The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Harper Lee: Punk Rocker


No I haven't read it yet. But I'm having a ball imagining my (and perhaps YOUR) hero Atticus Finch rolling in his fictional grave right now. I was at my beloved Park Slope Food Coop the other day and heard a mom, about my age, calling out to her son Atticus. Will she have to change her son's name with the revelation that Atticus was a bigot?

(If you must read what someone besides the Q has to say on the issue, here's the Times. Remember, the book isn't even out yet. I'm speculating, just like everyone else.)

I mean HOW INTENSE IS THIS? It's not that notoriously reclusive Great American Novel writer Harper Lee wrote a follow-up. That would make it easy to dismiss her redrawing of the Atticus character as revisionist, or tainted, or angry. Nope. This book came FIRST. That is, she's known all along what crock it was that her Daddy was some sort of pre-1960s racially moral Superman. Even the most enlightened white Southern Gentlemen were products of their times. According to accounts, her father A.C. Lee even mellowed his segregationist views after the release of To Kill A Mockingbird, perhaps partly swayed by Harper Lee's extraordinary rendering of him as kind and just and brave beyond reproach? I mean, isn't Mockingbird the most awesome argument with your dad's generational conservatism and stubbornness? By creating an ideal Daddy, she can tell him what he SHOULD have been, and all of us for that matter. And how great would it be for us all to have a more perfect vision of ourselves to reflect upon? Maybe it's what it was all about, who knows. I mean, she's a writer first and foremost. But you have to write about SOMEthing, don't you.

I mean think of it. Harper's brilliant, radical. She studies law in Tuscaloosa, but she's clearer not cut out for following in her daddy's footsteps. She leaves small town Alabama - one of the two most backward of ALL the segregationist southern states - and moves to NYC. And doesn't just hang with the housewives and humdrum guys and dolls. She settles in with some full-on art-deco loving wackjobs like Truman Capote and Michael Brown, the nutty songwriter for Industrials like the Dupont musical at the 1964 World's Fair, which spawned a hilarious song my father the biochemist sings to this day. She visits home in AL, for her ailing dad, and is repulsed by what she now realizes was a fictionalized vision of innocence and place. So, she writes a book with that as a backdrop. Enter the publisher. Rewrite, focused on the pre-critical young Scout's understanding of the world, not the post-cynical and razor-sharp viewpoint of the adult Scout. Boom. A new Atticus? Of course not. It's the same Atticus. One came from the first-person kid and one from the third-person adult. Both true? Of course. Not. It's fiction. But true. Still, fiction. And true! In a story...but yeah, of course they can be the same person. And I can be my daughter's dad and my mom's son too. (How very, very differently they must view me, but I'm the same guy. Follow?) Harper has license - a Pulitzer license even! - to look at it from all angles. Even the Publisher's! It's HER character after all, not ours. It's not even Oprah's, or the legions of white high school teachers who take comfort each year knowing they've impressed young minds with the knowledge that a few great, white men helped usher in the Civil Rights era. Hogwash, of course, but deeply reassuring. Fact is, whites had to be dragged kicking and cussing into the new reality, and it was black "agitators" like the underestimated (yep, I said it and meant it) Martin Luther King who forced the hand. Blacks had help in high places, of course. But like same-sex marriage, it was a long hard battle, and the true battlers were those who had the most to gain. And lose. All Atticus had to lose was his KKK membership card and the Hickory Nuts from Mr. Cunningham.

Some say Lee must've been coerced by malfeasance, to let this book fly 50 years on. But what if she knew all along that she'd wait for the right moment to say "Booyah! You actually fell for that character? He doesn't exist. Except in your MIND! The mind of a CHILD! There is no white Superman, capable of soothing your soul and carrying the load for you. There's no legal case, no soaring rhetoric, no law passed that's going to fix this mess. It's up to you, in every moment of every day and those of your children and their children." It's pretty rare that white folks just give over their closely held privilege to black folks without pressure of some sort. Just look at Charleston. Or NYC. Or the Voting Rights Act. Or segregation itself. It was hardly the story of self-examination followed by amends.

Hell, I'm reading the book and nobody's gonna stop me. Even IF Jem dies. And the fiction of Atticus dies too, like the rabid dog in Mockingbird, and like the innocent Tom Robinson. Then maybe real-life Harper dies. And then, one by one, we all die too. And (gulp) our kids. And theirs.

And racism outlives us all.


Anonymous said...

Great post Tim!

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking that too about all the kids named after the author and characters in Mockingbird! I haven't seen anybody writing about that yet, not that I read parenting blogs, maybe those are all afire with that discussion right now. So many of those kids in this generation. Of everything I've read, your post would be most likely to convince me to buy and read the new book, but I may have to stick to my protest of it as an artist, writer and somebody who has worked with and edited writers. Early drafts are just that, drafts. Not books. It's hardly unheard of for authors to experiment and then dramatically change things in later drafts. This book got published because somebody in her life saw dollar signs. She didn't remember it was in a vault and propose it herself, her attorney (not her sister attorney) proposed it to her and we will never know how that very likely very persuasive conversation went down. The situation is just tacky. Oh, and she grew up as close friends with Capote so they were always kindred spirits whether in Alabama or NYC. But if she felt inspired to write a book because he did or she went to NYC because he did, that doesn't detract from her talent and courage one iota and it's annoying when anybody suggests it. As if they'd say that about a male artist. They wouldn't.

Cody Robison said...

So, are these the same people that saw Robocop 2 and then decided they hated the first Robocop because it shared the same characters?

To me this sounds like an argument based around Lucas' Star Wars and OUR Star Wars way of thinking. His does not take away ours. The very existence of a lesser chapter or needless annotation does not decimate the previous volumes, nor does it nor should it lessen your love and happy memories.

And if she or the family is in for cash...that's the business of art. Also, the amount of money we've all spent on artistic output that was slapdash and inconsequential is astounding (I should know, I've purchased over 4 Limp Bizkit albums of my own volition).

It's ultimately an interesting piece of history and if it's as truly "offensive" as people say, it will effect nothing (just a Wikipedia entry).

Oh, I'm just being told this is a book. Who reads those anyway? #nerds

Clarkson FlatBed said...

Limp Bizkit had 4 albums?