Harper Lee's Moral Reckoning
After reading the Wall Street Journal review by Sam Sacks of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, I wrote on my Facebook timeline: This novel obviously upsets some people because it sets the record straight about Southern literature. A much better novel that deals with a white woman's discoveries about her racist father is Minrose Gwin's The Queen of Palmyra.
According to Sacks, Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is "the most beloved novel in American history ---more popular than even the Bible in numerous polls." It would be a waste of time to correct Sacks's sense of American history or to argue that some other American novel is more beloved than Lee's. I doubt that the unnamed polls reveal what Mr. Sacks claims, but I do not dismiss the possibility that they tend to confirm that the fictional Atticus Finch did "become a symbol of the nation's moral conscience." In that case, we can say with confidence that Finch replaced William Faulkner's ambiguous Gavin Stevens (Intruder in the Dust, 1948) as the white male unambiguous heroic figure and moral voice in Southern fiction. Who defines what is ambiguous, however, remains a question to be answered.
Sacks clears his throat so as "not to damp the enthusiasm of expectant readers but to introduce a friendly word of caution. 'Go Set a Watchman' is a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion."
Truth is like oil in the Gulf of Mexico. It upsets animal, plant and human ecology.
Tough-minded readers should applaud Harper Lee for striking an iconoclastic blow from an assisted living home in Monroeville, Alabama. At age 89, Lee is rich (her net worth is estimated at $35 million) and on the brink of having to explain herself to a Supreme Being. She obviously wants to do the right thing, to be on time in Time. Thus, she is forcing naive readers who relish and consume American idealism to savor Southern realism; with Go Set a Watchman, she is obligating readers to give moral bankruptcy a name.
President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 2010. It is just that she should thank her country for these honors by telling a truth before she dies. It was no accident that she helped her friend Truman Capote with his research for In Cold Blood. In 2015, blood in the United States of America is an ice cube for all of us who are waiting for Godot or watching to see who has an eye on the sparrow.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. July 12, 2015
for BK Nation