Harper Lee and the death of a hero

Go Set a Watchman exposes Atticus Finch as being a staunch racist all along - leaving many in the US reeling.

    Harper Lee and the death of a hero
    The new book exposes how the US has historically failed to address its deep rooted racism since the origins of To Kill a Mockingbird, writes Dabashi [Reuters]

    The US has been inundated with social dramas lately.

    From the Supreme Court decision legalising same sex marriage, to mass shootings in churches, military installations, and movie theatres, to debates surroundings the Iran nuclear deal overwhelming the already heated contestations over the confederate flag heralded by the Ku Klux Klan, and the continued open season of police brutalities against African Americans and Native Americans - it seems as though the list is never ending.

    And now, Americans have had to deal with another traumatic experience coming to them, as they say, entirely out of left field: A major literary drama.

    As the father of four American children, I know for a fact that few products of US public or private school systems today have not read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

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    Gregory Peck later immortalised the classic book by starring as the lead character Atticus Finch in Robert Mulligan's equally classic film adaptation of the novel in 1962.

    Both the book and the film have been instrumental in raising generations of young Americans considering the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s a massive social rite of passage from a nasty racist history into the open and liberated fields of a "post-racial" society in the US. 

    The election of the first ever African-American president was thought to be the final testimony of the fulfilment of Martin Luther King's now legendary "I Have a Dream" speech.

    That fiction has now been shattered by a succession of wake up calls in which African Americans are the subject of systematic and institutional racism manifested through police brutality, vigilante murder, and mass murder by white supremacist terrorists, as members of the KKK proudly wave the confederate flag in the background.

    On top of all that, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird has now published a book which shatters the dream of the post-Civil Rights Movement generation. Her new book exposes her lead character, Atticus Finch, as being a staunch racist all along - leaving many in the US reeling. 

    "I can't bear to lose Atticus," one mournful American is reported to have said. "I'll just cling to Gregory Peck and pay no attention to what the author is publishing. They just keep taking away my heroes... I'll never forgive her."

    Another heartbroken reader of the original masterpiece declares that the book is a money grabbing "fraud" by "the Murdoch Empire" - referring to the publisher of the book. 

    After almost half a century, Lee publishes a new novel, Go Set a Watchman, which may appear as a narrative sequel of her known and much adored masterpiece.

    ... a new generation of Americans can finally confront racism by looking it straight in the eye and not hiding behind a fiction that perhaps a goodhearted editor, or a whitewashing publishing industry, once manufactured.


    It is purported to actually be a draft prequel of the novel - one of the earliest drafts of the young novelist's repeated rewrites until her editor, Tay Hohoff, was happy with it and published it as To Kill a Mockingbird.

    The literary trauma now appears as two versions of Atticus Finch, who at once seems a lovable Southern gentleman defending an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman in To Kill a Mockingbird, and a bigoted racist in Go Set a Watchman.

    "The invisible hand", as Jonathan Mahler terms it in the New York Times, of Tay Hohoff who evidently (and perhaps also caringly) manhandled Lee's story into what we have read and known, has now become public knowledge.

    At the heart of Lee's original story are three white children: Atticus' children Jean Louise Finch (Scout), her older brother Jem, and their friend Dill Harris - with whom generations of white children have identified.

    It is the powerful illusion of tolerance and progress, and the underlying ever-present fact of racism in the US that Lee's new novel simultaneously dismantles and exposes.

    In the current debate around Lee and her two novels (or perhaps two versions of the same novel) we see a social trauma surrounding the re-emergence of the repressed in US racial history.

    The contrasts in the two Atticuses expose how much the US has historically failed to address its deep-rooted racism since the original publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Lee's new novel should thus be read along with Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - so a new generation of Americans can finally confront racism by looking it straight in the eye and not hiding behind a fiction that perhaps a goodhearted editor, or a whitewashing publishing industry, once manufactured.

    A fiction which was canonised by a nation too eager to swiftly brush their racist realities under a carpet.

    Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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