Mr. Roth, Mr. Melville & Mr. Trump

We hadn’t thought about Philip Roth in some years, so it was with some delight, and a few misgivings, that we ran into him recently in the pages of The New Yorker (Jan. 30 issue). Actually it was just a Philip Roth e-mail, or portions of e-mails, extracted for a Talk of the Town “casual” by Judith Thurman. 

Thurman had sent a note to the 83-year-old Roth because she wanted to pick his brains on the only subject anyone wants to talk about these days, Our New President. Some years back Roth wrote a darkly satirical fantasy, The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh gets into the White House and commences a pro-Nazi regime, complete with Nuremberg-style laws restricting the Jews. (The whole concept sounds like a lurid exercise in Jewish paranoia, but Roth mostly got around that by telling it as faux-autobiography, thereby making such paranoia the implicit theme of the book.)

The big question the interviewer posed here was, approximately: Do you see a parallel here between the fictional President Lindbergh and Donald Trump, who seemed to echo Lindbergh with his calls for “America First” in his Inaugural address?

Roth’s answer was scathing on the subject of Trump. He said he much preferred Lindbergh, who—quoting Roth’s reply here—“despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed great physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance . . . Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’”

There is so much shallow glibness in this reply that it’s probably easiest to begin by pointing out a couple of factual errors. Like a bumptious, conceited grad student, Roth cites an obscure Melville novel and suggests it’s a prophetic allegory about Donald Trump. The problem here is, Roth almost certainly never read The Confidence-Man past its title. Because it is actually not the tale of a flim-flam artist who seduces a gullible public, as Roth apparently imagines. It’s an experimental, absurdist, rather self-indulgent exercise, with only a scant semblance of a plot. Set on a Mississippi steamboat, it describes a vast array of passengers, depicting a cross-section of American “types” of the 1850s. Some of them are snake-oil salesmen or charity-hucksters, others are eager investors looking looking for get-rich-quick schemes. Moving among them is a nameless character who changes his disguise from chapter to chapter. 

The full title of the novel is The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, and the title character’s shape-shifting is the real point of the story, inasmuch as it has one. Whatever else one thinks of Donald Trump, he is the diametrical opposite of a mysterious shape-shifter. One of the oddest and most striking things about Trump, in fact, is how little his persona has changed in forty years of public life. You have to figure Roth just found the name, “The Confidence-Man” too good to resist. If it wasn’t a book about a Trump-like character, then it should be. Few people would be the wiser.

Roth’s other blunder was calling the book Melville’s last novel, which is not quite true, unless you leave out the far better known and posthumously published Billy Budd.

Roth’s snooty, false erudition in the field of American literature is much of a piece with his cartoony ideas about President Trump. He levels at Trump every tiresome insult, every dismissive characterization that Washington Post columnists and cable-news commentators have been reciting since Trump first entered the political arena. As in his comparison of Trump with Lindbergh, Roth tries hard to appear fair and judicious by mentioning other Republican Presidents he didn’t like but weren’t nearly as bad as Trump:

I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.

He follows this with a dire warning that the Trump Administration may lead to “a genuine assault upon [writers’] rights” in “a country drowning in Trump’s river of lies.”

Roth’s philippic against President Trump has nothing new or insightful in it. It would read like the ravings of a senile madman if we hadn’t already seen this sort of thing, time after time, in a hundred other places. What’s noteworthy here is that Roth is a not a political columnist, or someone with unique insight into Donald Trump, yet he’s eager to recite the main talking-points of the extreme anti-Trump factions, as well as embellish them with whatever random insults come to mind. Trump is ignorant; he knows no art or history or philosophy; he is indecent, threatens freedom of speech, and lies unceasingly. In all likelihood no one’s ever quizzed Mr. Trump on his knowledge of art or history or philosophy. These are just rote denunciations, decoupled from any need for factual basis, and considered beyond challenge. Mere ritualistic signaling that one belongs to Anti-Trump Party . 

There is a paradox here. In his long literary career (c. 1959-2009) Roth’s persona was that of a cranky controversialist who wouldn’t follow the herd and never feared to offend. At the start of his career, his closely observed stories of middle-class Jews were thought to be too revealing, bad PR for the Jewish people. Effectively “anti-Semitic,” in fact: an accusation that dogged Roth for decades. His most successful novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), set the bar for bestselling raunch, combining an obscene sex satire with a manic, breathless, interminable parody of a Jewish stand-up-comic act.

The Jews in The Plot Against America (2004) are transgressive in yet another way. Based on his family and neighbors in Newark, New Jersey, c. 1940, they are flawed, weak, full of denial, hoping to find a way to accommodate themselves to the new Nazi-sympathizing government of President Lindbergh. There’s even a Conservative rabbi who attaches himself to the Lindbergh regime, cajoling his fellow Jews to put their fears at ease. In his e-mails to the New Yorker’s Thurman, Roth explained that he didn’t conceive the book as a “warning,” rather he was just trying to imagine realistically how his family and those around him might have behaved in such a situation. “I wanted to imagine how we would have fared, which meant I had first to invent an ominous American government that threatened us.”  

As it happens, the invented political history is mostly claptrap, full of unlikely plot twists that scarcely work even within the context of a fantasy. Charles Lindbergh might conceivably have become a GOP nominee and even President someday, but not in 1940. (He didn’t even enter the public arena as spokesman for the America First Committee until 1941.) Moreover, even Roth could see that the notion of Lindbergh as a full-on Nazi-sympathizer was a bit much. Accordingly the author  “lampshaded” his way out of that problem by offering the harebrained explanation that Lindbergh was being blackmailed all along. The Nazis had kidnapped his infant son, it seems, and they were holding the boy hostage in order to force Lucky Lindy to implement a Final Solution in America.

Historical-political imagination is not Roth’s long suit. This comes out clearly at the end of the e-mail interview, when Thurman asks him “how Trump threatens us.” Having given that rich litany of anti-Trump clichés earlier, Roth now comes up almost blank. He offers the feeblest, most shopworn worry in the book: “What is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”

Metapolitics of Swift and Trump

swift-trump(Note: This is the original, largely uncorrected draft of a piece I wrote for Dec 13, 2016.)

Future historians will be endlessly fascinated by the intertwined media phenomena of Taylor Swift and Donald Trump during 2015-2016. The parallels and symbiosis of the two have been noted by many, particularly in the precincts of Twitter and the Alt Right, although no one’s ever studied the thing in depth.

A couple of weeks back the online Haaretz led off with a “glossary of the alt-right“—all in all, an impressively balanced and informed compendium. And right there in the header graphic you had Taylor Swift, Steve Bannon, and Pepe the Frog as leading icons of what Haaretz deigns to call the “Trumpist Alt-right” [sic].

But alas, the glossary’s author didn’t care to dig into subtextual ties between Taylor and Trumpistry, preferring instead to fall back upon the shallow explanation that Alt Righters admire Tay Tay for her “Aryan appearance.”

This just won’t do. The similarities between the pair, arguably the two most recognizable celebrities of the current epoch, are legion. They begin with a fierce self-creation, both in career success and self-presentation: each with a tightly crafted visual persona—simple, iconic, and ever-so-slightly eccentric.

As seen in Haaretz

As seen in Haaretz

We can move on from that to their insistence on following personal, quirky, seemingly counter-intuitive ideas that nobody else liked. What could more obscure and disastrous than naming your pop-music album and world tour “1989,” simply because that was the year you were born? What could be more outlandish than the idea of Donald Trump running for President? Surely that is the self-indulgent pipe-dream of an aging tycoon who’s willing to part with his money and will drop out before he gets to New Hampshire?

And of course the mad ideas worked.

Taylor Swift came down from her sell-out 1989 World Tour a year ago. Her audiences exceeded 100,000 if the venue was big enough. For 2016 she is the world’s highest-earning “artist” ($170 million). She enjoyed levels of media saturation hitherto unknown even to pop entertainers, unless you want to go back to the Beatles in 1964. It’s a sustained exposure that has been surpassed these past 18 months only by one Donald J. Trump.

With her colossal crowds, instant recognizability, meme-ability, and fan-devotion, Taylor was a metapolitical advance-act for Donald Trump, softening up the public for Trumpamerica by reminding people that there is an alternative to degeneracy and civil strife. And that alternative is not a hopeless, mawkish nostalgia, as the lefty press likes to carp, but a real, achievable goal, one that Donald Trump was both praised and mocked for articulating in simple words. Make America Great Again? It means a corrective rebuilding of a society that has crumbled and slipped away from us in just the last few decades.

A Land Safe for Heroes

For most of Taylor Swift’s career her songs and performances have been an evocation of an ur-wholesome America. A high-trust place where people don’t lock their front doors, and where nonwhites are even rarer than at Trump rallies. A Norman Rockwell-ish land where there are few disasters or tragedies bigger than an unrequited adolescent crush. Even after Taylor bought a vast loft in Manhattan in 2014, and led off her new album with a techno-beat paean to the Freedom and Diversity of the city (“Welcome to New York”), she seemed to be singing about the manicured and malled-over Safest City in America, where “racial minorities” could connote nothing more threatening than gay black chorus boys. The New York of Donald Trump and Taylor Swift, in other words; not the endless slum of The French Connection (1971).

Still largely a fantasy, perhaps, but you don’t have stroll for long in Midtown these days to see that the sidewalks are clogged with tourists photographing themselves at Trump Tower. When was the last time tourists visited Manhattan mainly to see a skyscraper? And they don’t ask you if these streets are safe at night, or if they’ll get mugged going into Central Park. It feels secure. This is the land of Trump and Taylor.

Everything Has Changed

Everything Has Changed

This idealized, non-threatening America is well depicted in Taylor’s 2013 song/video collaboration with the English-Irish singer Ed Sheeran, Everything Has Changed, from the Red album A memory of unfulfilled childhood romance, set in and around an elementary school in some bucolic exurbia. The singing duo are depicted in flashback by grade-school lookalikes, and most of the other pupils are likewise towheads and gingers. Significantly this isn’t set in some long-ago past—Sheeran and Swift would after all have been those little kids around 1999. This is the near-present. Subtext: guilelessness and wholesomeness are neither distant nor irretrievable.

Race and culture became an overt issue in Taylor videos in only the last couple of years, via the brilliant work of her best-known director, “Joseph Kahn.” Kahn is his Hollywood name; he’s actually a Korean-American called Ahn Jun-hee. He jokes darkly that Koreans are now an endangered species “like pandas” because they have the world’s lowest fertility.

Maybe that existential worry is just sheer coincidence, but it was with Kahn that Taylor videos got attacked for their implicit “racism.” Wildest Dreams from 2015 got called an “African Colonial Fantasy” by The Guardian, because it dared to conjure up a posh white life, circa 1950, on the plains of Kenya—a Kenya that has lots of giraffes but somehow no black people. 2014’s Shake It Off was said to “perpetuate racist stereotypes” because it featured a chorus line of colored girls energetically twerking in ghetto earrings and denim cutoffs.

taylor-do-not-compareGoddess and God-Emperor

As with Donald Trump, sniping against the Swift enterprise passed very quickly from innuendo to outright accusation during 2015-16. In both cases this was speeded along by their legions of alt-right and white-nationalist Twitter fans, who found that two most recognizable faces in the world were supremely adaptable to any number of visual “memes.”

Most of these images were so broad and silly it was near-impossible to mistake them as anything other than gags. For example, the endless series of pictures with “motivational” quotations attributed to Taylor Swift but actually from Adolf Hitler. Similarly with the manic, fun-loving embrace of Andrew Anglin’s Daily Stormer (“Aryan Goddess Taylor Swift—Nazi Avatar of the White European People“). This looked just like something out of the 1970s National Lampoon, and did Taylor no more harm than the factitious froth endlessly concocted by Bonnie Fuller’s Hollywood Life, or Camille Paglia’s denunciation of her a year ago as a “Nazi Barbie.”

No one took the “Aryan Goddess” trope seriously. For all but the most deluded paranoids, hearing the thump of jackboots behind the lyrics of “Blank Space” was just too much of a stretch. This was true even after Breitbart News ran a lighthearted piece in May 2016 (largely cribbed from two Counter-Currents articles) about Taylor Swift’s mystique among the Alt Right. And it continued to be true even after the Breitbart article was further sliced, diced, and echoed through Slate, Vice, the NY Daily News, and even the Washington Post. Her lawyer did eventually write a cease-and-desist letter or two to those pushing the Taylor-Hitler memes, and Taylor eventually changed her public profile just a little bit. Mainly, she lowered it and said almost nothing about any media stir, while the showbiz press struggled to make news out of her breakup with one boyfriend, her new liaison with another, and some indecipherable feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Through summer and fall came the headlines:

Taylor Swift Hiding — Her Plans To Stay Out Of Spotlight. (Hollywood Life)

Taylor Swift Comes Out Of Hiding (i.e., she sings at a birthday party). (MTV)

What Is Taylor Swift Hiding? (Jezebel)

Washington Post‘s “Taylor Comes Out of Hiding” story arrived last week (December 9, 2016) and speculated idly on why she suddenly released her first song in many months, noting that it was a contribution for a soundtrack to a very kinky sequel to the film Fifty Shades of Grey:

[W]hy did the calculatedly prim star decide to contribute to a movie based on a best-selling erotica series that delves into the finer points of sadomasochism? 

Even for WaPo, this was a particularly insipid attempt at sensationalism, hardly even worth calling Fake News. It appears Taylor contributed a song because she was asked to, and because collaborator Zayn Malik happens to be the boyfriend of Taylor’s comrade, the half-Dutch, half-Palestinian model Gigi Hadid.

Anyway, the “Aryan Goddess” controversy now appears to be dead (Haaretz graphic notwithstanding), buried under the sedimentary layers of unmemorable gossip.

Funny Meme

Funny Meme

Donald Trump did not fare so well. The paranoids looked at his support among the hard-right, and flew into the same kind of panic we saw last month when a few Roman salutes were thrown at the NPI conference. Except they were panicking every single day—for months—always finding some excuse to become newly unhinged.

The satire in Twitter memes completely threw them. The anti-Trump partisans couldn’t grasp that Donald Trump is a Very Funny Guy. Nor could they even figure out what Funny is. They tried creating their own anti-Trump memes (Google them!) but never got the hang of them. All they could think of was Donald Trump Racist. Donald Trump Orange Face. Donald Trump Funny Hair.

Sad Meme

Sad Meme

They got Alec Baldwin, a talented comic actor not unlike Trump in build, to spoof Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, but the caricature lacked depth and wit. Donald Trump is simply a much funnier guy, defying broad parody.

As Trump would tweet: “Sad!”

Nor could the anti-Trumpians comprehend healthy self-mockery on the part of Trump enthusiasts who spoke of “The God Emperor” or “The Trumpenführer.” The anti-Trumpians heard, and may have literally believed, that these terrifying “Trumpkins” really truly believed Donald Trump was a God. An Emperor. (Who would be a Führer…and they think that’s a good thing!)

Five weeks after the election, the Alt Right and “racist” taint still colors the press coverage of Donald Trump. He’s President-Elect, and sensationalism from six or eight months ago is not about to get wiped away by showbiz gossip from hollywoodlife.com or US magazine. But there are some interesting parallels between Trump and Taylor’s press-management. Much to the dismay of fervent supporters, Donald Trump has been adding suspicious-looking power-brokers from Goldman Sachs to his administration’s upper tier. There’s Treasury Secretary appointee Steven Mnuchin, and National Economic Council director-appointee Gary Cohn. Obviously he’s putting them in there in order to discourage Wall Street from sinking the economy in the early months of a controversial administration. Still, Mnuchin and Cohn look like the kind of guys a Clinton or Obama would put in, so some Trump partisans, particularly Alt Right ones, are mighty disheartened. (Perhaps Mnuchin and Cohn will be gone in a year or so; first-year Treasury and economic appointees tend to have a short shelf-life.)

You can detect the same kind of thing going in the ephemeral news on Taylor Swift. In recent months she been collaborating with, and seen in the company of, a black rapper named Drake, and the aforementioned Mr. Malik, a half-Pakistani from Britain. Inevitably the press has made lip-smacking, prurient suggestions. USA Today asks: Are Drake and Taylor Swift Dating—or Just Trolling Us? It’s decidedly the latter, with the emphasis on trolling. Another unlikely story making the rounds is that Taylor’s next album would be hip-hop, or something with an “urban” (black) vibe. As in the case of the President-Elect Trump, many devotées are appalled that such things could even be joked about.

The Master Trollers

Both Donald Trump and Taylor Swift are proficient trolls. Or, to give it more gravitas, they are top-tier masters in the art of PR management and control of their personal image. They work the media, and they know social media. They know you can throw the press a dubious story, and the press will take the bait, and stop poking around about other things.

For weeks the President-Elect tamed the press rowdies by keeping them focused on a lead that any clearheaded person knew was a dead-end. That was the strange premise that Mitt Romney could truly, seriously become Secretary of State. Trump invited Romney to a long afternoon at his New Jersey golf club, had repeat meetings with him Trump Tower, got photographed at a yummy candlelight dinner at Jean-Georges. The media followed along. Then poof!—it all went away.

esquire-taylor-tweetTaylor Swift’s mastery was in evidence during her “hiding” period, when one of the persistent questions on clickbait sites was Whom Is Taylor Voting For? Often this came out as, Why Hasn’t She Endorsed Hillary? Once upon a time (2008) she did tell the world that she was casting her first vote for President for Barack Obama. But eight years later, with Hillary Clinton pre-anointed as Our First Woman President, Taylor was keeping mum. Meanwhile such celeb peers and rivals as Lena Dunham, Madonna, and Lady Gaga were angrily, aggressively promoting Hillary.

Did Taylor simply find this political talk improper for celebrities, as Mark Wahlberg did? Or could she possibly, like Marky-Mark, be leaning towards Trump, to whom she at least had a social connection? (Best friend Karlie Kloss has been going with Ivanka Trump’s brother-in-law for a long time.)

A snarky Esquire writer suggested that celebrities who were “remaining silent” (i.e., not declaring for Hillary) were secretly Trump supporters. He then called out Taylor in a rude tweet. 

When the election came, and Taylor still didn’t announce her choice, the media started to do tea-leaf readings on the subject. On November 8, USA Today actually ran a piece claiming she must have voted for Hillary because an Instagram photo of her (ostensibly in line outside her voting place) showed her wearing a black sleeveless sweater a bit like the black sleeveless sweaters that both Hillary Clinton and Lena Dunham had been photographed in.

In the week after the election, some sites rationalized, on similarly notional evidence, that Taylor probably voted for Trump. This was too much for the Taylor-for-Hillary partisans at NYMag and Huffington Post. They promptly slammed the Taylor-for-Trump clickbaiters and accused them of spreading Fake News on behalf of the Alt Right!

Meanwhile, Taylor Swift still hasn’t told. And Mitt Romney will never be Secretary of State.

 

Kilowatt Notes

In my grandparents’ house on Green Hill Lane, there was a vast attic at the top of a rickety flight of wooden stairs. When we visited we were not supposed to go up there, and so of course we would, whenever our grandmother wasn’t nearby. When she discovered us (as she would) she was invariably cross, although if there was anything compromising or untoward up there, it eluded me entirely.

Mainly it was old boxes, old furniture, some splendid Philadelphia Inquirers from 1957 with Sunday Rotocomics of Dick Tracy, Little Iodine, etc.; and an adult-size promotional figure of Reddy Kilowatt (“Your Electric Servant”) from the Philadelphia Electric Company. I have no idea what it was doing there. It’s the sort of thing one might find in an antiques shop today, but it certainly wasn’t brought in by my grandparents as a valuable curio in the 1940s or 50s. A gag gift, maybe? Maybe, not likely.

I did think, when I was 5, 6, 7, that Reddy Kilowatt was a bit frightening to look at. Maybe my grandmother thought it was scary, monstrous. Or apt to tip over and kill a small child. In the end I formed the vague idea that I wasn’t to go up into the attic because of Reddy Kilowatt.

Of course it could just be she thought the slippery, narrow attic stairway was treacherous. I don’t think either grandparent visited the attic very often. Although the house had only been built in the 1930s, it was quirky, designed by my grandfather after some old English country houses he had studied. He was a mechanical engineer rather than an architect, and his emphasis was on antiquarian cleverness rather than utility and safety. The house had things like a witch’s-hat turret with no functional purpose, and ground-floor stairway-ceiling so low that anyone over six feet would need to duck.

Outside, a weird, curving stone staircase wound up from the driveway to the front door. This was never used, as it was unusable; the flagstones were crooked and the steps were tiny. I gather this was meant to look like the detail of a 300-year-old habitation, preserved solely for antiquarian purposes. Anyway the front door of the house was the only entrance (of four) that was almost never used. There was a “sanitation” receptacle sunk into an outside walkway near the kitchen, and I was long grown before I realized this was another useless holdover installed just for period authenticity. A hundred years before this was the thing where people would dump the contents of chamberpots, and other unmentionables, to be collected each day by the nightsoil man.

My grandmother finally sold the house in the 1970s and moved back to her homeland of western Ohio, having first deposited with my parents anything that might possibly have some meaning of value— photo albums, furniture oddments, and boxes of 19th century memorabilia. What became of Reddy Kilowatt I never found out.

Atticus in Bizarro World

GSAW

(Note: This is a draft, with some mispunctuations and typos, as well as too many clotted clauses. The “final” version is somewhere else.)

As nearly everyone knows by now, Atticus Finch, that steadfast attorney from Maycomb, Alabama, led the local Citizens’ Council in the 1950s.  When agitators from the NAACP and Communist Party came south to stir up trouble after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision, he fought the good fight for segregation. Atticus had even joined the KKK once upon a time, but that was in, like, 1919. You know, back when the Klan was a respectable organization, like the Masons. Something professionals and gentlemen could belong to.

Or so goes the Atticus we are given in the newly published, long-suppressed novel Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, author of that phenomenal early-60s bestseller To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the publishing succès de scandale of the season. Because while Watchman is not a very good book (let’s get that out of the way right now), it depicts Atticus as a crusading segregationist. The Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird is quite another thing entirely.

Remember the Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel or (better yet) the 1962 Academy Award-winning film? That Atticus is a god-like hero to the local Negro community, a 1960s-styles civil-rights liberal living in 1935. Well, Go Set a Watchman‘s Atticus, written slightly earlier and based more immediately on Harper Lee’s elderly attorney father, A.C. Lee, is a hero of a different sort. He keeps anti-mongrelization pamphlets about the house, and argues that the Negro has not sufficiently “evolved” to be given social equality.

It is not likely that a professional Hollywood liberal like Gregory Peck (Atticus in the Oscar-sweeping movie version of TKAM) would ever care to play or meet this Atticus. The great climactic scene in the story is a conversational showdown with his daughter (and stand-in for the author), in which he lectures her, patiently and at length,  about the Negro problem.

“Jean Louise,” he said. “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?” . . . “Let’s look at it this way. . . You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward,’ don’t you? . . . You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?”

A couple of pages later, Atticus prophesies what doom and corruption would ensue if we had a Black-Run Government:

“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who won’t know how to run ’em? Do you want this town run by—now wait a minute—Willoughby’s a crook, we know that, but do you know of any Negro who knows as much as Willoughby? Zeebo’d probably be Mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money? We’re outnumbered, you know. . .

“[T]he Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. . . The NAACP doesn’t care whether a Negro . . . tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet—oh no, all the NAACP  cares about is that man’s vote.”

Finally his daughter, Jean Louise Finch (the “Scout” from TKAM) gets in a spluttering rebuttal, and it’s a doozy.

“I know it’s [civil-rights progress] got to be slow, Atticus, I know that full well. But I know it’s got to be. I wonder what would happen if the South had a ‘Be Kind to the Niggers Week’? If just for one week the South would show them some simple, impartial courtesy. I wonder what would happen. . .”

Then her temper suddenly flares, she calls her father names, and drives off in his car, swearing she’ll never speak to a family member again. [1]

By now you will have some notion of why this “lost” novel was kept buried deep in the Harper Lee archives for over a half-century. It is incredibly un-PC and a little too spot-on in its predictions. Moreover it’s a terribly talky book, one in which little occurs except petty disputations about politics and family relations. The characters spend most of their time talking about obscuranta such as church hymns and Lord Melbourne. Yes, Lord Melbourne—you know, the feather-blowing early-Victorian Prime Minister. But why oh why? He is repeatedly invoked here, and also made a guest appearance in TKAM, for some reason known but to God and Harper Lee.

*   *   *

Watchman has a number of odd stylistic curlicues. The lead character is given to a lot of interior monologue, some of it stream-of-consciousness-y and difficult to disentangle from the outside conversations. She likes to quote Gilbert & Sullivan lyrics to herself. I first spotted something from Trial by Jury, then The Mikado . . . finally, when I came across a Mad Margaret song from Ruddigore, I realized that the narrative routine of Go Set a Watchman is in fact very much like bad W. S. Gilbert. An eccentric character comes on stage, tells why he is eccentric, sings a song—and departs! That’s pretty much how it goes with Watchman. We get a gallery of static characters, many of them mildly eccentric, but none of them eccentric enough to be interesting. Harper Lee no doubt saw this problem, and that’s why she filled TKAM with a whole menagerie of Southern Gothic crazies.

Additionally, and unlike TKAM, Watchman lacks excitement. There are no murders, no rapes. There is no sex or even romance to speak of. Jean Louise Finch has a sad-sack boyfriend, Hank, a young attorney of white-trash origins who works for her father; but Hank is not marriage material for a Finch; so like most of the subplots, this one’s a dud.

There is however one shining episode of a gynecological nature. This is a long flashback to childhood and the schoolyard. The setting makes it a kind of foreshadowing of TKAM even though it occurs a couple of years later than its time-scheme. Jean Louise, still the tomboy known as Scout, is now eleven or twelve years old. One day she gets her period, and high comedy ensues.

Now, Scout’s mother is long dead, so of course Scout doesn’t know about menarche and such like . . . because although Scout’s been reading since she was a baby, supposedly (we learn this in TKAM), somehow she hasn’t learned anything of a practical nature. Finally Scout gets clued in by the Finches’ black housekeeper, Calpurnia. She goes back to school next day, very unhappy, since she’s become a woman and all that. She’s all harnessed up under her school dress with a Kotex pad the size of a brick and a sanitary napkin belt. (The modern reader is probably unfamiliar with the aforementioned contraption, and I expect this passage will puzzle many readers. In brief, sanitary-napkin belts were standard-issue female gear till about mid-century, though they continued to be listed at least through the 1960s on what-to-pack checklists for boarding schools, summer camps, and insane asylums.)

Anyhow, here is Scout, and she’s walking funny. The white-trash girls from up-county know the score and laugh at her. They make jokes about the Curse, and fill her full of schoolyard misinformation.

A boy French-kisses Scout; she’s learned from her white-trash friends that once you start ministratin‘, a tongue-kiss will make you pregnant! Scout thinks she’s in a fambly way and there’s only one way out of her shame. She must go to the edge of town and jump off the water tower. Of course the whole town gathers ’round . . . and young Scout finally learns the Facts of Life.

Here at last is the author in full flower. This episode shows the kind of book she should have written. A black comedy full of menstruation and French-kissing gags would make a fine addition to any publisher’s Young Adult backlist.

*   *   *

Some peculiar and wrongheaded notions have attended the publication of this novel, errors we are going to hear repeated for years to come. One is that it is somehow a rough draft or “prequel” for TKAM. [2]  It is neither, although the setting and characters are similar. Nor, of course, is it a sequel, though it is set twenty years later.

Nor was its existence much of a surprise. Anyone who knew much about Harper Lee understood that TKAM had gone through many revisions before publication, and that she had even written a complete novel with some of the same characters a few years earlier.  According to biographer Charles Shields it was Go Set a Watchman that first brought Lee to the attention of her publishers (Lippincott) in 1957 [3]. But the editors wanted a lot of changes. They hated the title. They wanted to rename it Atticus.[4] They wanted a tighter, leaner narrative line, instead of a meandering string of barely connected episodes. Eventually Lee gave up and cobbled together a new novel out of short stories she’d written about her hometown of Monroeville (Maycomb), Alabama, bits of which stories had been also been repurposed in Watchman. As the new novel was set in the 1930s, out went references to the Second World War, the Brown decision, Emmett Till, the Citizens’ Councils. No longer set in the contemporary 1950s, the new novel would be instead hearken back to the misty watercolored memories of old Alabammy. (As I noted last year, this second novel had similar continuity/plot problems in its early form, which Lee and her editors solved by gluing on a lurid subplot about interracial rape.)

There was a cultural shift between 1957 and the early 1960s that made Watchman a much less attractive property than it had been originally. For much of the Fifties you could still joke, if nervously, about race relations and the Ku Klux Klan. Top model Suzy Parker, statuesque redhead on the cover of LIFE in 1957 and eye-candy in three big feature movies that year, could joke that “I come from an average Ku Klux Klan family,” without causing too much fuss (although her highly respectable kinfolk were slightly embarrassed)[5]. And of course there were still plenty of old Klansmen serving in Congress or the Supreme Court. Why, even Harry S Truman had nearly signed up with his local Kleagle, back in the 1920s. The KKK was just a reality of political history. As for Citizens’ Councils and the John Birch Society [6], they had not yet been tarred with the brush of “extremism” and bigotry as they would be in the 60s.

By the time To Kill a Mockingbird had spent two years on the bestseller list and been made into a landmark film, racial segregation was no longer a tenable argument for mainstream news outlets, or for politicians outside the Deep South states that went for Barry Goldwater 1964. So there were very good reasons for Harper Lee to bury Go Set a Watchman under a mound of personal papers, and never mention it again.

Notes

1. Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, published 2015. The section quoted and described is in the hardbound edition’s pages 246-257.

2. See for example, Alexandra Petri’s recent column on it in the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2015/07/21/go-set-a-watchman-is-not-worth-reading-i-learned-this-the-hard-way/

3. Charles J. Shields, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. 2006.

4. This has given rise to the misconception among some book reviewers that Atticus aka Watchman was in fact an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

5. Bérénice de la Salle, Beautiful Riddle: The Strange Case of Suzy Parker. 2011.

6. The JBS is wispily alluded to in Watchman, even though it would not come into existence for another year. Atticus suggests that the hot-headed speaker at the Citizens’ Council meeting is secretly being subvented (as Revilo Oliver would say) by an outfit in Massachusetts, which would seem to point to Belmont’s own Robert Welch, who was getting some ink in 1957.