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.