As a daughter of the south, I am seriously conflicted about whether or not to read Harper Lee’s ‘new’ book, Go Set a Watchman. As a writer and a lover of good literature, I know I will read it – eventually – but I know it won’t be any time soon.
Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is among my top five all-time favorite novels, and the movie of the same name occupies the same place in my movie-watching pantheon, so I want to live with the images I grew up with and loved most of my life a little while longer. For one thing, I always had my maternal grandfather in my mind whenever I watched the movie’s Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, because Daddy Tom was the equivalent of Atticus but in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was an architect, not a lawyer, but his personal and corporate human rights’ work was just as impressive and life-changing as the fictional character’s, and his example made him a real-life hero in my eyes. Daddy Tom will always be one of my heroes, but I want to keep Atticus as a hero, too.
For those who don’t know, apparently GSAW paints Atticus Finch in a much different light from TKAM. Listening to various pundits, and reading a myriad of reviews, both good and bad, both before and immediately after the book came out earlier this week, I take it that Atticus is now a racist. He denigrates African Americans (‘Negroes’ in the lexicon of the day) and wants them, as a group, ‘kept in their place’ (my quotes). Based on what I’ve heard and read, this older Atticus – now in his 70s – believes ‘Negroes are still in their childhood’ (not my quotes) as a people.
I think one of the reasons so many people are having such a hard time wrapping their minds around this ‘new’ Finch is because they’re equating – intentionally or not – the fictional character with the actor Gregory Peck. I can’t remember now if I read TKAM first or saw the movie first – probably because I’ve seen the movie and read the book so many times – but I freely admit that Gregory Peck soon came to equal Atticus for me, and I know – I know! – that’s one reason I don’t want to read the new book yet.
Peck has always been one of my favorite actors and I know – I know! – he’s not really Atticus Finch, but I can’t read GSAW until I get to the point where they’re not interchangeable anymore. The thing is (I remind myself), I don’t think Gregory Peck is the same person as the young clergyman he portrayed in the movie Keys of the Kingdom, which was also based on the book of the same name about the uprising in China in, I think, the earliest part of the 20th century. Nor is he the Hitlerite character in the movie that scared me so badly I can’t think of the name of it just now. Nor is he the characters he played in Alfred Hitchcock movies. And on and on.
So I should know better, right? And I think I’m well-read enough, and have written and edited enough of my own and others’ fictional works, that I should be able to jump this literary hurdle with relative ease. But this one’s as high as those track and field monsters in my real-life gym classes, and I’m having as hard a time now as I did then.
Perhaps part of the problem is what stands me in good stead as a writer: my imagination. I still see those physical hurdles in my dreams and wake up shuddering, or worse, when I dream of crashing into them again, or falling over them or breaking a bone or dislocating a joint. I just can’t take the idea of an Atticus Finch who stumbles, even slightly, when called upon to do the right thing, to stand up for and serve as champion for others whose voices can’t be heard in any other way.
I was born into and grew up in some of the most public times of the Jim Crow era of the South. My godfather, an Episcopal priest in Atlanta, marched and was jailed with Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, John Lewis, and other Civil Rights pioneers and heroes. My family had a horrific night surrounded and harassed by KKK members when my dad wrote a letter to the editor that supported integrating the public schools. Some of my early reading material was the daily newspapers with reports and photographs of lunch counter sit-ins, black and white protesters leveled by water cannons or police dogs, and black men on trial who looked every bit as terrified as the defendant Tom in TKAM’s Alabama. And, of course, television was making its way into more and more homes by then, so the ugly realities – when they were reported – were made even more vivid on our screens every night.
When our family moved up north in 1962, to my father’s native New England, I was almost eight and a half years old. The childhood friends I left behind – and some of their parents – assured me I would not be ostracized because of my southern accent, in part because my dad was a New Englander, and also that there was no racism in the north.
They were wrong on both counts, especially the latter. I soon lost what little southern accent I had, so that part didn’t last long and I started to feel like I fit in a little better before I started third grade. The racism I encountered was much more subtle than the rare jibes I’d received because of my drawl, and it was usually more than the literal black and white divides of the south. At least in the town to which we’d moved, discrimination against the Irish, too, anyone who was Jewish or German or … well, essentially anyone who wasn’t a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant of the highest order of WASPs … was rampant.
At least it was for those on the receiving end, and those who knew what discrimination really looked and sounded like. And let’s call it for what it was: hatred. Sometimes fear, too, fear of the unknown, the unknown person, heritage, habits, beliefs, lifestyles, looks, (dis)abilities, fear of the different – and differing – viewpoints and voices.
One of the reasons I’m thankful that I grew up in the south (in addition to family vacations after we left, I later spent three years for school in North Carolina) and then came north, and that I have both southern and Yankee lineages from which to draw, is that I had a wide variety of regional voices around me. Soft intonations and sprawling dialects were, to me, as full of life, history, and meaning as the massive live oaks that sprout from surprisingly tiny acorns in the clay, sandy, and rich dark soils of the south.
I relied on those memories, those images when we moved north and the fast, harsher nasal twangs of Connecticut first met my ears. As I grew up and discovered still other ways of speaking, though, I learned to revel in the differences. That’s one reason I loved to travel – to other states, areas of the country, overseas – for pleasure or business: I could immerse myself in all the dialects, idioms, vernaculars that came my way. And while I’m not a good enough writer to try to emulate most variations when I write, I can and do hear them when I read, which helps me feel like I’m ‘on location’ with the characters.
Perhaps that’s why I love the mockingbird so much. The diversities of and in his song helped train my ear, I think, and, perhaps, my outlook. Since my formative years were in the south, of course, I heard mockingbirds on a regular, usually daily, sometimes hourly basis. In addition to friends and half of our family, we left behind three of my favorite birds when we moved north: cardinals, Carolina wrens, and mockingbirds. Over the years, though, all three gradually migrated to and stayed in the north – which also speaks to the warming climate trends (and they were eventually joined by some members of the insect world that I wish had stayed south), but that’s a whole other subject.
Once the mockingbirds moved to and stayed in Connecticut, I learned that they take on the ‘voices’ of neighborhood ‘accents,’ mocking sounds and animals – and the other birds, of course – in one group of streets that aren’t in others. In addition to the repertoire they all seem to have, one of the mockers around our house, for instance, would mimic my mother’s piano notes when she wasn’t playing, and I’ve heard of others that respond to babies’ cries, car horns or emergency sirens with their own variations on a theme.
My final regional move came about 20 years ago and, once again, I left racial diversity and the mockingbirds behind. Now that I’ve been in Vermont for all that time, I’ve seen mockingbirds a few times – and heard one once (such joy!) – in southern Vermont, but they’re not regulars yet. Cardinals and Carolina wrens are, though, so I hope the mockingbirds will be as well.
Though Vermont is one of the whitest states in the country, there is an ever-growing population of people of color, and that’s a good – and necessary – thing. There’s always been some Caucasian diversity, what with the French-Canadian, Polish, Welsh, Italian, and other heritages that are seen in family names, place names, and regional celebrations. And we have an important representation of the Abenaki and other First Nations tribes and clans. So while our small state’s accents and dialects remain distinct, our collective voice is much more inclusive than it used to be, even in the relatively few years I’ve been here.
Which brings me back to Atticus Finch. In TKAM, he spoke with a distinct voice that had the weight of what was – and is – collectively correct and beautiful. No other bird, in my opinion, sings as melodiously as the mockingbird, and there’s nothing as stunning as a society that is all-inclusive, that allows all voices to be heard and celebrated. The Atticus Finch I grew up with was an icon of what’s right and good in the face of fear and hatred, and I can’t bring myself to see him any other way. Not yet.
Maybe when the mockingbirds come here to stay, it might be easier. But not yet.
© ERR 7/29/15