 couldn't have dealt with it. (Can we? I hope so!) Reading GSAW complicates our view of TKAM, and that's not a bad thing.

More importantly, some folks are recognizing how we need to question our heroes and ourselves, especially at this time, in light of horrific recent events. If we can't confront the racism of Atticus Finch, how will we ever confront our own racism?

I've been tracking a lot of the responses online, posting lots of links on Facebook and Twitter. Ms Durant asked that I put the best of those links in a blog post, so this is my attempt to do that. I do think it will be interesting in the coming days to watch the evolution of the reading-public's response, so I may update this post in the future with additional links. 

I may also have more to say about my own response to the text. It left me in tears and feeling unsettled for most of the day, and I don't think that's a bad thing, not at all...

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