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Part Two

By Karen Hornick

What follows is the second installment in an ongoing serialized essay about two overlapping developments within modern American culture: the questionable popular demand that political leaders come “with a narrative” and, on the literary front, a general revival of approval for long serial narratives.

“[B]y nightfall all the ladies are like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum”... that line from the first chapter of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has stuck in my mind since I first read it in 8th grade. It conveys for me a certain way of thinking about summer as a time when all efforts to stay cool seem like phony wars against nature. It’s a time like today when, as I write this, we’re in the middle of our third big city heat wave. Everything solid is melting into one big teacake and I’m seeing connections everywhere that relate to my ongoing preoccupation with serial storytelling and political narratives—especially on the booklists. There, at this moment, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is #1 on the fiction side and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is first in non-fiction. Both books are about race in America, and both appeared in timely proximity to the massacre in Charleston. Lee’s book has shown what can happen when a book perceived as a prequel or second installment radically challenges the reader’s opinion of a major returning character. Coates, meanwhile, forces hard thinking about the difference between structural and individual racism. Does the history of race in America amount to one big, never-changing sameness, or is it episodic and character-driven?

To regard racism as a social structure, an institution and a tradition (rather than a moral weakness within an individual) reveals the fantasy behind the idolization of Atticus Finch. In Go Set a Watchman, the grown-up Scout returns to the South and sees Atticus from a perspective not far removed from that of Coates. Go Set a Watchman was not written as a sequel but someone, most probably for reasons largely commercial, decided to market it as one. But if Go Set a Watchman is assumed to be a serial continuation of To Kill a Mockingbird (as almost everyone thinks), it supports Coates’s view. However weak or bad it may be, it seems inevitable that this new addition will change how readers think of To Kill a Mockingbird, which will in turn change the meanings attached to it. I’m not sure Harper Lee herself is to blame for any of this; Go Set a Watchman was a first draft that was rewritten and edited into To Kill a Mockingbird, and the book pages are full of stories about why this rough draft should have been left in the archives.

Indeed, before Go Set a Watchman appeared, the newspapers questioned whether Harper Lee was mentally able to approve its publication, and the minute it appeared readers began to criticize its promoters for over-hyping what should have been a scholars-only edition rather than threatening to destroy the idealism readers have long associated with the character of Atticus Finch. To now find out that Atticus attended a KKK meeting is like finding out Thomas Jefferson owned slaves or something. Or, oh... wait a cotton-picking minute... maybe, as Coates’s argument would suggest, we should have already known that?

Scout narrates as an adult but she remembers her father Atticus Finch as she knew him then. Generations of middle-school teachers encouraged an interpretation of To Kill a Mockingbird that put too much faith in a text whose narrator is long on charm but somewhat short on reliability. To take the child’s view as the true one makes for weak reading and even worse arithmetic: founding the country and owning slaves didn’t fully add up to a perfect sum.

Anyone who encountered To Kill a Mockingbird as a child probably grew up believing in the existence of an unambivalently liberal, anti-racist straight white male lawyer in the Jim Crow South as credible and likely, may now feel a bit of a chump, especially those who named their pets or children “Atticus” (the new Adolf?). But there were “good” white men in the pre-civil-rights era South, weren’t there? And isn’t it in the nature of social structures to change over time, often under direct pressure from organized and individual protest?

Coates himself would probably answer “yes” to both of those questions, but I take his deeper point to be one that would encourage us to regard narratives such as To Kill a Mockingbird as juvenile. While it may have made white readers feel a bit better about their inner lives despite that novel’s bleak projection of the future of race relations (Atticus loses the fight but he’s a good man worthy of reverence nonetheless), how much solace did it offer to black readers left to contend with persisting, non-symbolic manifestations of the American heritage of racist violence, much of it operating (as Coates seems to see it) through institutional rather than individual agencies?

Whatever the fundamental logic of his argument, Coates has reason to blur the line between different understandings of the determining factors of histories. He’s not suggesting that individuals don’t act upon personal decisions, but that individuals do not always act with full consciousness of how their actions are shaped by, enact, and perpetuate larger social forces that may benefit their personal interests more than those whom they would help. I’m not sure Coates is proposing any clear solution (indeed, most of his thinking is pretty dire and pessimistic), but I do think he’s in a tradition that believes raising consciousness will produce better action. And what he’s contributing is a history of America constructed to unsettle the confidence of those who are paradoxically least comfortable investigating the righteousness of their positions on matters pertaining to race, and those with the greatest investment in imagining/remembering anti-racist white southern lawyers in isolated and tiny Southern towns before the 1950’s—white liberals.

Our embrace of Atticus didn’t represent an entirely bad impulse, and it may not have produced any behavior worse than unearned self-congratulation. But it’s generally a good thing when icons crumble and the loss of Atticus reminds us importantly, that he was, like all icons, imaginary. At best, Go Set a Watchman may produce is a more critical re-reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, not a mass rejection of it.

From all we know about the history of Go Set a Watchman, it was not written as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, but so many arguments for and against its publication turn on a perceived threat to Atticus. Are sequels, intended or not, the same thing as installments of a single story intended to be read in stages? Fair or not, that’s what people who fall in love with stories and characters do, and so I’m writing here as a reader, not from the author’s perspective. Though I might question the reading of Lee’s two novels as part of a larger single, story, I understand why it has happened, and it is certainly a practice I shall apply in the coming installments of this essay to the major serialized texts of our day, those I mentioned in Part One of this essay as the strongest example of the kind of thing that might be changing the nature of literary art in the beginning of the 21st century. If readers of Go Set a Watchman felt unfairly ambushed by the alteration of Scout’s representation of her father, they were reacting negatively to a bad use, intended or not, of the kind of shift that is unavoidable in XXL fiction. The best authors of long novels are those who intend to write big from the beginning, and they use these shifts consciously, for effects of various kinds. In the next installment of this essay, I will argue that this is what Elena Ferrante does in her Neapolitan Novels.

From August, 2015

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