Maycomb Revisited | Daily News

Maycomb Revisited

To publish or not to publish? This is one of the greatest dilemmas every writer faces when she types the last word, in the last sentence of a story she has been carrying in her mind for so long, and finally transfers onto paper. After debating with herself for months at a stretch, when she decides to throw the manuscript into the box of other old manuscripts hidden in the dark recesses under her bed, that piece of writing is bound to stay there, through civil wars and pandemics, hurricanes and floods, until one of her great grandchildren finds it, reads it and decides to publish it. By that time, thankfully, the writer and her contemporaries who might exult in this new found story of their favourite author, or reel with shattered expectations, will be long gone.

It is sad that Harper Lee, who revelled in the glory brought to her by her debut novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” should change her mind about a discarded manuscript, allow her lawyer to wipe off the dust and cobwebs gathered over no less than 58 years on the withered, yellowing pages and consent to see it published.

The unexpected arrival of the “Watchman,” five years ago, is as mysterious as the existence of Boo in the “Mockingbird.” According to a press release posted by publisher Harper Collins, Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, had “discovered the manuscript in a secure place where Ms. Lee keeps her archives.” It is also said that Lee made a statement about her lost manuscript: “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it 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.” Yet, that same month, “Newsweek” carried a deflating headline: “Friends Say Harper Lee Was Manipulated.”

For all this, when it was revealed in February, 2015, that a “new” Harper Lee novel had been “discovered,” all of us who were besotted with Scout, Jem and need I say it, Atticus Finch, the epitome of all antic-racist virtue, were overcome with ‘convulsions of joy’. But, even as we counted our fingers till we could read the book, the Sherlock Holmes within us tried to solve the mystery that surrounded, “Go Set a Watchman.” Every inhabitant of the world of books who had read “Mockingbird,” and knew something about it’s author was aware of how self-effacing she was, almost more so than Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. Everyone knows of her vow to never publish another novel after “Mockingbird,” that she fled Manhattan to seek asylum in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, after the success of her first novel. What, then, would have been the motive behind the 89-year old, “monastically private writer’s” consent to lay bare to the reading world a story that she hid in a drawer many years ago?

More so, the jury is still out on whether the new book is a sequel or the first draft of “Mockingbird.” Although the story is set in the mid-1950s, around 20 years after “Mockingbird,” many critics agree it is not a sequel. It is said that Lee, had submitted “Watchman” to a publisher in 1957 and, on an editor’s advice, refashioned it into the book that holds a permanent place in hearts of readers who were not even born when the book was published or have never set foot in Alabama. It is fair to believe that “Watchman” might probably have been a practice run for “Mockingbird,” and had existed before anybody could have known the small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch would become a symbol of the entire world’s moral conscience.

“Watchman” begins with the Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch, better known to us by her childhood nickname Scout, returning to Maycomb, Alabama, for a two-week vacation. For the past five years, Jean Louise has been living in New York City trying to make it as a painter. Her older brother Jem, sadly, is dead. But her father, Atticus, is still hanging on. Seventy-two and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, he is cared for by his busybody sister Alexandra.

It is Jean Louise’s story of awakening that we encounter on the remaining pages of the book. And it turns out to be an awakening for those of us who idolized Atticus as well. Critic Christian Holub, voices our thoughts when he questions, whether we grew up believing a lie? It’s hard not to side with Jean Louise when she finds Atticus and Henry (and most of the other “respectable” men of Maycomb) hosting a racist preacher at a “citizens’ council” meeting. When she confronts Henry about it later, he tells her that he and Atticus are both card-carrying members of the KKK.

Holub argues that if this revelation ruins the character of Atticus Finch (who has spent decades as one of the greatest fictitious icons all over the world) it depends on our perspective. This “new’ Atticus is clearly racist; he uses derogatory terms and tells Jean Louise that black people “are still in their childhood as a people.” He explains his membership in the KKK as a way of keeping tabs on people. His arguments with a furious Jean Louise are hypocritical and self-evidently wrong, but critics believe they are a more accurate depiction of the views of many white Americans of the time. It feels as if second time round, Lee portrays Atticus as an honorable, disciplined man, but not a perfect one.

Critics like Holub explain, “Watchman” does not simply tear down the Atticus Finch we knew and loved. “Like Mockingbird, “Watchman” is about the loss of innocence. But rather than focusing on the innocence lost in the transition from childhood to maturity, “Watchman’”s subject is how that innocence disappears when you return to the scene of your childhood after spending time away. Holub argues, “Atticus was always this way, but Jean Louise only sees it now because she’s spent time living on her own in New York. He’s still an honorable, disciplined man, but he’s not perfect. None of our parents are. The task of adulthood, after all, is learning what to take from your parents and what to reject.

“This is why Atticus ultimately reacts to Jean Louise’s fury at him with nothing but pride – their disagreement shows that Jean Louise has finally become her own woman, with her own opinions. She’s no longer repeating everything her father says as gospel. The adults around her emphasize the importance of this growth and independence.

Both Atticus and his brother, Jean Louise’s beloved Uncle Jack, mean well, but they can’t shake the racist beliefs they were raised with. It’s up to Jean Louise and her generation, they note, to help change Maycomb for the better, not to run at the first sign of prejudice.”

While this argument sounds logical it yet sounds like a social media post by an America First supporter. It seems highly improbable that a man of Atticus’ caliber would change so drastically since we last met him in “Mockingbird.” The explanation that he is happy to see Jean Louise no longer following in her father’s footsteps is but a lame excuse.

It is also heartbreaking to find Calpurina has left the Finch household and is now living with her children. When she visits her, Jean Louise finds the elderly woman “sitting with a haughty dignity that appeared on state occasions, and with it appeared erratic grammar.” Cal, she cries, “Cal, Cal, Cal, what are you doing to me? What’s the matter? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out?” “What are you all doing to us?” is Calpurnia’s response.

And yet, the hardest revelation comes towards the end when Jean ...confronts her father: “I grew up right here in your house and I never knew what was in your mind,” Jean Louise tells him. “I only heard what you said. You neglected to tell me that we were naturally better than the Negroes, bless their kinky heads, that they were able to go so far but so far only.”

Then there is Uncle Jack’s warning about what she will need to unlearn. She has always been “color blind,” he tells her, “… you’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You only see people.”

Uncle Jack makes it sound as if it is a crime to see “only people.” This is why it is so hard to read “Watchman.” Perhaps it is never a good idea to go home again. Jean Louise should have stayed in New York City or better still, Harper Lee should have let old manuscripts remain where they belong.

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