Thursday, September 3, 2015

Watching the Watchman - An Elul Meditation

Am I the only American my age who didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school? I certainly could have read it—the book had already been in print for seven years when I began tenth grade and hasn’t ever really stopped selling: to this day, the book has sold an almost unbelievable thirty million copies.  But I somehow didn’t read it then and, as the years passed, I continued not to have read it…until just a few years ago when Joan patiently explained to me that admitting to not having read To Kill a Mockingbird was not much worse than admitting to never having read Heidi or The Lord of the Rings. Remembering the “three strikes you’re out” rule all too well from my single season in Little League as an eleven-year-old, I knew I had to act quickly. So Mockingbird it was. (It really wasn’t much of a choice.) I downloaded a copy, set to reading…and was completely enthralled. After being disappointed so many different times by books that I was told I simply had to read, here for once was something that I actually did have to read: a story that was inspiring, riveting, clever…and extremely well-written. The characters were nuanced, balanced, and believable. The story—unbelievable in a certain sense, but unfolded so artfully that in the context of the book it hardly feels that way at all—the story was uplifting in the best sense of the word. (And I write as someone who generally finds fiction widely touted as “uplifting” mawkish to the point of being off-putting and anything but inspiring.) I loved the book. I’m sure all of my readers who read the book when they were teenagers will agree that it more than deserved the Pulitzer it won in 1961, the year after its initial publication, as will all who have read it since.

The part of the book I loved the most, of course, was the depiction of Atticus Finch. Everybody thinks of him as looking like Gregory Peck, the handsome actor who played him in the 1962 movie and won an Oscar for his efforts. I suppose even I think he looked the part, but it is hardly Atticus’ dashing good looks that make him the hero of the book: it is his simple dedication to the cause of justice that leads him, a white lawyer in Alabama in 1936, to defend a black man accused of rape not because he feels sorry for the man or because he is personally eager symbolically to strike a blow against the endemic racism of his time and place, but simply because he believes the man to be innocent of the charges brought against him and wishes personally to ensure that he is defended in court vigorously and competently.  He clearly knows that he is going to lose, that all black men accused of violence against white women lose when tried in court in his time and place. He knows that, but somehow feels unable to desist from mounting a compelling, more-than-competent defense. When he loses and his client is convicted, he begins calmly to plan Tom’s appeal. When Tom, in despair and knowing all too well that the appeal too will fail, takes his own life (or rather provokes his own murder in a sequence as horrifying as it is riveting,), Atticus personally takes himself into the black part of town to bring the grim tidings personally to Tom’s widow, Helen.

Far from being a plaster saint (as New Yorker critic, Thomas Mallon, called him in print a few years ago), Atticus’ depiction seemed real to me. I spent eleven years in and out of Waycross, Georgia, where I had a student pulpit for seven of my eight years at JTS, and for all the years after that until I took my first full-time pulpit in 1986. I was hardly an expert, but I did spend a lot of time in a very southern part of the South…and, although Mockingbird was set in the 1930’s, decades before I was born, the feel of the book rang true to me, as did the ambiguous, complicated relationship between black people and white people that I myself witnessed and personally experienced during those formative years as I figured out the ins and outs of serving a tiny Jewish community as its only, albeit very part-time, rabbi.

Until this year, To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only book. She was (and is) widely acknowledged as one of twentieth-century America’s finest authors, mentionable in the same breath as William Faulkner (nineteen novels, 125 short stories, twenty screenplays, and six collections of poetry), John Steinbeck (sixteen novels, five collections of short stories, and six non-fiction books), and Ernest Hemingway (ten novels, ten short story collections, and five works of non-fiction).  And now, in 2015, at age eighty-nine, Harper Lee has suddenly become the author of a second published novel, Go Set a Watchman.

The whole story of how the book came into print is complicated and not specifically what I want to write about here. But the short version is that Watchman, although set twenty years after Mockingbird, was actually Lee’s first book. Widely described as a the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, the book is not in any sense a draft of Lee’s famous book: it merely concerns the same characters, or some of them, twenty years after the story that made them famous. So it’s hard to know what to call it—it is a sequel (in the sense that it tells the story of what happened later on to the people depicted in the first book) but also a kind of prequel (in that it was written first, presumably before even the author herself knew what would eventually become the backstory to the book that made her famous. The reviews, or at least the ones I personally read, were not particularly kind, taking some sort of critics’ perverse pleasure in noting its flaws, in observing that it would never have become a bestseller if the other book, the later one, had not paved the way for its great success with its own stupendous success. (And stupendous is hardly an exaggerated term to use in this context: To Kill a Mockingbird still sells about a million copies a year.) But what the critics pounced the most mercilessly on was the depiction of the older Atticus Finch, now revealed (or, I should say, prevealed) to be neither a lawyer-saint nor a true hero, but a man of his time and place, a racist whose view of black people was negative in the extreme, paternalistic, and base.

I read Go Set a Watchman this summer in Jerusalem. I can see why the publisher to whom Lee sent the manuscript sent her back to her study to reset her story in an earlier day and to turn a depressing tale about racism in Alabama in the 1950s into an uplifting (that word again!), deeply satisfying tale of moral courage in the face of almost universal adversity. You could practically hear the crowing behind the prose in some of the reviews I came across. You see, he wasn’t such a great man…in fact, he wasn’t great at all. He was a man of his time and place, a man whose defense of poor Tom Robinson was the aberration not the constant, the deviation from the norm rather than the norm itself. And, indeed, life in Maycomb, the town in which the story is set, is depicted in a particularly unappealing way throughout the book. Even the black people who in Mockingbird are mostly shown to be as noble as they are oppressed, are in Watchman mostly depicted unappealingly…including the saintly Calpurnia, the Finches’ maid, who has turned into a bitter, angry older woman whose deep affection for the narrator when she was a child seems not to have outlasted her long years of employment in the Finch household.

As we make our way through the month of Elul, the month that precedes the High Holiday season during which Jewish people are bidden to devote time to introspection, to self-analysis, and to the stress-inducing work of looking in the mirror without flinching or turning away even from the last appealing part of what they see therein reflected, I’d like to suggest a different way to read both books.

The great debate the publication of Watchman has ignited is regularly framed as a question of which Atticus, the almost-fifty-year-old of Mockingbird or the almost-seventy-year-old of Watchman is the “real” Atticus, the depiction of the man as he truly was and not just for a long moment how he somehow appeared to be. Nor does the debate itself seem too serious: almost universally, the assumption seems to be that the older man, the one possessed of racist sentiments and a deeply prejudicial worldview, is the “real” man, his earlier iteration a kind of aberrant blip that made him briefly seem other than he truly was.  But, of course, Atticus isn’t a real man at all—this is a work of fiction, after all—just a literary character depicted at two different moments in a life that never happened other than in the pages of two novels. There are, therefore, no other incidents in his life: just these two moments artfully and intriguingly set forth for us to compare and to weigh one against the other. He isn’t really either man; he is both and neither: two sides of a coin that exists only within the literary constructs of the author’s imagination.

Taken seriously as a literary character, then, Atticus is two different things: a fine, decent man who rises to greatness when a door somehow opens through which only someone possessed of the finest moral virtue would have the courage to step and a man of his time and place who, like most of us, exists as one person among many and takes for granted what everybody in Maycomb believes to reflect, not a meanspirited and racist worldview, but simply how things are. In other words, by taking the books as snapshots of a man at two different moments in his otherwise non-existent life, a portrait is drawn that should be very familiar to all of us.

Just like in art, perspective is only attained in fiction when an author has the skill to draw two portraits in relationship to each other convincingly. And so we are left with a kind of a literary portrait that, because Harper Lee is a very talented writer, suggests the kind of perspective that can be simultaneously unsettling and stirring.  And now that I can view Atticus with some perspective, I feel closer to the man than ever before. He is me, in a real sense…not because I harbor secret racist sentiments, but because I too am a child of the world in which I live, of the society in which I labor and function. Mostly, that’s what everybody is. But occasionally, through some unexpected juxtaposition of circumstances and impetuses, through some combination of unseen forces…we can (and occasionally do) rise to greatness. Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson was not an aberration in the sense that the author told us a lie about who he was and what he could have done. (Authors of fiction can’t lie, of course—whatever they say happened is exactly what did happen; that’s the whole premise of fiction.)  But it was an aberration in the best sense of the word, an example of a regular person rising unexpectedly to greatness and doing, even if just that one time, something remarkable, something noble and good, something worthy of the great praise and respect his depiction in Mockingbird correctly earned him the minds of millions.

As we pass through Elul, we should take that to heart. We are all children of our time and place. We all believe what everybody believes, just as we all take for granted what the world around us tells us to be true. We are thus all enslaved to the givens of the universe in which we thrive…but we are also all capable of greatness, of stepping away—even if just for a moment—from the norm, from the expected, from the predictable. We are all capable of shucking off the shackles that mostly hold us successfully in place and setting them aside as we rise, unbidden but fully really, to greatness. That, I think, is how to read Atticus in light of this new perspective offered by Harper Lee’s new novel, as a call to readers to notice that, for all we live in prisons fashioned of the ideas society imposes on us, there actually is no lock on the jailhouse door, that we all really do possess the power to step into the light…and to behave nobly and decently, even greatly, even if most of us turn back into mice when midnight strikes. That is the message of both books read at once, and it is a fine and very welcome set of ideas to take along with us as we prepare to enter the season of judgment and repentance that begins in just a few short weeks. I recommend both books highly and suggest that they would make excellent Elul books for people eager to gain perspective on their own lives as the season of judgment is almost upon us.

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