Bonus Weekly Reading: Spoiling (And Spoilers) For A Fight With Harper Lee

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July 29, 2015 by Labrys

1a kissI read a half dozen reviews.  I dithered back and forth whether I would buy “Go Set A Watchman” or not, or maybe wait till the furor died down and buy it used.  I loved “To Kill A Mockingbird”, of course.  And no, I did not read it in high school — nor, by the way, did my children.  I read it AS a pre-teen, and I read it aloud to my own children.

My children never lived in the South as children.  I did.  I lived in the South in the 60’s before forced integration ensued.  I was, frankly, the “dumb Yankee nigger-lover” on my school bus, until I dropped out of fifth grade entirely.  My Georgia born teacher began every morning, right after the flag salute with asking all “us chillin” who “hate niggers” to raise our hands.  I never raised mine, I sat there head down and tears streaming for almost three horrid months of constant “F” grades on perfect papers, playground harassment and beatings.  So, yeah, anyone telling me that Louisiana has no racists?  Can fuck off and die.

So, book review and spoilers for breakfast, right?  No, I am not going to punch little-old-lady Lee in the face for revealing Atticus as the typical parochial minded racist of his era.  I KNEW that already because I knew what sorts of racists the South had.  By the time I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” I was out of the South and totally ready to identify with color-blind Scout Finch.

The “first” book, the Johnny-come-lately “Go Set A Watchman” has Atticus voice aloud what well mannered Southerners rarely said — that black people WERE people, but childish “lesser” ones who needed “good” white men to shoulder a Kiplingesque white man’s burden and “take care” of them.  It is the care-taking that keeps anyone childish and stupid, of course.  The never allowing someone the full result of their choices and decisions does infantilize!

Of course, the other kind of racist was like my 5th grade teacher — teaching people to feel superior simply by hating others and being certain to make anyone of color feel lesser at every opportunity.  My issue with Harper Lee’s first effort is not that I consider it a bad book; it is a worthwhile story and frankly, one that needs to be read to shake the stars out of the eyes of the legions of TKAM lovers.

What I am pissed at the book and its author for is sheer cowardice.  Grown up New York-dwelling Jean Louise Finch, shocked and pissed off at her saintly father and almost-fiance Hank, attacks both of them.  She takes them to task with differing results.  Hank does his level best (and it is pretty damned earnest and good) to show her not only her white privilege, but her privilege as a higher CLASS white person. Hank is from the wrong side of the white tracks, you see; so climbing the Southern social ladder, he has to cling tightly to more powerful white shirt-tails.

I was, at first, sure Lee might yet pull it out in her first book.  Because Jean Louise went full Scout on Hank’s excuses for following the path of least resistance and called him a coward. She told him she would never marry him.  You felt a bit sorry for Hank to be honest; you sort of think there might be hope for him some day.

Scout takes on her father and yes, all the infamous many-review touted lines are there.  Would Scout want her kids in dumbed down schools with black kids, etc, etc, etc.  All the labels, “childish,” “backwards,” and so forth.  Scout roundly chews bits of Atticus-ass and storms out.  She is most angry because her father replied so mildly, making no impassioned defense for himself.

I was ok thus far.  Although when Atticus claimed to be a “Jeffersonian Democrat” who believed voting was a “privilege to be earned,” Scout might have asked him why stupid, immature whites didn’t have to earn the same privilege.  Scout runs home, intending to pack and leave Maycomb for the last time.  She is intercepted by her Uncle Jack, whom she counted upon to be the voice of sanity.  Jack stops her putting her suitcase in the car.

He stops her by HITTING her.  TWICE and hard enough to break the skin.  

Now, I didn’t read every review, but none I read  — no, not nary a one — mentioned this obviously Southern gentleman’s method of handling “hysterical” women.  Wow, Harper — jackpot time: racism AND misogyny.  Then dear Uncle Jack takes the nigh-knocked out and properly chastened Jean Louise inside and gives her a couple stiff shots of whiskey and “talks her down.”  Well, then.  He tells her how proud of her Atticus was/is because she stood up for her principles  and “killed the tin god” she had made of her father.  Congratulations, Scout, you are a grown adult now.

So there we are, derailed.  Scout is all happily re-settled in loving her very incorrect father and abusive uncle.  The subject of race and civil rights is completely ignored in the rush to psychologize a young woman.  The final insult?  Though she forgives “gentlemanly” racist Atticus, she does not forgive the craven “cracker”-bred Hank.  “Loving” Uncle Jack, after declaring “hitting a woman takes a lot out of you” advises her to “let him (Hank) down easy.”  Properly disciplined re-programmed Jean Louise agrees, her Aunt Alexandra is right: she must only marry “her own kind.”

So there we go.  Women, right there with black folks — needing a good belt in the mouth and medicinal whiskey to keep them in their “place.” Do I recommend the book? Yes, I fucking well do.  Parts of it are just as charming as TKAM, to be honest — or maybe that is only me recalling the bits of Southern living that were worth living?  But more importantly? In the era of “Mad Men” and a GOP that has openly attacked voting rights, not only for people of color, but for women?  All these starry eyed 21st century sorts NEED a look back at where the GOP would like to take us all.  Trust me, it is a time machine ride you want to skip.  So, yes, go take a gander!  The bill of goods being sold is not a new one at all, so take a good long look.

4 thoughts on “Bonus Weekly Reading: Spoiling (And Spoilers) For A Fight With Harper Lee

  1. I know which one she wrote first. In any case, she is not harmed in any way by the publication of the book. One thing about a care-taker, btw? They have to see to it bills are paid to maintain a life of value — even if the darkest “the Caretaker DID it” stories are true (and that just has a slime-from-the-checkout-lane quality to me, to be frank), it may be that publication will keep Harper Lee well the rest of her life. There are worse things than being old, partially disabled and STILL financially covered.

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  2. fallconskat says:

    i agree that what you are saying about the book is TOTALLY valid, and absolutely still pertinent as to the case of how things are STILL in the south today.

    but she wrote GSAW *first*. and her handler has the woman in a private nursing home and refuses to let anyone see her who is not on her pre-approved list, even people who have known the woman for decades. THAT makes my neck hairs stand up big time. also that when her sister was still handling things for her (her sister has now passed), she was still saying that there would not ever be another book published? that makes me think something is not right.

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  3. I think the publisher was right, however; the story in TKAM was a much more appealing idea. For a first time novelist, it was absolutely phenomenal. While she did not write another book, I am not sure it is because she was angry over GSAW; frankly any writer who quits at the first (semi )rejection notice is NEVER going to get anywhere in publishing.
    And I don’t think it is possible to say she didn’t approve the book going through now, she IS apparently able to communicate just fine and isn’t senile. She is just aged, not incompetent. I still feel the book says some necessary things about the history of the American South and attitudes there.

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  4. fallconskat says:

    see…i read all the furor about this book before it even became pre-orderable. this WAS the first book, TKAM was the SECOND book because the publishing company wanted the pre-story. and so she wrote it, and said “fuck this, i’ll never put another book out there”.

    her handler waited till she was old and nearly blind and nearly deaf and had NO ONE ELSE to speak for her TRUE wishes, and said “publish it”. so…yeah. while i don’t doubt that this book is all that you say it is, i wouldn’t buy it.

    not that i doubt at BIT your experiences in lousiana, or your view of the book either.

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