Congress expert Norman Ornstein on what the debate over the debt limit says about dysfunction in Congress, and his ideas for how to fix it.
Guest Host: Steve Roberts
Last month, the country experienced one of the biggest literary events in recent memory: The release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” Written before Lee’s beloved classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the novel follows a grown-up Scout as she travels from New York to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. Questions linger as to whether the aging Lee approved the publication of the unearthed manuscript, yet the book set sales records even before it hit the shelves. Since then, critics have expressed mixed opinions about its merit and surprise at the portrayal of the heroic Atticus Finch as racist. We give you a chance to weigh in on this new release by Harper Lee.
- Charles J. Shields Biographer; author, "Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee"
- Maureen Corrigan Book critic,NPR's Fresh Air; author, "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures"
- Paul Butler Professor, Georgetown Law School
From The Blog: Go Set A Watchman Should Not Have Been Published
Some readers are embracing Harper Lee's new novel. Some think it's a mistake. Charles J. Shields tells us why.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of the George Washington University sitting in today for Diane. She'll be back tomorrow. Last month's release of Harper Lee's new novel, "Go Set A Watchman," set presale records on Amazon and sold more copies in its first week than any book Harper Collins publisher has ever published. Critics weighing in on both the quality of the novel and how it might force people to rethink Lee's American classic, "To Kill A Mockingbird."
MR. STEVE ROBERTSNow, we give you, our listeners, a chance to express your thoughts. Joining us for our August Readers Review of "Go Set A Watchman," I have with me Charles Shields. He's the author of a biography of Harper Lee. Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air," and Paul Butler of the Georgetown Law School. Welcome to you all.
MR. CHARLES J. SHIELDSThank you for being here.
MR. PAUL BUTLERIt's great to be here.
MS. MAUREEN CORRIGANThank you.
ROBERTSYou can reach us, of course. Call us at 800-433-8850. Email us, email@example.com. And for you veteran Readers Reviewers, you know that we have a special hashtag on Twitter for Readers Review and it's #drreads. So many ways for you to contact us. And Maureen, for the few readers out there who have not read the new novel or at least not read about it, quickly give us an outline of this plot.
CORRIGANWell, the book is set in the mid-1950s. Scout, here called Jean Louise, her real given name, returns to Macomb, Alabama, and when she does return, it's almost like we're entering into Freud's definition of the uncanny. Everything is the same, except changed. Atticus is in his 70s...
ROBERTSEverything's the same except her, too.
CORRIGANWell, you know, she -- well, we could get into that. I think she's the most interesting character. But Atticus is in his 70s. He's crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. Calpurnia looks at Scout as though she's "one of those white ladies." Jem has passed away.
ROBERTSCalpurnia, of course, the African-American maid who is an important character in "Mockingbird."
CORRIGANYes. So I mean, this novel references all of the characters that listeners will be familiar with from "Mockingbird," which is one of the reasons why I find it such a strange novel because the only reason we care about these characters in "Go Set A Watchman" is because we know them from "To Kill A Mockingbird." It reads, to me, like a sequel and I find it a very strange reading experience.
ROBERTSAlthough, Charles Shields, most of the evidence is that it was written before "Mockingbird." There is some controversy here. But you're a Harper Lee scholar. What's your best take on...
SHIELDSIt was definitely written before. It's the first draft of "To Kill A Mockingbird." It was written in 1956, '57, and then it went out to publishers. No one picked it up until Lippincott did and a very liberal Philadelphia-educated lady named Tay Hohoff walked Harper Lee through the paces of redrafting the novel three times. And I think the reason that there's a big disconnect in terms of the values and the perspective between the two books is that we have the first draft being Harper Lee and the second draft being a woman in her 60s who understands the nature of north/south relations, marketing, publishing, integration.
SHIELDSSo I think the book is as much the editor's as it is Harper Lee's -- "To Kill A Mockingbird," I mean.
ROBERTSYou know, she -- in fact, in one of the -- of course, Harper Lee now, in her 80s and infirm, but she issued a statement in which she said that I was a young writer and I did what I was told by the editor. Do you agree with that?
SHIELDSYes, exactly. Oh, yeah. She was -- this was her first attempt at a novel and I think, as you can see by reading it, it lacks the scaffolding of a novel, very little happens. What's the takeaway except for revisiting the south in the 1950s and being reminded of racist attitudes? I don't understand what we're to learn from this book.
ROBERTSPaul Butler, at the core of the discussion here has been the two portraits of Atticus Finch. And, of course, in some ways, your understanding of Atticus Finch is colored by our image of Gregory Peck as the embodiment on movies. But one of the reasons why "Mockingbird" continues to have such an enormous power, it's assigned, my grandkids have read it, you know, in middle school because of this portrait of him as a man of particular rectitude and honor.
ROBERTSBut that's not the portrait that comes through in "Watchman." Talk about the two Atticus Finchs and your reaction to them.
BUTLERSo I think "Watchman" has a more direct and honest perspective on race and especially on white people than "Mockingbird" does. And I actually don't see a big contrast between the Atticus Finch in the two books. The Finch character in "Mockingbird" reminds me of some of my white liberal friends, especially lawyers. They think they know what's best for African Americans and they want to save us, but on their own terms.
BUTLERIt's kind of a hero complex. So in "Mockingbird," Finch gets to try to save a black man, but then the civil rights movement happens. African Americans are trying to find their own destiny and that's going too far for Atticus, which we see in "Watchman." So when people say that Atticus is a racist in "Watchman," I think it obscures the way that he was a racist in "Mockingbird."
BUTLERRemember, he didn't even want to defend Tom Robinson. The judge appointed him. In "Mockingbird," he calls the Ku Klux Klan a terrorist organ -- I'm sorry. He calls it a political organization, not the terrorist organization that it is. And just with the black characters, they're much more fully developed in "Watchman." In "Mockingbird," the blacks are just symbols. Calpurnia, the housekeeper, she's just a politically correct mammy and Tom Robinson, who's the accused man, he's the object of our pity.
BUTLERSo he literally only speaks when Atticus tells him to so I think the African American characters are much more realistic. They're people, not symbols, in "Watchman."
ROBERTSMaureen, your take on this question of the two Atticus Finchs and in my reading of the book, Finch in "Watchman" is actually a fairly ambivalent character. Yes, he expresses a lot of the common racist feelings of the time, but he also is described as a man of the law and someone who would not be burning crosses, would not be an activist racist. Talk about your sense of Finch.
CORRIGANI'm surprised that you say that, Steve, because for one thing, Atticus is reading a book that's straight out of the eugenicist library. He's a believer in race theory. Scout, at one point, says to him, you're just like Goebbels and Hitler. So I don't really see him as this middle of the road guy. And one thing that I think makes him...
ROBERTSI didn't say middle of the road. I said I think there's an ambivalence. I don’t think he's a -- I don't think it's fair to describe him simply in terms as an out and out racist.
CORRIGANWell, I -- you and I disagree on that one and I think, given his reading material and his actions here and what he's saying to Scout, certainly -- through today's vision, I think he would be called a racist. I certainly take that away. The other thing about Atticus that seems to me a violation of his character from "Mockingbird" is that in "Mockingbird," he's his own man. You know, he's in that line of American characters who we revere, from Hawkeye to Sam Spade.
CORRIGANHe is his own man. He doesn't do what other people think he should do. Well, and here he's preaching this message to Scout of you have to go along to get along.
BUTLERWell, in "Mockingbird," he's his own man from the perspective of his 8-year-old daughter. When I was 8, I had a simpler understanding of my dad than I do as a grown man. I see flaws now that I didn't see then. That doesn't make me love him any less. It just turns out that he's a real person with real flaws. And, you know, I think of that song from the musical "Avenue Q," "Everybody's A Little Bit Racist."
BUTLERSo Atticus Finch is a racist, but that doesn't mean he's not capable of doing good things for individual African Americans. So, again, I think it's a more nuanced perspective and in that sense, this Finch is actually a better role model for white people because lots of white people have racist thought. Lots of people of all colors have some racist thoughts, but that doesn't mean that they're not capable of doing good.
CORRIGANRight. But he's on the board of directors of a citizens committee here. He just doesn't just have racist thoughts. He acts on those thoughts.
SHIELDSHe's very influential. Yes, he is. He's a leading citizen in that town, as goes Monroeville, you know, Mr. Lee has a great -- I'm sorry, Mr. Lee. Mr. Lee was the model for Atticus Finch.
ROBERTSHarper Lee's father.
SHIELDSYes, exactly, yeah. And, you know, as people like him, men like him go, so goes the town. So he represents an attitude which was common among respectable people. Ministers could quote biblical passages supporting segregation. As Atticus says, do you want black kids sitting on the bus with your children? You know, the NAACP is just waiting for something to happen and then they'll jump. They're afraid. They haven't moved much beyond reconstruction.
BUTLERAnd but we haven't now, either. I mean, I think if you ask many white people in D.C., do you want African American kids going to school with your kids, in limited numbers, yeah, but if -- to reflect, say, the population of D.C., which is 50 percent black, I don't think people want to send their kids to -- white people want to send their kids to schools that are 50 percent black. So when Atticus says, I think that Negros are still in their childhood as a people, I don't think that people would openly say that now, but I think a lot of people still think it.
SHIELDSWell, no, I very much agree and that brings up an important point about the book. Is it a literary event or is it a cultural event? Because it reminds us of where we were and where some of us still are today. But as a piece of literature, Maureen, you teach literature, you're a critic. What do you think?
ROBERTSWe're going to have to get Maureen's answer after we come back. We'll be back with a lot of your tweets, your emails and your phone calls so stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. For our August readers' review, the book "Go Set a Watchman," Harper Lee's novel, recently discovered novel, which has set huge sale records. And we've been talking with Charles Shields, who has written a biography of Harper Lee, Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air. Paul Butler teaches law at Georgetown.
ROBERTSI also want to ask you, Maureen, about another them. We've been focusing on race with good reason, but this book is not just about race. It's about a young woman who has left home, gone to New York. We don't have a good idea of what she does in New York, but part of what struck me was her vivid disconnect with the society she revisits, the scene where her aunt gives a coffee, and she tries to relate to the young women of her age, and she's totally disconnected from them.
ROBERTSAnd there's a sense of her, like almost any immigrant, who can't go home again. The immigrant experience has changed them, whether it's foreign immigration or going to the big city.
CORRIGANYes except she was always apart, and that's what she says a lot in this novel. The most poignant aspect of "Go Set a Watchman," in my reading experience and the literary value of it is located in Scout's character. And I'll just -- I'd like to just read a sentence or two from the book because Harper Lee keeps hitting this.
CORRIGANThis is -- we're in Scout's head or here called Jean-Louise. It had never fully occurred to Jean-Louise that she was a girl. Her life had been one of reckless pummeling, activity, fighting, football, climbing, keeping up with Jim and besting anyone her own age in any contest. She goes on to talk about giving lip service to the world as an adult woman but only being halfway there in terms of her clothes, even in terms of her, I think, sexual interest. I think you get a real portrait here of a young woman in the 1950s who doesn't conform to traditional gender roles, maybe even sexual orientation, and yet Harper Lee doesn't have the language yet, the society doesn't give her permission yet, to really fully explore that character.
CORRIGANI said in my review originally that I wish that she were alive today and that she could go to a production of "Fun Home" on Broadway and see the different possibilities available for women who don't conform.
ROBERTSBut there is, Charles Shields, a strong sense of aspiration, even if that aspiration is not fully realized given the times. I mean, the 1950s defined race relations, but it also defined feminism, as well, or the lack of it so that she was a creature of her times, in that sense, too. It wasn't just in terms of race. It was as a woman struggling to be independent.
SHIELDSWell, I don't get a sense of aspiration. In fact, at the end of the book, I got a sense of acquiescence. I got the feeling that by the end of the novel, she has realized that, well, this town's always going to be the way it is, and I don't want to cut these people off from my life, so I'm just going to go along. I don't see that she -- I don't see that she's going to change as a woman, either. In fact I think she's -- the book is full of a lot of anger about being a woman in that society. She comes through as an uncomfortable person, I think.
ROBERTSBut it's also clear she's not going to marry the boy back home, either.
SHIELDSRight, but we could discuss that. I think more of Harper Lee's sexuality comes through in this novel than she cares to.
ROBERTSYou agree with that, Paul?
BUTLERYeah, you know, I think again, it's a more realistic, nuanced version of Scout, as well, and she turns out to be a complicated person. It's almost like she's kind of -- life is kind of wearing her out, and it's kind of like moderating the full-fledged tomboy feminist that Scout was. Again, she doesn't even go by Scout as much anymore. Now she's more Jean-Louise.
ROBERTSOne other dimension of this story, and then I'm going to get to our emails and our callers. I've had several friends, relatives from the South say this is my story, that this journey to the North and to see the home, which they continue to revere on some level and from a sentimental view, from a personal view, and yet the shock of going back embodied, Maureen, by that moment where she discovers the pamphlet that her dad was reading. I've had more than one person say this is a very recognizable story to me.
CORRIGANAnd yet she doesn't feel at home in New York, either.
CORRIGANWhich is where she's heading when the novel ends. She says New York is too full of itself, it's too confident, it's too arrogant, it's too denigrating of the South. So where does this character belong? That's why she touches me, because there isn't a home in the world for her right now.
ROBERTSWere you surprised, Charles Shields, as a biographer that Harper Lee eventually did return to Monroeville? Now, I know it was after she had some illnesses and things, but...
SHIELDSWell, she returned regularly, even while she was in New York. She's always, as Maureen mentioned, she's always had one foot in the North and one in the South. She maintained an apartment in New York for six, eight months of the year, and then when the weather changed, she came down south to be in Monroeville and to help take care of her aged father.
ROBERTSLet me read some emails because a lot of people want to join our conversation in the readers' review. This from Kate, Paul Butler. I've read both books, and I liked "Watchman" best. Whatever the true order of the writing, it's a good sequel. It reveals the complicated times, the raw emotions and fear of change and the vision those changes brought to family and old friends of both races. The end was clearly, to me at least, Lee's call to stand on principle, to stay and fight for what was right even when it was hard, a powerful political book, incredibly appropriate for our challenging times. Your reaction to it? Kate.
BUTLERAbsolutely. So one of the continuities between the two books is their absolute cynicism about law. Both books view the law as an instrument of power, not justice. So in "Mockingbird," the jury trial is a legal lynching that results in the conviction of an innocent man. In "Watchman," the great civil rights case, Brown versus Board of Education, is seen as bad constitutional law, even by Scout. Scout sees it as this power play against the South.
BUTLERIt's kind of ironic that the character of Atticus Finch has inspired so many people to go to law school. And it's funny, I actually have a problem with that because people like Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown versus Board of Education, or Marian Wright Edelman, who leads the Children's Defense Fund, they're much better role models for what the law can achieve than a fictional character who didn't even win his case.
ROBERTSMaureen Corrigan, Judith writes to us. To me, growing up in Washington, D.C., in the '40s and '50s, then a sleepy, segregated Southern town, the racism Lee presents in "Watchman" is a pale expression of what actually existed at the time. So to me, it was not shocking in "To Kill A Mockingbird," Harper Lee presents her father Atticus as she wished he had been and maybe in some respects actually was but could not because of time and place.
CORRIGANYes, yeah. Well, I agree. I think the Atticus in "To Kill a Mockingbird" is an idealized figure. He's almost meant to be inspiring in that way. And I think, you know, we live in a time right now where we're very suspicious of people or characters who are meant to inspire.
ROBERTSBut also, as we mentioned earlier, when you talk about our cultural furniture, our vision of Atticus Finch is as much shaped by the movie as by the book and for many people even more so, right. I mean, people think of Atticus Finch, they imagine Gregory Peck. And that is part of how people are coming to terms with "Watchman," isn't it?
CORRIGANYeah, I mean, it would be interesting to think about who today would play Atticus if...
ROBERTSAt 72 years old, yeah, it's...
CORRIGANYeah, 72 years old, yeah, maybe Robert de Niro somehow could make the list. You know, we'd want somebody who was darker, who was more complicated, who was, you know, more in tune with our cynicism because we are more cynical.
ROBERTSInteresting. Charles Shields, Jarod writes, so there are not two books, just two drafts of a novel. Can you think of other cases where a preliminary draft of a novel was mass-marketed and widely reviewed?
SHIELDSWell, it's most authors' worst fear that what...
ROBERTSOr highest dream. I mean, you can go both ways, right?
SHIELDSWell, it's no coincidence that Dickens had a bonfire in his backyard and then burned manuscripts. And Henry James wrote to all of his friends, saying please return my letters. You know, we saw what happened with Hemingway after he passed away with "Islands in the Stream." Yeah, there -- it is two different books, but I am convinced that if Harper Lee's name were not on the cover, and you didn't flip it open and see Atticus inside, it never would've come to light.
ROBERTSAre you convinced that she gave permission for its publication?
ROBERTSGiven the fact that, as you point out, other authors have made bonfires of earlier works?
SHIELDSI think so. You know, it might be a little bit of sibling rivalry, too. Her elder sister Alice never wanted the book to come out because it's an unflattering portrait of her father. And Ms. Lee, Alice Lee, passed away in November at 103, and the lo and behold, two months later we found a book.
ROBERTSStacy writes, Maureen Corrigan, I've had a hard time wanting to read it. Though I've had a copy for a month, not sure I want to see "Mockingbird" ruined.
CORRIGANI don't know that I would advise people to read it who love "Mockingbird," you know.
CORRIGANMaybe for the same reason that I don't advise people to read "Trimalchio" who loved "The Great Gatsby." It's -- and "Trimalchio" is an earlier version of "Gatsby," where we don't have Nick Carraway as the narrator. It's different. It's not as good in terms of a literary product, and yes, it's a very different picture that we get of Atticus that -- you know, I kind of bristle a little bit about when we reduce Atticus to just this one-dimensional character in "To Kill A Mockingbird."
CORRIGANI don't think that there's necessarily anything wrong with these literary characters who inspire, even though we know they're not that realistic.
BUTLERWell, the point is that people with flaws can still inspire us. So I'm still inspired by Atticus Finch. In fact I'm more inspired because he seems more realistic. He seems more like the white folks that I know, who again may have some racist beliefs but are capable of doing enormous good.
ROBERTSLet me read from Jenny Nelson here, it's interesting, from McCredie, North Carolina. Yesterday's program on political correctness feeds seamlessly in through the discussion of Harper Lee and racism for me. One year when I taught "To Kill A Mockingbird," I asked the class how we wanted to handle the N-word as I read aloud. Most felt that I should say the N-word, but my lone African-American student said never mind, I'll just read it like it is, you pause.
ROBERTSI did and he did, without missing a beat. He owned that word. Finally in a very poignant part of the novel, after Tom Robinson's death, he couldn't read it anymore. Jeremy loved Atticus. I wonder what he would've thought of "Go Set A Watchman." What do you think, Paul, a reaction?
BUTLERYou know, it's tough to read the N-word over and over again and read some of those abhorrent thoughts, but again, I think it's real. I do have a problem, though, with the way that "Mockingbird" is presented as the great American race novel. It's a book written by a white person from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl about how her father heroically tried to save a black man. I think if people really wanted to understand race, I would nominate a novel by Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich or Alice Walker, not necessarily "To Kill A Mockingbird."
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Since this is a readers' review, be more specific. When you talk about -- I'd like all of you to answer this question. If this is not the great American race novel, for you what's a novel that some -- a listener should pick up to have a deeper, more authentic sense of this? Give us just one of your favorite books.
BUTLERToni Morrison's "Song of Solomon," just an incredible book, lyrical in a way that "Watchman" is not, that "Mockingbird" approached. But nobody gets race in an interior, kind of feminist, intersectional perspective like Toni Morrison and just lays it out so beautifully and at the same time tells stories. There's a scene in another one of her books where her daughter of an older black woman says, mom, why didn't you play with us when we were kids. And the old black woman says, wasn't nobody playing in 1922. So powerful.
ROBERTSSure, Maureen, what's your favorite?
CORRIGANSteve, every novel that we nominate as the great American novel, with perhaps the exception of "Gatsby," is about race. That's our great American subject. Even "Moby Dick" is about race. So "Moby Dick," Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" is a masterpiece. It's harder to read. You know, it's loaded with symbols. But I think I would nominate that if I just had to choose one as an alternative to "Mockingbird."
ROBERTSCharles Shields, what would you read?
SHIELDSI think "Black Boy" by Richard Wright," that meant a lot to me, or "Down These Mean Streets" by Piri Thomas, that really hit me powerfully as a young man.
ROBERTSI remember that book. Let's talk to some of our callers now, and Pat in Dayton, Ohio, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show" Welcome.
PATThank you. I have a little perspective on teaching this book. I taught 36 years to high school freshmen, and I taught this to social studies and English students who were training to be teachers at a nearby university. I did that for 12 years plus, 10-plus, I've taught workshops for teachers, and I always included "Mockingbird." The interesting thing was when I had freshmen, they idolized, as they should have because it was -- he was pictured as the ideal father, Atticus, and I think the movie greatly influenced the mother-daughter dynamic but particularly the father-daughter dynamic, which was just beautiful.
PATThen my student teachers, who were more diverse, were really quite upset. They didn't see Atticus as being very real. They said this is the white man's view of justice. When I taught it to teachers, they said, well, you know, this does not reflect society. So I think "Mockingbird" is what we want the law to look like, but I think in "Go Set A Watchman," as Uncle Jack says to Scout, to Jean-Louise, you know, your father (unintelligible) . And I think again, you know, he says, I'm proud of you, Scout, you stood up for your beliefs.
PATSo I think we have a truer version in "Go Set a Watchman" of what the political times were like, really a political unison between father and daughter standing up for what they believe in. So I think we have an idealized relationship, and I think we have a real relationship between the two books. Wish I were still teaching university. I would love to teach these books together now, in light of what has happened with Black Lives Matter. Thank you.
ROBERTSThank you, Pat. Paul Butler, what's your reaction to Pat's call?
BUTLERI think she's right. You know, when I was reading this book, I was thinking about the last time I was on the Diane Rehm Show, and we were talking about the Confederate flag issue, when a woman called who said that she was a big liberal, but she wanted to honor her Confederate ancestors. And I said that I didn't respect those people who fought to preserve slavery.
BUTLERSo one of the issues in this book is, how do we deal with the legacy of white supremacy and racism? And how should we feel about people who hold those beliefs but are related to us?
ROBERTSPaul Butler is at Georgetown Law School. I'm Steve Roberts. We'll be right back with more calls and questions. Be with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. It's our August readers' review. The book is "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee. Charles Shields is with me. He's written a biography of Harper Lee. Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, Paul Butler from the Georgetown Law School. And let me go to Mike in St. Louis, Missouri. He has a question that a lot of our readers have. So please go ahead, Mike, you're on the air.
MIKEHi Steve. Are you there?
ROBERTSYeah, I'm -- please go on, go ahead.
MIKEOkay, good. I didn't hear the -- okay. So I'm about your age, I guess, I'm almost 69. I'm fairly well-read in real stuff, not well-read in novels, and I missed a lot of good ones like "To Kill A Mockingbird," and people always just are shocked that I haven't read it yet. But if I were to read one or the other, which one should I read first? And should I -- or should I just read one?
ROBERTSAs I say, a lot of people have that question, Maureen?
CORRIGANI think you should read "To Kill A Mockingbird" first because you don't really care about these characters unless you know them from "To Kill A Mockingbird." That's my vote.
SHIELDSExactly. I think emotionally you'll never to "To Kill A Mockingbird" if you start with "Watchman." But I think you'll have that sense, that falling-off sense, and the scales falling from your eyes, so to speak, as a reader and as an American, if you read "To Kill A Mockingbird" and then you read "Watchman," and it's food for thought.
BUTLERI think if you're interested in African-Americans who have lives outside of the service of white people or being helped by white people, you've got to read "Watchman" because in "To Kill A Mockingbird," again, you don't have real African-American characters. We have more symbols, almost cartoons.
ROBERTSAnd here's a companion question from Ann in Chevy Chase. Ann, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
ANNHi, I read "To Kill A Mockingbird" to my nine- and 11-year-old, and they loved it. It was nice for them because it was a connection to my father, who passed away. It was his favorite book. And I -- they really want me to read this next book to them, and I'm just not sure whether or not it's appropriate or worth it.
ROBERTSMaureen, what do you think?
CORRIGANOh God. I think I'd wait a couple of years and let them read it for themselves. Everybody is going to read it. You can't read "To Kill A Mockingbird" anymore without reading at least excerpts from this book.
ROBERTSI have a 14-year-old grandson who read "To Kill A Mockingbird" in middle school and is now reading "Watchman." Now that's 14. Seven, nine is a little young, but I think at 14 he certainly is old enough to grasp it. Let's -- let me read some other emails. No one, writes Angela Myoto (PH), no one has mentioned Uncle Jack, another character in the book, who plays an important role in this book, who I found to be in some ways a hero. He was very lovable, also forthright and blunt. He clearly loves his niece, adores her really.
ROBERTSHe helped Jean-Louise to see that she had to see her father as a real person and not as a figure of reverence and untouchable. Talk about that particular dimension of the book, Charles Shields, because it is an important theme in the book.
SHIELDSRight. In "Watchman," Uncle Jack makes the case for the old South. He says, for example, Jean-Louise, he said dryly, not much more than five percent of the South's population ever saw a slave, much less owned one. Now something must have irritated the other 95 percent, don't you think? And what he's talking about is the cause of the Civil War, and he trots out the states' rights argument and all those things.
SHIELDSUncle Jack, in "Watchman," is the apologist, the Southern apologist. And in "To Kill A Mockingbird," he -- I think he's just kind of Scout's -- or Atticus' brother, who casts doubt on the whole idea of defending a black man and what it might do to his children. He's a much deeper character in "Watchman."
ROBERTSBut as you -- we were talking earlier, Maureen, one of the important themes here is Scout's, Jean-Louise's coming to terms with her father from the girl of "Mockingbird" who idolizes him to seeing him in a much more real and adult way and that Uncle Jack, in some ways, helps her make that transition.
CORRIGANYeah, and again, you only care about that theme of disillusionment if you know about her idealization of her father from the first book. I find Uncle Jack a very tedious character from a literary standpoint.
CORRIGANAny time you need a speech, Uncle Jack is going to give it to you, whether it's states' rights or the fine points of the Methodist worship service. Uncle Jack is going to preach to you.
ROBERTSBut this is one of the flaws in this book as a novel right? You were making that point earlier, Charles Shields.
ROBERTSIn many ways, it's more important as a cultural artifact, but as a novel, it's a young novel without a lot of the polish and structure of an accomplished novelist.
SHIELDSIt's largely without art. It's highly autobiographic, memoiristic, and it's her story, the author's story, but I don't think that it takes us many place.
ROBERTSGo ahead, Paul.
BUTLERBut still some super-powerful scenes. So my favorite is when Scout has gone to visit Calpurnia, the African-American housekeeper who raised her. Calpurnia is now retired. She's ailing. Her grandson's been arrested for murder. She hasn't seen Scout for a long time, and Scout gets mad because Calpurnia is treating her like a stranger, not like the mother figure she represented to Scout. And finally Scout asks her...
ROBERTSScout, of course, whose mother had died very young. So Calpurnia played a special role for that young girl.
BUTLERExactly, so she can't get why Calpurnia is being so distant now. And so finally she asks, did you hate us. And just two sentences. The old woman sat silent, bearing the burden of her years. Jean-Louise waited. Finally, Calpurnia shook her head. And the reason that scene is so powerful to me is because it communicates that work, for African-Americans, often requires a kind of performance, where you have to act friendly to your white superiors.
BUTLERIt's an implicit part of the job description, and it serves to disarm people's racial insecurities, but it doesn't mean that you're actually friends. I have had many people in my family who have been in service positions for white folks, and they've had to act like that. But white people don't really treat them like they're part of the family, and they know that. And so when whites think that these people love us, all that means is that these African-Americans are just really good actors.
SHIELDSIsn't it remarkable that this seems to be the first time that Jean-Louise is seeing Calpurnia? I mean, she's been in the house for 20-some years, and she sees her in her own home and sees her as a woman. I just, I find that -- I agree with you. It's one of the best scenes in the entire book.
BUTLERAs a woman with five kids, four or five kids of her own.
SHIELDSAnd who was taking care of them?
BUTLERExactly, but that -- but that's so real. That's so real. That's the story of a lot of white people in the South.
ROBERTSIsn't it also true that a lot of whites in that situation would be surprised at your description, that the blacks they felt that they had a real relationship were just acting?
BUTLERI'm sure they would be surprised, but again, it shouldn't be breaking news. If someone's taking care of your kids all day, and you know they have kids of their own, there's got to be some resentment, right. But I think it's important to understand that when we talk about people...
ROBERTSBut there also is a possibility of real affection, too.
BUTLERThere's both, and again, I think that Cal did have some affection for her -- her charge, her employer, in a sense, Scout and Atticus. But in the movie, I went and watched the movie to prepare for this, and there's so many scenes in which Cal is just silent. There are scenes in which Atticus comes into a room and greets everybody but her. Again, that's real, and if you think that African-Americans and Latinas don't notice that and don't feel that, then you're wrong.
ROBERTSLet me turn to Jasmine in Atlanta, Georgia. Jasmine, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JASMINEHi, thank you. I was just calling because I heard the comments that we should maybe look to Richard Wright or Toni Morrison to get a more -- a less romanticized view of racism and what the race conversation is like from the African-American point of view. And I just caution all of the listeners, as well as the authors on your panel, because many of those are also romanticized views of race.
JASMINEYou know, Richard Wright went through an ostracization from the Harlem Renaissance because of his views and, you know, wasn't really in the African-American community, per se. And many, you know, womanists, feminists, have -- take issue with Toni Morrison's books, you know, "Son of Solomon" or "The Bluest Eye" because as an African-American woman, I never wanted to have a white doll or blue eyes, and I don't necessarily want that image to be out there, that all African-American women are longing for this.
JASMINEAnd so it's -- there's romanticized narratives in these tales, and they're beautiful stories, but we have to keep in mind that they're not critical analysis, and it's an American -- race is really an American issue, and it is from all sides, and we can't say that it can only be told by African-Americans. That's a very slippery slope there.
ROBERTSWhat book would you recommend?
JASMINEI would recommend Zora Neale Hurston's "Go Tell My Horse." She spent some time in Jamaica and the West Indies, and she wrote about her experiences in the Diaspora and then her renewed view on race when she returned to the States after her time abroad.
ROBERTSOkay, thanks for the call, we appreciate it. Charles, have you got a reaction to Jasmine's call?
SHIELDSWell, trying to put the onus of explaining race onto any particular group of people is just a zero-sum game. I think it's the interactions like these, that we're having today, that help us elucidate the complexity of these issues. It's hard to tap anybody on the shoulder and say he has it right, or she has it right. This is a very diverse country, and to our credit, I think that we're willing to address these things head-on.
ROBERTSAnd the experience of race is not one experience.
BUTLERAnd it's not only an African-American experience. It's a white experience, as well, right. White people have a race, they're white, and that means a whole lot. So I think it's wholly appropriate for white people to write about race and especially to write about white people and their experience with whiteness. I think there does have to be some concern to get the perspective of the minority, the Latina, the African-American, the native, correct.
ROBERTSWe have a number of listeners, Maureen, who have posed similar questions, that says basically how could the same person have written both of these books since they're so different.
CORRIGANOh my God, well, as Charles mentioned, I mean, there are so many earlier novels written by great authors that you read them, and you say my God, thank God this thing didn't see the light of day. And again, I go back to "Trimalchio," which was a first draft of "Gatsby." It's a very sluggish read. So...
ROBERTSSo what are you -- are you saying that what you're seeing -- what explains the two is an author maturing, growing, becoming more in command of her craft, that that helps explain this comment?
CORRIGANSomething certainly goes on where Harper Lee, with the aid of her editor, knows how to tell a story much better, knows how to construct a dramatic story much better than I think she does in "Go Set A Watchman."
ROBERTSSo to you it's not impossible to imagine the same author writing both of these?
CORRIGANNo, although I'm fond of the conspiracy theory that somebody stuck this manuscript into the safety deposit box.
CORRIGANAnd, you know, just figured this would be a way to make a lot of money for a lot of people.
BUTLERExcept that I think if we accept that Harper Lee is a feminist, a strong woman, then we have to give her some agency in this publication, that she okayed it, which meant that she wanted it to be published. And I dare say that she wouldn't see the inconsistency in the two characters that a lot of other people see. We've got to keep in mind what it meant to be a white liberal in the '50s in the South. That didn't mean you were opposed to Jim Crow. It just meant you wanted a kinder, gentler kind of segregation.
CORRIGANBut do we know how much agency she had at this age? There are varying accounts of her state of mind and her state of health. I don't know that we know that.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. You're the biographer. What do you think, Charles?
SHIELDSWell, about agency, there is controversy about whether or not she wanted this book to be published, whether she's in mental condition to allow it to be published. But I'm struck by some of the remarks here, that she -- these books are two sides of the same person, who is authentic and an individual who doesn't look over her shoulder for approval. I am more enamored of the narrator, the personality, than I am of the two books, in fact.
ROBERTSLet me -- time for perhaps one more caller, and Lannon, Houston, Texas, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
LANNONGood morning, thank you for having me, and thank you for this very thoughtful conversation. Interestingly, I think they answered one of my comments just in the last couple of minutes, as far as giving Harper Lee a bye on this, considering it was her first novel. She obviously honed her skills with the second. The question that I wanted to pose is a scenario, if in an ideal world.
LANNONEarlier, there was a mention about who would play Atticus today if there was a movie being made. They mentioned Robert de Niro. What I'd like to propose to the panelists is to imagine is if Gregory Peck, being the penultimate actor, character actor that he is, if he were alive and able to reprise his role today in the new movie as Atticus, what they feel like his portrayal would be. And I'll hang up and listen to the answers. Thank you so much for having me.
ROBERTSThanks. Anybody got a reaction? Go ahead, Charles.
SHIELDSI think he'd be much less sure of himself. I think he would be wary, like the character in "Watchman." I think that he was much younger and idealistic in the 1930s, when he's defending Tom Robinson. Now they're on -- the South is on the cusp of the civil rights movement and social change, and I think he's an old man who'd like to pass the baton.
BUTLERMy dad was an actor, and he liked playing real people. He didn't like playing symbols. So I think that the Atticus Finch in "Watchman" is a better role for an actor because it's more human.
ROBERTSFinal question, Paul Butler. You mentioned you were on the Diane Rehm Show earlier, a few weeks ago, when we talked about the Confederate flag issue. Quickly, all of the reactions to this novel, is it particularly striking to you that it comes this summer, when the whole issue of the Confederate flag has been so much on people's minds?
BUTLERAbsolutely. So there's all this, again, concern about racial heritage, both in terms of, like, white folks from the South, you know, what do they do with the fact that the people who they love, some of them were slaveholders, a lot of them supported slavery, some of them, you know, participated in Jim Crow. So how do we reckon with this history of race? And then the whole idea about Black Lives Matter and the ways that African-Americans are -- young folks are being activist now.
BUTLERYou know, there's a scene in "Mockingbird" where the African-American prisoner, he runs away, and he's shot by the jailor, supposedly because he was running away. Now, no one would believe that. They'd say, oh, they just shot him because, you know, it was a racist act.
ROBERTSPerhaps we could say that Scout would favor taking down the Confederate flag, and Atticus would not. Maybe that is what the legacy means. Terrific conversation, Charles Shields, author of a biography of Harper Lee, Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, Paul Butler of the Georgetown Law School. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. She'll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.
Most Recent Shows
Trump impeachment witness Fiona Hill on what her own background says about this political moment, and why she thinks the greatest threat to American democracy now comes from within.
Cities and states across the country are exploring reparations programs for Black Americans, but not all reparations advocates think it's the right approach. Diane talks to Mayor Daniel Biss of Evanston, Ill., and William Darity, Jr., and Kirsten Mullen, the co-authors of the book, "From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century”
The New Yorker's Evan Osnos traces the roots of divisions in the U.S. from 9/11 to January 6. His new book is "Wildland: The Making of America's Fury."