‘When shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?’
The final track on Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly (a name that evokes the political discourse of Harper Lee’s 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird), speaks for the merciless turbulence of a life of influence. The situation is more common today than ever before with the blinding efficiency of a social-media fuelled rumour mill: a big name gets twisted in some social wreck and we end up abandoning faith in it.
Nelle Harper Lee, who died less than two weeks ago, never really had this problem. She managed to maintain a remarkably quiet lifestyle until in 2011 she was forced to enter a lengthy lawsuit against her agent Samuel Pinkus for taking advantage of her declining health to essentially steal the rights to her best-selling novel. Her friends and fans stood, as ever, adamantly by her side. Then, we saw the publication of Go Set a Watchman.
The media and readers alike started looking intently for a way to intertwine the unexpected publication and the recent death of Lee’s highly protective sister. Racist remarks in the parent-novel threatened to destabilise Atticus’s comfy throne as the paragon of American values, and fans felt the tremors in paradise. Here are some words from an Atticus that we are less familiar with:
Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?
The shit, as it were, hit the fan, though more so for Atticus Finch than Harper Lee herself. The media began hammering out headlines – “Atticus Was Always a Racist“, “Atticus Finch: Liberal Hero or Racist Bigot?” – most of which were not entirely critical of the new development, adopting instead a preexisting stance on the novel that Atticus represents the limits of the Southern man, that he is as good as he can be given that he comes from a bloodline of racists and sexists. The book, therefore, is ‘about powerful white people being very polite.’
Now, to me, Atticus doesn’t break character to unbutton his collar during the trial because he is over-exerting his politeness muscles, nor does one of the most poignant scenes in the novel -‘Jean Louis, stand up. Your father’s passing.’ – burn in our memories as a great example of that politeness being reciprocated. Politeness doesn’t have that power – this isn’t England.
As much as I disagree with such readings, some of the points raised are valid, and the argument they have generated is truly a breath of fresh air. I think Lee might have agreed. Any author that hopes for their work to be remembered hopes too for controversy. Both Harper Lee and TKAM have been such anomalies in this sense. It’s not that the book didn’t ever come under criticism, but it’s instant success, widespread critical and public appraisal, and rapid dissemination into high school reading lists was rare for literature of its caliber.
Finally, Atticus is being pitted against a force to be reckoned with. The overriding narrative of the initial debate was one of the substantiation of preexisting suspicions of Atticus’s fallibility. We felt that we had been able to dismiss the reading TKAM with Atticus-as-racist until the publication of the parent novel. The result was that those fans still blinded by tears of joy and love for Harper Lee’s accomplishment, for Scout, Boo, and Atticus, couldn’t land a punch.
People began claiming they would not buy the parent novel. Betrayal would be two-fold; of the author for reading a book she supposedly didn’t want published, and of Atticus for unmasking him. This cowering is the greatest threat to the TKAM‘s legacy, and misses two crucial points:
Firstly, the book is not Atticus, and neither is the quintessentially American consciousness for which it stands. The book is Scout. It was Scout that had some conservative Southern readers furious with themselves for weeping over the death of a black man. It is the juxtaposition of Scout the child with the matured, less understood Scout the narrator that makes this the great novel of social texture and quiet wisdom.
Secondly, TKAM and Go Set a Watchman are not the same book.
It is a fallacy to draw truths about one work from the other. One was derived from the other, yes, but that process would have never taken place had the original accomplished everything that Lee sought to accomplish. The resulting masterpiece was, and is, as complete and self sustaining a piece of art as any. When Oprah Winfrey asked Lee to appear on her show for an interview, she was met with the reply ‘Honey, I already said everything I had to say.’
Whatever Lee’s intentions were in releasing Go Set a Watchman, if any, let us pay our respects to the author by taking a step back from it as she did. If we continue to love her achievement blindly in an effort to somehow ‘save’ it, we will only end up hurling the book into a fire of click-bait press stories and reductive readings.