05
Feb
15

55 years later

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Three days ago, the publishing world was rocked by the news that 55 years after Harper Lee published her first—and, so far, only—novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s publisher plans to release a new one. The book, currently titled Go Set a Watchman, will be published July 14.

The Associated Press reports that Lee actually finished the 304-page novel in the mid-1950s—before Mockingbird was published in 1960—but Lee was persuaded by her editor to re-work the characters and flashback scenes in Watchman into the iconic masterwork we all know today as To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee says she was surprised to stumble upon Watchman again last fall in a safe deposit box, after her attorney sister (who had protected Lee’s privacy) had died and friend and attorney Tonja Carter took over.

“After much thought and hesitation,” Lee says in a statement, “I shared [the manuscript] with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

The new book will be tied to Lee’s first. Scout Finch, the little girl at the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird, returns home two decades later as an adult in Go Set a Watchman. She has left New York City for the fictional Maycomb AL to visit her lawyer father, Atticus.

There, according to the publisher’s announcement, “she is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.” Watchman is planned to receive a first printing of two million copies and is already Amazon’s biggest seller. Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold over 40 million copies in many languages.

Like millions of other people, To Kill a Mockingbird has had a big impact on my thinking. I have read the book several times and have seen the film adaptation probably 20 times—at least a dozen of these as a 14-year-old in the first-run theatre.

It will be interesting to see if Watchman can live up to the hype and anticipation. A lot has changed since the early ’60s when the book and movie came out. People have aged and have died. We are living in a racially-transformed society. Plus, there are reports that Lee suffered a stroke which has impaired her thinking, and that she has been manipulated into releasing Watchman. Other reports say she is sharp as a tack.

I thought you would be fascinated to see some of the changes in the lives of people who played key roles in the book and film.

 Harper Lee

author – age 89

harper lee then

harper lee today.

 Gregory Peck

“Atticus Finch” – deceased 2003

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gravesite gregory peck.

Mary Badham

“Scout Finch” – age 62

mary badham then

Mary Badham today.

Phillip Alford

“Jem Finch” – age 66

Phillip Alford  then

Phillip Alford today.

Estelle Evans

“Calpurnia” – deceased 1985

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CEM46858277_117727615411.

John Megna

“Dill Harris” – deceased 1995

john megna

cremains.

Robert Duvall

“Boo Radley” – age 84

robert duval then

robert duvall today.

Brock Peters

“Tom Robinson” – deceased 2005

brock-peters

11596488_122923352777.

Unlike real life, novels and films freeze things in time. People never age or die. For better or worse, childhood can last forever—the characters’ and ours.

۞

Groove of the Day

Listen to Elmer Bernstein conducting “To Kill A Mockingbird Suite”

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Weather Report

46° and Partly Cloudy

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PS: Harper Lee died Friday, February 19, 2016 at age 89 in her hometown of Monroeville, AL.

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3 Responses to “55 years later”


  1. 1 matt
    February 5, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    My wife’s all-time favorite movie.

  2. 2 Frank Manning
    February 6, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    This is marvelous news. Saw Mockingbird when it first came out, then read the novel in HS a couple of years later. Impacted my thinking as well. And taught me how different the two media are, and also to read the book *before* seeing the movie. Most recently, Mary and I watched the movie about 2 weeks ago.

    Looking forward to reading Lee’s new book.

  3. July 14, 2015 at 11:40 am

    The following review appeared in the BloombergView:

    ‘Watchman’ Is Harper Lee for Grown-Ups
    by Stephen L. Carter
    July 15, 2015

    It’s been fascinating, if a bit depressing, to watch the backlash build against Harper Lee’s newly discovered novel “Go Set a Watchman,” which went on sale Tuesday. Now that Atticus Finch turns out to harbor racist views, fans of “To Kill a Mockingbird” have taken to social media in large numbers to announce that they will boycott the book. Some even insist that Lee could not possibly have written it.

    They don’t know what they’re missing.

    “Go Set a Watchman” offers a rich and complex story, in many ways more textured than “Mockingbird.” To make the novel about pinning the right label on Atticus is to miss the point. “Watchman” isn’t mainly about race. It’s about the process through which protagonist Jean Louise Finch comes to grips with the realization that the father she has worshiped for decades is fallible. The story wouldn’t be interesting if his failings were smaller.

    In “Mockingbird,” set during the Depression, Jean Louise was 8 years old. Now she’s 26, it’s the mid-1950s, and she lives in New York City, a place she partly despises for its confident and ignorant judgments about others — including Southerners. Alas, when Jean Louise returns to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, for a vacation, she finds that those she grew up with aren’t worthy of the pedestals on which they stand in her rosy memories.

    But in her haughty dismissal of the townspeople, she evinces what her Uncle Jack identifies as her own bigotry, in the word’s classic sense: an inability to empathize with people whose views differ from her own. The story centers on Jean Louise’s effort to come to terms not just with the shortcomings of others but also with those that she finds in herself. If there’s a message for the rest of us in “Watchman,” it’s found in that struggle.

    Oh, there is race in the tale, and lots of it. Critics have focused on what seems to them a new Atticus (more on that in a moment), but the book’s most racially charged scene — as well as its most poignant and painful–comes when Jean Louise visits Calpurnia, the beloved maid of “Mockingbird.” Jean Louise tries to offer condolences because Calpurnia’s grandson has been arrested for running over a white man with his car. Expecting a return of affection, she discovers to her dismay that the now-aged Calpurnia sees the young woman she raised the same way she sees everyone white: an outsider, a dangerous presence in her home, someone you’re respectful to only because you have no choice. Calpurnia even dumbs down her speech. (Readers of the original may recall that her English is often excellent: She learned to read by studying Blackstone’s “Commentaries.”) When Jean Louise asks whether Calpurnia ever loved her and her brother, she is met with a stony silence.

    Then there is Maycomb itself. Jean Louise is anguished to learn that the community was built upon a racism to which she as a child was hardly exposed. Suddenly prejudice is not the sole property of poor whites–the Ewells from “Mockingbird,” for instance. In the wake of fears of social upheaval sparked by the early years of the civil-rights movement, the N-word is on everyone’s lips. Jean Louise’s memory has played her false. She never knew the town at all.

    And what of Atticus, the hero of the first novel? Readers loved him for his passionate defense of Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of raping a white woman–a defense Atticus undertook at considerable personal cost in the very teeth of the encompassing ideology of Jim Crow. But nothing in that defense is inconsistent with the character we discover in the new tale.

    Early in “Watchman,” Atticus agrees with his daughter that the failure to obtain a conviction in “that Mississippi business”–a veiled reference to the Emmett Till case–was the South’s “worst blunder since Pickett’s Charge.” When we learn that Atticus was in the Ku Klux Klan, Uncle Jack assures Jean Louise that her father would nevertheless hurry to the defense of anyone the Klan threatened with physical violence. Her sometime boyfriend, Henry Clinton, tries to explain Atticus’s involvement as necessary for getting things done–and for keeping a close eye on what his neighbors are doing.

    Such rationalizations will hardly persuade the modern reader, and shouldn’t. Nevertheless, they echo the justifications offered for Hugo Black’s membership in the Klan before he became one of the Supreme Court’s great civil libertarians–justifications with which Lee, growing up in Black’s home state of Alabama, would surely have been familiar.

    I’m not trying to defend Atticus–or, for that matter, Jean Louise, who plainly shares a lot of her father’s objectionable views. The two of them agree, for instance, that the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decisions are rushing things, trying to impose a timetable when “the Negroes” aren’t ready for full participation in government. But here we perhaps ought to recall the historian Gordon Wood’s admonition not to judge the past by the standards of the present. For Atticus’s place and time, in the Alabama lowlands of the 1950s, such a view by a white Southerner would have been considered rather liberal. And not a few great Northern liberals of the era viewed black people in pretty much the same way. Racism is rarely as simple as we want it to be.

    More to the point, as we soon become aware, Jean Louise isn’t angry at Atticus because of his beliefs. She is angry because he hid them from her. She’s furious that Atticus turns out not to be the man she thought he was–the same reason, surely, for the fury of many of those who loved “Mockingbird.” If only Atticus had been less perfect when she was growing up, Jean Louise tells herself, she might have been able to forgive him for hiding the truths she so painfully learns.

    We want our heroes and villains simple–either all good or all bad. But sorting the world into angels and demons is what keeps us from acknowledging the complexity that makes life both valuable and difficult. People we admire can harbor terrible views. We are always free to decide that those with whom we disagree are beneath us, and often that’s just what we do. In “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee invites us instead to be adult enough to accept that nobody is all one thing.

    The following review of the book appeared on National Public Radio:

    Harper Lee’s ‘Watchman’ Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece

    by Maureen Corrigan
    July 13, 2015

    As another Southern writer once said, “You can’t go home again.” In Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which takes place in the mid-1950s, a 26-year-old Scout Finch takes the train from New York City home to Maycomb, Ala., and finds the familiar world turned mighty strange.

    TV and air-conditioning have changed the landscape, and beloved childhood friends like Dill and her brother Jem have vanished. Others, like Calpurnia, look at Scout, here called by her grown-up name of “Jean Louise,” as though she were, well, a white lady.

    And then there’s Atticus. Now 72 and crippled by arthritis, he’s still a wry patriarch, but in one of the novel’s key scenes—set, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, in Maycomb’s courthouse—Atticus allies himself with the kind of men who several years later stood shoulder to shoulder with Bull Connor and George Wallace.

    Go Set a Watchman is a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically, beginning with its fishy origin story. Allegedly, it’s a recently discovered first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m suspicious: It reads much more like a failed sequel. There are lots of dead patches in Go Set a Watchman, pages where we get long explanations of, say, the fine points of the Methodist worship service.

    The novel turns on the adult Scout’s disillusionment with her father—a disillusionment that lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird will surely share. Reeling from the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Atticus reveals himself as a segregationist and a reactionary extremist. He’s a staunch proponent of states’ rights, a critic of federal programs, even popular ones like Social Security and the G.I. Bill, and a foe of the NAACP.

    One could say, as some commentators already have, that Atticus here displays layers of contradictory attitudes about race harbored by whites, no matter how progressive. But, no. This Atticus is different in kind, not just degree: He’s like Ahab turned into a whale lover or Holden Caulfield a phony.

    In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus was his own man; here, he essentially tells Scout you have to go along to get along. This Atticus, we’re told, joined the Ku Klux Klan in his youth; now, he’s on the local Citizens Council. This Atticus is a eugenicist: He believes in racial theory and reads pamphlets with titles like “The Black Plague.” He warns the horrified Scout that: “We’re outnumbered here [in Maycomb]” and observes that “Our Negro population is backward” and “Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Scout, who takes up her fallen father’s torch of progressivism, likens his views to those of Hitler and Goebbels.

    Yet, the more poignant revelations in Go Set a Watchman have to do with Scout; at 26, she’s still a sort of tomboy, talking herself into marrying a childhood friend named Hank. At least half of this novel is devoted to Scout’s (or Jean Louise’s) torment over not feeling like she has a place in the world.

    In a moving set-piece about halfway through the novel, Scout dutifully attends a “Coffee” that her prim Aunt Alexandra hosts for her. She wanders from group to group of women — The Newlyweds, The Diaper Set — and feels alienated. We’re told that Scout: “glanced down the long … living room at the double row of women, women she had merely known all her life, and she could not talk to them five minutes without drying up stone dead.”

    I ached for this adult Scout: The civil rights movement may be gathering force, but the second women’s movement hasn’t happened yet. I wanted to transport Scout to our own time—take her to a performance of Fun Home on Broadway—to know that, if she could only hang on, the possibilities for nonconforming tomboys will open up. Lee herself, writing in the 1950s, lacks the language and social imagination to fully develop this potentially powerful theme.

    The novel goes on sale Tuesday (July 14), and everybody who loves To Kill a Mockingbird is going to read it, no matter what I or any other reviewer says about its literary quality, the bizarre transformation of Atticus or its odd provenance. All I know for certain is that Go Set a Watchman is kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece.


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