“Sacred narratives ... create a symbolic relationship between identity and an object; to critique the object is to critique the self and to critique s“Sacred narratives ... create a symbolic relationship between identity and an object; to critique the object is to critique the self and to critique something that is held in the highest esteem.” ― Christine Haskill, “‘My not being in has allowed me to see’: The Ethical Heresies of Vernon Lee’s Satan the Waster”
“As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings—I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us.” ― Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
We know we are dealing with a sacred narrative when that narrative is not allowed to be critiqued (paraphrasing Christine’s scholarship on Vernon Lee). I’ve thought about this idea a lot while reading Go Set a Watchman. The negative responses are intensely personal, largely regarding Atticus’s portrayal as a “racist, bitter old man.” It’s both understandable and ironic that this response is driving the negative reviews, because that’s exactly what the book is about. We feel the same sense of betrayal Scout does because we held Atticus up as a hero the same way she did.
Much has been written on the circumstances of publication, especially around exploitation of the elderly. But based on my research, there seems to be every reason to believe that Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, has her best interest at heart. If this proves not to be the case, I will condemn the action, but on the basis of evidence, not how easy it is to believe the narrative that an old woman has no agency and a successful female attorney must be a gold-digger (for more, see http://flavorwire.com/503314/harper-l...).
The conditions are important, however. First, Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, told Lee to develop the childhood flashbacks in Watchman into a novel, and thus Mockingbird was born. Hohoff deserves a lot of credit for the creation of one of the greatest works of American literature. The flashback scenes in Watchman caused me to laugh out loud, and Mockingbird is indeed a superior work. But consider that this means that the author of Mockingbird ― as well as its protagonist remembering her childhood as an adult ― knew the events of Watchman, knew who Atticus was, and nevertheless was able to write about him with such love that generations of readers fell in love with him as well. There are enough discrepancies between to two books to make it clear that Watchman was not edited to match Mockingbird’s continuity, but the characters are recognizable and equally well-developed in both books. It’s the fact that it IS Atticus in Watchman that makes the revelation of his racism (and to a lesser extent classism and sexism) so painful.
Second, it was published afterward. Yes, this seems obvious, but many reviews repeat the “criticism” that Watchman “couldn’t have” succeeded on its own. Which is likely true. But since Mockingbird was, in fact, published, it doesn’t have to. And it exists now as a compelling companion to Mockingbird. And while I might feel with Scout more strongly for having read Mockingbird, I was struck by how compellingly her characterization and feelings of betrayal were developed in a book written before Mockingbird.
In addition to the individual feelings of betrayal surrounding the novel, there’s an even bigger cultural myth that’s being undermined here ― the myth that white men are the heroes of the segregated South. With a few notable exceptions (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/12...), readers have left Mockingbird idolizing Atticus. he is the hero of the book, and Scout is the protagonist. She saw him as a hero, and so did we. But now Scout is sharing with us another story, one we’re less willing to accept. Why? It’s from the same source, the same author, the same POV character. But one story we can accept, and one we cannot. I would argue that the reason is that one story upholds a sacred narrative (white heroism) and one undermines it by painting a much more nuanced picture.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” and that includes Atticus Finch. He’s a man who did a good thing for a good reason, but he was nevertheless a man of his time who believed and acted and voted in a way that preserved his privilege. His daughter, who loved him, was horrified to discover this. But she went on loving him. And so can we.
There are problems in the book and legitimate critiques that can be leveled against it. Scout claims to be colorblind as if this is a good thing, but nevertheless concludes that “I wouldn’t want to marry one” referring to “Negroes.” Scout plays the role of the white Northerner who is largely oblivious to her own racism and privilege, and she is called out on it by equally privileged and oblivious white friends and relatives. The people of color in the book are portrayed sympathetically, but their story is told through Scout’s eyes, and her perspective, while compassionate, is rather patronizing.
This is a novel about well-developed characters who are unique and yet people of their time. And their time is, sadly, not far removed from ours. If you’ve ever learned something about someone you looked up to that shook you to your core, this a book for you. If you’ve been able to love someone who holds views you find repellent, this is a book for you.
And if you’re hesitant to read a the book based on concerns that the author didn’t want it published and is being exploited, consider: 1.) Lee submitted the manuscript for publication decades ago, so her intent was always to publish it, and 2.) choosing NOW to publish a book revealing in a shocking way the truth that white men are NOT the heroes of America’s race issues, that they in fact benefit from privilege and have a vested interest in protecting it, and that justifying discrimination by appealing to state’s rights is bullshit is the action of an author in full control of her faculties. ...more
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