This may have been the first Twitter meme I ever made. It’s a favorite, since it’s so upbeatedly transgressive. Early 2016, I believe. Done at the Meme Generator, which either gives an excellent result…or it doesn’t.
(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. 
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.  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 . But the editors wanted a lot of changes. They hated the title. They wanted to rename it Atticus. 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). 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 , 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.
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.
I was sketching out a piece on Orwell in the 1930s, and how he had to get along with the Commies to preserve his literary viability. So he posed as a man of the Left without quite being a full Fellow Traveler to the Reds. This took some ruses and finesse. When he went to fight in Spain he joined one of most obscure, ill-equipped factions fighting for the “Republican” side.
That was the POUM, an affiliate of the Independent Labour Party in Britain (and another low-efficacy operation, although one of its founders had been Keir Hardie, and such luminaries as Aneurin Bevan had belonged). POUM and ILP were known in those as “anarcho-syndicalist” in orientation. That is, eccentrically leftist. They provided a refuge for people like Orwell who didn’t like the Stalinists but didn’t wish to be in open opposition to them.
While batting these ideas around, I recalled a piece that I read in The New Yorker years ago, a very funny memoir by the (now late) poet Elizabeth Bishop. After Vassar, in the early 30s, she worked for some low-rent “literary” operation (actually a writing school) near Columbus Circle.
A co-worker was a brash obnoxious Jewess who was always trying to get her to join the Party. Elizabeth begged off, saying she was an anarchist, actually. So they had political arguments, and Elizabeth found herself going down to the NYPL main branch in the evening, reading up on anarchism so as to preserve her cover.
This was a story very much in parallel with Orwell’s experience, at least to my way of thinking. But I wasn’t sure when I’d read this piece, and I certainly didn’t remember its name. All I could remember were the broad outlines of the story, that it was in The New Yorker, and it was more than ten years ago. I had a distinct image of myself reading the story at the kitchen counter in the apartment I shared at 53rd and 8th, probably in 1983. But my memories are sometimes jumbled and unreliable, and 1983 seems impossibly distant now.
Mildly curious, I went to The New Yorker online archive today and found the piece. July 18, 1983 issue, “The U.S.A. School of Writing.” It’s extremely funny, better than I remembered, especially the first half.
First I had an interview at the school with its head, or president, as he described himself, Mr. Black. His opening remark was that the U.S.A. School of Writing stood for “The United States of America School of Writing,” and my pleasure in that explanation trapped me immediately.
This is a proposed draft for the foreword of the regurgitated Teentime book.
A Note to the Reader
This is a memoir, and therefore somewhat fictionalized, like most memoirs. The action takes place more than forty years ago, but as most of the players were pretty young them, most of them are still alive. They will give me no end of trouble if don’t disguise them. And they would be absolutely right, because my recollections are pretty nasty.*
So I’ve changed everyone’s name—with the obvious exception of a few public figures—and invented new backgrounds for some people. Some trifling characters are made into “composites.” The major alteration to the story is the time-scheme. Events that played out over four or five years are squeezed into the year or so of the book’s action (1973-1974). This compression gives the story a semblance of narrative drive and, I hope, a kind of plot.
Place names and businesses are real, for the most part. The unnamed “educational TV” stations in New York and Boston are WNET and WGBH. I don’t name them because they like to call themselves Public Television, which in the context of this story would be confusing. Forty to fifty years ago people said Educational Television. A few kiddy shows (Zoom, Sesame Street, The Electric Company) are given their real names. Otherwise most of the television programs in this book are renamed or completely made up.
The subplot about Sal Mineo and his lurid screenplay, Sacred Bubblegum, is almost entirely true. It was a real script, and I lugged a bound copy around for a while in the summer of ’73. His agent wanted a treatment (i.e., synopsis) of it, and somehow that task got passed on to me. I did write something, but I wasn’t in Nantucket when I did it.
The business about the Jackson Whites, on the other hand, is pure invention. Putting a segment about Jackson Whites on an “educational” kiddy show is exactly the kind of daff’y, unbalanced idea that Mr. Hornblower liked to come up with. But he didn’t really visit the Jackson Whites.
*I’ve been at the receiving end of this procedure. About ten years ago a bumptious, lame-brained acquaintance of my youth wrote a kinky sex memoir that got a lot of media play. He wanted to put me in it, and sent me few pages of draft. It was really bad. His expository style had become thoroughly corrupted by years of writing juvenile paperbacks full of indistinguishable 14-year-olds. As a result of this, his delineation of “me” was inept and malformed (“Whoa!” she said, “Cut me some slack!”). So I told him to kill the whole section. That peeved him greatly. He took revenge on me by rewriting the section with a repellent new character. She was presented as a composite of me and some other girls and women he had known, though she was pure fiction, and badly done fiction at that. Suffice it to say we haven’t spoken since. If this shallow scribbler had simply disguised the memoir’s characters and not begged for approval from the putative originals, this whole kerfuffle could have been avoided.
Somehow I kept reading or hearing about Heidegger, and when I hear the name Heidegger I always think of Heisenberg. And that started the ball rolling:
There is a high-school philosophy teacher who is given to cyclical mood swings. The condition is one of those affective disorders in the bipolar family. Except instead of having only two or three bad episodes in his life, he gets these wild, lurching manias and crashes every year or two. One of these days he’s going to kill himself. He just knows it. A parent and an uncle committed suicide. It runs in the family, as with the Hemingways.
But he’s got a couple kids and wants to provide for his family. He watches Breaking Bad and sees a parallel, but since he’s not a chemist he can’t make a fortune manufacturing blue meth. What can he do? He decides that the only get-rich-quick scheme he can come up is to create a quasi-religious cult, something that specifically preys on the rich and wayward, like Scientology. Except because he’s a philosopher he can spin his cult as a New School of Philosophy rather than a religion.
He remains in the background, very private. Almost no one’s ever met him. That’s part of the attraction. Nobody knows his real name, they just know he travels under the handle, Heidegger.
This is a shaggy-dog story, I’ll grant you, but the basic premise could be the skeletal plot set-up for a nice satire or farce. Something like Nightmare Alley, except the guy’s afraid of his next mood-swing instead of fearing that he’ll end up as a circus geek.
(Cannibalized by Popular Request. This appears in one of my older blogs, and is dated April 22nd, 2007. Still makes me laugh. Oboy oboy!)
How many chillun you got?
That’s the important thing. That’s what all primitive people really want to know about you.
They get to the point where they’ve figured out that you’re either male or female (even though they can’t see either a penis gourd or pendulous dugs), and they know your approximate age (somewhere between adolescence and total decrepitude). Now they’re happily puffing away on your Philip Morris Commanders (king-size, unfiltered, good for jungle bugs) and they’re ready to move into the small-talk stage of your acquaintanceship.
And here it is. “Hey you! You got chillun? How many chillun?”
Go ahead and tell them. Anything you like. One kid, six kids, sixteen kids. It’s not like the little savages are going to write down your children’s birthdays so they can send them something nice (just imagine!). No, they’re just being innocently nosy. It’s something they ask of all strangers, and no one’s ever smacked them down for this rudeness so they keep on asking.
Sometimes the questions get detailed—”You have a boy? How old? Is he warrior? You have girl—how much you sell her for?” It is always best to be prepared for this. Along with the Philip Morris Commanders in the left side pocket of your photo-vest, bring a fact sheet about your kids. Maybe even some fuzzy snapshots.
My own prepared script goes basically like this. “Oh yes I have four children. Two girls, two boys. Between five and fifteen. Evenly spaced. Their names are Mary, Joan, John, and Robert. They live with their other parent, as I am usually away on business. The boys play baseball [a game formerly very popular in America] and the girls do ballet [this is a kind of theater-dance some people do in my country]. Who is oldest? Oh, that would be John. Then Mary. Then…”
Even a savage has limited attention for this sort of thing, and by this point my new friend is probably waving and nodding and inviting me into his hut to look at the shrunken heads.
Is Sacre-Coeur really ugly? I always used to think so, coming into town on the Roissy Bus from CDG. Then I found out this is a common reaction. Adolf Hitler thought it hideous, a “mosque.” (Der Führer was of course an architect manqué.) Google the question and complaints are all over. Go ahead.
Here is a good whingey tourist page: http://theotherparis.net/hotspots/sacre.htm
The second or third time I went to Sacre-Coeur was in May 2002. I was with a couple of friends from Oxfordshire, Alma and Julia. Alma was baffled by the place. She knew it was a stop on the tourist itinerary, but didn’t understand its purpose.
I started to explain the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, and the popular belief that France had degraded itself since 1789 and needed to atone for its sins and reconsecrate itself, and Léon Bloy, and Therese Martin of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus… But I held my tongue, more or less.
I held my tongue and listened for the nugget of Alma’s confusion.
“I mean, why do they have this?” she asked. Why do they need this, in addition to Notre Dame?”
Alma was born in Manchester, but her parents were refugees from Poland (Catholic) and the Ukraine (Orthodox) and she had no significant religious upbringing. She also has lactase deficiency. I decided she probably couldn’t digest my Bellocian explanations of this or that.
So I just said, very smoothly, “Oh well you see, this one is a basilica.” And left it at that.
(Original version of a piece that has since been published elsewhere. As predicted, the subject died a year or two later.)
One of these days Harper Lee is going to kick off and have great big posthumous laugh at our expense. Bwah-hah-hah! Because right there in her Last Notes and Testament, we will find an answer to that puzzlement that has troubled the publishing biz for a half-century or more.
Namely, why didn’t Harper Lee write any more novels after To Kill a Mockingbird?
And the main reason she didn’t, she will aver in words that are coarse and pithy, is that To Kill a Mockingbird was a phoney-baloney contrived piece of fluff. It wasn’t her novel anymore, not after her agent and editors got through tarting it up, to make it modern and popular and sellable. They mutilated her baby, and young Nelle Harper Lee didn’t have the heart to go through that again.
Popular and sellable it certainly was. It was on the bestseller list for about two years, and thanks to the sponsorship of Gregory Peck it became a guaranteed hit movie even before a screenplay was written.
And it was modern. By laying on themes of racial strife and civil rights, and deleting most references to Thirties pop-culture, the publishers made the novel as up-to-date and relevant as the latest issue of Look magazine. The book contains some vague references to the New Deal, and a courtroom trial is said to be happening in 1935; officially we’re in the mid-30s for most of the action. But otherwise the setting might as well be the Deep South of the 1950s and even 60s.
It’s a very peculiar 1930s Alabama that the author conjures up. She doesn’t tell us about seeing Popeye or Shirley Temple or Clark Gable down at the picture show, or reading Beatrice Fairfax or Fontaine Fox in the Mobile Register. In fact, no news at all leaks in from the outside world via radio, cinema, magazines or newspapers. Not a word of Huey Long, the Dust Bowl, Dillinger, League of Nations, Abyssinia, Spain. We are told that our narrator, “Scout,” has been reading since infancy, but she doesn’t seem to read much, not even the Time magazine that her family supposedly gets. International events intrude exactly once, in a painful, smarmy passage in which Scout’s third-grade teacher lectures the class about—what do you suppose? Hitler and the Jews! (Perhaps the teacher does read Time.)
The published novel is very different from Lee’s original typescript. That was a set of loosely linked stories about long summers and oddball neighbors in small-town Alabama. Many of these episodes and character studies are retained in the final product, and they are small, perfect jewels—Boo Radley, the mad recluse; Dill, the narcissistic “pocket Merlin”; Mrs. Dubose, the raging, morphine-addicted Civil War widow; Scout’s snobbish, self-centered cousins who live down on Finch’s Landing.
This authentic nostalgia is the To Kill a Mockingbird that people fell in love with. However, while these tales still occupy two-thirds of the published book, none of them had sufficient drive or development to carry a major plot. And they were not quite serious, grown-up fiction. “I think for a child’s book it does all right,” Flannery O’Connor wrote a friend around the time the novel won the Pulitzer Prize. And indeed it always has been basically a kiddie story, except for one racy subplot that Lee’s editors grafted onto it. That is the interracial-rape case that dominates much of the second half of the book. Curiously, people who never read the novel, or who mainly remember the Gregory Peck movie, often imagine that this criminal case is the central story, even though it takes up little more than a quarter of the book. (Note: In my HarperPerennial paperback edition of 323 pages, the trial and related events begin at page 164 and end on 259.)
The rape plot is hokum, but the editors and agent who forced it upon Lee knew what they were doing: it ties together many of Lee’s plot strands and characters, and it bumps her wistful recollections up to the grown-up shelf, repositioning it as middlebrow fiction with contemporary (1960) social relevance.
Tastes change. Today the rape plot is laughable, mawkish, stuffed with symbolism. The accused negro, Tom Robinson, has a withered right arm that got mangled years ago when it got caught in a cotton gin. The rapee, Miss Mayella Ewell, comes from a family who are not merely poor white trash from the wrong edge of town, they seem to be illiterate as well. Her father is a murderous drunk, possibly incestuous, who survives by poaching. Her brother Burris is crawling with lice. They are so awful, the story tips over into kind of Tobacco Road black-comedy whenever a Ewell appears. (Thankfully Mayella does not have a harelip.)
Who was the real Tom Robinson? There is a notion prevalent among some schoolteachers and media writers that the Tom Robinson case was loosely based on similar cases in the Deep South during the 1930s. This stems from the vague impression that thousands, or at least hundreds, of innocent negroes were prosecuted and lynched during this era because of White Supremacism and the Ku Klux Klan, and all that nasty bother. According to this school of thinking, Tom Robinson is a composite victim of race prejudice.
In reality there were very few cases like this. The only notable one in the Deep South that involved interracial fornication with a member of the po-white-trash set was the so-called Scottsboro Boys case. In this saga, we have two young white women who get caught riding railroad boxcars while dressed in overalls. They tell the police they were raped by a gang of black youths also aboard the train. In a protracted series of trials, several of the black youths are convicted of rape and sentenced to long prison terms.
The case was highly publicized in the 1930s, and has never faded from media consciousness, providing fodder in recent years for books, documentaries, and even a Broadway musical. Today the Scottsboro Boys are often spoken of as innocents, martyrs to bigotry and the backward, violent South. The story is put about that the two young women were not only low-class, they were casual prostitutes, and probably deserved what they got, if they really were gang-raped; and anyway, their word shouldn’t be trusted. It’s all their fault.
Scottsboro is frequently cited as the basic template for the rape case in To Kill a Mockingbird. But the resemblance is superficial at best. None of the Scottsboro Boys were hardworking, crippled, husband-and-fathers. In TKAM, nobody suggests Miss Mayella Ewell is a prostitute, or that she deserves to be sexually abused.
The Emmett Till Era. If he wasn’t a Scottsboro Boy, who else could Tom Robinson be? How’s about Emmett Till? This is a theory that scholar-critic Patrick Chura came up with in his penetrating analysis of the novel (Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2000). Chura began by pointing out that the novel has a poor grasp on Thirties history. The WPA shows up two years before the agency was created. And the book’s social attitudes don’t reflect the 1930s at all, rather they seem to echo preoccupations of the 1950s.
Chura rejects the whole Scottsboro theory and says the real prototype for the TKAM rape case was the story of Emmett Till. Emmett Till was a husky, 14-going-on-15 black youth from Chicago who went down to visit his cousins in rural Mississippi in 1955. He made a sexual approach to the young white proprietess of a country store. A couple of nights afterwards Till was beaten to death by the woman’s husband and brother-in-law because he wouldn’t apologize for his behavior.
Chura finds some minor parallels between the two cases. Robinson and Till are both slightly disabled (a withered arm, a stutter), the poor whites are first championed by neighbors, then ostracized because of shame and notoriety. And the trial judges and the press clearly sympathize with the cause of the unfortunate negroes. But the argument doesn’t quite make it. The comparisons are just too strained. Having a stutter is not comparable to having a mangled, useless arm. And the basic narrative of Till case is just too different from the novel’s. The novel’s Tom Robinson is passive and meek. Emmett Till was a big-boy showoff from Chicago who went around bragging that he had a white girlfriend. Even his Mississippi cousins thought he was obnoxious and hoped for his comeuppance.
Nevertheless Chura correctly nails the 1950s Zeitgeist of the novel. So it is most peculiar that he overlooks the most notable inter-race rape case of the era, that of Willie McGee. As a news story this went on for ten years (1945-1955). It got headlines, was a leftist and Civil Rights rallying point, and it closely parallels the rape story in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Me and Willie McGee. McGee was a black man convicted of raping a (young, attractive, middle-class) white woman in Mississippi in 1945. His lawyers repeatedly appealed, and the appeals were shot down. The case reached a crescendo around 1950, when McGee was due for the electric chair. After a postponement, he was finally executed in May 1951.
The Willie McGee case was a pet cause of the Communist Party USA, through a front organization called the Civil Rights Congress. Now, the CPUSA had been taking a real public-relations beating since about 1945, thanks to Soviet atrocities, the enslavement of eastern Europe, the loss of China, the Alger Hiss case, etc., etc. So now the Party was trying to reposition itself as a kind of charitable, public-spirited organization: a progressive force in favor of Civil Rights and Justice for the Negro. And Willie McGee was an ideal poster child.
In early 1951, as the execution date grew nearer, the Communists came up with a clever retelling of the McGee tale. It was not a simple interracial rape case, they claimed. Willie did not rape that white woman, Mrs. Willette Hawkins; actually Mrs. Hawkins and McGee had been lovers for years! Then Willie wanted to break it off, so the white woman shouted rape to punish him.
Thus sprach the Daily Worker, the CPUSA newspaper. It was a pretty dubious tale to begin with. The McGee case had been going through appeals for five years, yet somehow no one had ever mentioned this long-term “romance” before. But McGee’s new defense team had a wonderfully daffy explanation for this omission: it seems Willie’s original lawyers kept the affair hidden because they thought it would hurt the case, this being Mississippi. (Those all-white juries, you know, with their prejudiced attitudes and all: they might give our Willie something even worse than the electric chair!)
The Party even trotted out a colored woman named Rosalee to tour the country in their dog-and-pony show, telling the world that she was Willie McGee’s wife (she wasn’t) and denouncing Mrs. Hawkins as the white-trash slattern who “raped my husband.”
The Daily Worker kept burnishing its fictional tale of Willie’s romantic entanglement even after he went to the chair. By this point Mrs. Hawkins had heard about it and sued for libel. Finally, in 1955, the Commies admitted they had no evidence. They’d made the whole thing up. The Daily Worker printed retractions and paid a small award for damages.
By that point the Party didn’t care. Willie McGee was long dead, and the story had served its purpose. It had made Willie into a martyr to race prejudice (something we must fight, comrade). Long after most people forgot the details of the case, they’d remember vaguely that Willie McGee was possibly innocent, and executed in a legal lynching.
Because that’s how propaganda works. People don’t remember the logical integrity of arguments. What lingers is the emotional impression. It didn’t matter in the long run whether Willie McGee was guilty or innocent, so long as those “progressive” people who fought for him (e.g., future Congresswoman Bella Abzug) appeared to be on the side of truth and justice.
And there you have it. The tale of Willie McGee, as told in the Daily Worker, was the template for Tom Robinson.
A Parthian Shot. Now, this brings us to Harper Lee’s other big secret about To Kill a Mockingbird. Besides asking why she didn’t write another novel, people routinely asked her which particular racial case of the Deep South she based her rape case upon. She gave vague, dismissive answers, implying that it was a composite of several cases. She never identified any specific case, and no one ever thought to ask her about Willie McGee. After all, McGee was from the 1940s and 50s, not 30s; and anyway, McGee was probably guilty. Therefore, so was the fictional Tom.
And there are even worse complications. If you say Tom Robinson is guilty, then that wise paterfamilias Atticus Finch emerges as one very sleazy lawyer. He does not merely provide competent defense for Tom Robinson, he gratuitously defames the poor girl Mayella Ewell. With no real evidence at hand, he weaves a tale in which she lusted after a crippled black man, and seduced him into fornication. It’s a hair-raising, lurid tale, but it is completely unnecessary. As a fictional device it symbolically shifts the guilt from Tom Robinson to Mayella, but it adds nothing to Tom’s defense case. The jury and townspeople are not really concerned with the issue of consensual vs forcible sex, or whether this person lusted after that one. The two givens in the case are that penetration took place, and that it was interracial. For the men in the jury box, that last bit is the real offense.
Atticus knows they’re not going to acquit his client, so he makes up an unpleasant tale about Mayella, all the while feigning pity for the pathetic lass. But it’s all invention and false sentiment, just like the fantasies that the Daily Worker conjured up about Willette Hawkins and Willie McGee.
Notes and References:
Patrick Chura compares novel to the Emmett Till saga in the Southern Literary Journal.
Alex Heard, author of The Eyes of Willie McGee, blogs about the McGee case.
Washington Post review 2010.
Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, 2006, is particularly good on the shaping of the TKAM phenomenon, both book and movie.
If you don’t know who Felicia Day is, you are probably over twenty years in age, and/or spend fewer than ten hours per day on the Inter-Webs.
So, for you underprivileged minds: Felicia Day is a minor actress in her early 30s who has appeared in a couple of TV shows and feature films, as well as some internet-based video dramas that supposedly were very popular with people who like that sort of thing. She is originally from Huntsville, Alabama (which doesn’t mean anything at all, as we all know), went to University of Texas in Austin (ditto) and now lives in or around Los Angeles. She has dark red hair, helped along with various artificial colorings. Six months ago she cut it from waist-length to pixie-bob, which deeply distressed some of her male fans (because what’s the point of being a girl if you’re going to have boy-length hair?). But her current claim to fame is that she does a lot of self-produced, professional-looking videos, and they’re all over YouTube.
When you get to see her, you’ll notice that her persona is highly artificial. I suspect Felicia does not fully realize this. She is a late-model chirper, too young to remember the pre-chirper era, and as no one has yet written a book about chirpers and chirper-culture, she has no reference text to consult. Even Wikipedia lacks an article on chirpers. Therefore she is left with the vague presumption that youngish women have always spoken in chirpy voices and ended every statement on a rising tone, as though it were an inquiry.
Felicia doesn’t remember the early chirpers from the 70s and early 80s, mainly lower-middle-class frails who went around saying things like “ehhww” and “grody to the max,” generally uttered in a register one or two levels higher than their natural speaking voices. The first persons to notice the chirper phenomenon (without giving it a name) were male homosexuals of the ribbon-clerk caste, e.g., retail associates at Bullock’s or Bonwit’s. They took note because half their coworkers were women of the chirper class, and these young gals were so unlike those distaff titans of the silver screen whom these boys always professed to adore. (Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Lizabeth Scott …they never chirped!)
Then Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit made a novelty record about this vocal style in 1982 (Valley Girl), and thereafter the weird locutions were widely acknowledged, although they became known as “Valley Speak,” despite the fact that they were not unique to the San Fernando Valley and they probably didn’t even originate there.
Girls grew up hearing a lot of chirper-speak in the 80s and 90s, so by 2000 you actually had young women in the aspiring professional class talking like this. I remember being astonished in 1998 when I met a new 22-year-old analyst at Salomon Smith Barney. Tiffany, let’s call her, had just emerged from Penn, and yet her speech was extreme chirperese. It was hard not to think it was all a put-on.
Perhaps Tiffany had Bad Companions during her adolescent years, I considered. Or it could just be that she was Jewish; Jews have a noticeable predilection toward the most extreme versions of accents—e.g., Chicago, Brooklyn, London. They affect accents as camouflage, but often overdo it. It’s like you’re wearing cammie fatigues but they’re printed in day-glo colors.
I could think up a dozen other reasons, but a few years later I wouldn’t have have bothered. Tiffany the Chirper may have been a rara avis in the investment banking set in 1998, but by 2005 her locutions were the going thing.
Pay attention when you see a youngish female professor, writer, or lawyer being interviewed on television. If she’s between 25 and 40, there is a high likelihood she is a chirper. The main exceptions to this rule are women who are trained news presenters, for chirping cannot coexist with gravitas. One of the most attractive women on television is Greta Wodele Brawner of C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, and Greta is a thoroughgoing non-chirper. She talks the way most American women did thirty years ago.
Actresses, by and large, are also exceptions, because theatrical people are required to be hyper-aware of their speech and self-presentation. An actress who chirped would be doing so intentionally, trying to stay “in character.” This is what makes Felicia Day such a curiosity. Most of the time she plays a character called Felicia Day, a stripped-down, reconstituted caricature of her own self, and this character is a chirper. It’s a character similar to dramatic roles she’s had on TV (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and internet comedies, but considering that she’s playing a character with her own name, this chirrupy chirper is just a little too much. It’s annoyingly unclear where the character ends and the real Felicia Day begins. It’s as though Larry David were to play the Larry David character in Curb Your Enthusiasm as a broad impersonation of his earlier avatar, George Costanza on the Seinfeld program.
Which brings me back to my earlier intuition. Felicia Day doesn’t really know she’s chirping. She has typecast herself, locked herself into a comic turn. It’s been suitable for internet videos aimed at millennials, but it’s about to become a liability. The chirper act is on the way out; fads of mannerism have a half-life of about twenty years. You don’t encounter “wild and crazy guys” anymore, or “peace-and-love” hippies; not without a heavy helping of irony or nostalgia, anyway. Females in their teens and early twenties do not chirp anymore, not the ones I meet, anyway. Very soon, anyone who talks and acts like Felicia Day will be presumed to be doing a teenage-girl riff from 1993.
It’s been easy for her to hold onto the chirper persona because those vocal memes became so commonplace that many people ceased to notice them. You could be a chirper and still be respectable (though perhaps too lightweight to anchor the nightly news). Chirpers are no longer confused with Valley Girls, they don’t say “gag me with a spoon.” Their mannerisms are not regarded as hopelessly low-class and ugly. But as the fad fades away, people will forget there were respectable chirpers. The legacy of movies and TV shows will inform us all that chirping was mainly characteristic of ditzy, not-too-bright teenage girls in the closing decades of the 20th century.
It’s like the Model T. Say “Model T” to most people, and they think of a rattletrap flivver from about 1910. But T’s were produced until 1927 and the last few designs, particularly the two-seater coupes, were cute and stylish. Nice to be seen in and fun to tool around the campus in. People in the 1920s and 30s knew this, remembered this. But then the first-hand memories faded and we were fed endless media images of the early flivvers and old Henry Ford driving his first production model around Dearborn. The nice Model T’s were forgotten, and we only have the silly ones in our mental slideshow.
I was happy to go to work for Wine & Dine a few years ago, because I had a long history with its parent company, and it seemed to be a cheerful place. Pretty girls in pretty dresses with cute shoes and nice pedicures. Just what I wanted to be a few years back (before I got old and bitter).
Best of all, it was only twelve blocks from my back door. Theoretically I could travel door-to-door in ten minutes without breaking a sweat, so long as there was no traffic and the sidewalks were empty. Theoretically, I say; as my neighborhood is perennially clogged with taxis, tourists, and worker-bees, the march often took a long and painful twenty minutes.
Eventually I detested this walk—with its crowds and crosswalks and the amputee beggars who congregated on 6th Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets—and deeply regretted having chosen this job over the one that paid 25% more but was out of town. I hated the job too, as the months went by and I faced up to the fact that I was overworked, underpaid, chronically ill with stress-related health problems. There was also the dawning realization that my coworkers were very very stupid. But this took a while to hit me.
Ignorance Is Bliss. One day I was waiting for the light to change near Radio City Music Hall, and took note of the ancient, frail man beside me. He was 80 years old or beyond, and carrying a saxophone in a bag. The bag had a tag: LARRY STORCH, with Mr. Storch’s phone number. I struck up a conversation. I told him how much I loved his role as Corporal Agarn in F Troop and his cameo as a crazy guru in some Blake Edwards comedy. He was charmed—amazed, really—that anyone even remembered any of that stuff. Faz-baz, quoth I; when I was growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, everyone knew who Larry Storch was.
My saxophone is broken, Larry said. He was taking it to Sam Ash. So he peeled off a block or two later, while I said goodbye (after memorizing his telephone number from the tag).
Then I went around bragging—harrumph, harrumph—that I had just met Larry Storch. At least I bragged for a little while, until I discovered what Larry Storch himself already knew full well: almost no one remembers Larry Storch.
No one at my workplace, anyway. At first this was a real shocker. But I soon discovered that no one at Wine & Dine had ever heard of Ida Lupino or Laurence Harvey either. Briefly I considered enlightening them—Surely you remember this movie or that television program?—but I censored that idea as a bridge to nowhere. There’s a scene in Saturday Night Fever where Karen Lynn Gorney tries to impress John Travolta by saying Sir Laurence Olivier came into the office where she works. Hilarity ensues. Travolta doesn’t know who Laurence Olivier is. The girl makes a bad situation worse by explaining that Laurence Olivier is the old guy in the Polaroid commercial on TV. And so Travolta says something like, “Oh, great, maybe he can get you a free camera.”
The real capper came when I read in the newspaper that Michael Batterberry had died. I’d known Michael Batterberry and his wife Ariane back when I worked in restaurant marketing at American Express, but what I did not know was that Michael was the founder of Wine & Dine magazine. It’s a fantastic story, actually. Michael didn’t just conceive it, he began it as an insert in Playboy magazine called, “The International Review” of such-and-such.
This was back in the days when there were very few gourmet magazines or foodie TV shows. (Julia Child was such a curiosity she got on the cover of TIME magazine.) Michael nurtured this venture for a year or two, shortened the title, and finally sold it to this big publisher.
I related this history during our morning “scrum” at Wine & Dine, and got blank stares. Even our online-publishing vice president at Midtown Magazines had never heard of Michael Batterberry.
I faced up to reality. Nobody at Wine & Dine knew anything about the business they worked for. Or much of anything else. Or cared.
Ignorance and apathy were hardly unique to this magazine, of course. Anyway my mind had plenty of other oddities to idle upon.
There were a lot of Oriental girls about. About half of them had distinctly un-Oriental names. Instead of Suzy Wong, you had Suzanne Blanchard. Instead of Annie Cheung, you had Annemarie Jensen. It was most peculiar. And while some of these were married surnames, most were not. Neither were they adoptive; these women were too old to have been part of the Red Chinese Baby Fad and too young to be Korean War Orphans. Clearly they had picked names that were common, Western and easy to spell. (Incidentally, it wasn’t enough for a name to be classic and old-American. Those fine old Virginia names Urquhart and Taliaferro would never make the cut. Too weird and foreign-looking! Lee wouldn’t work either…for somewhat different reasons.)
I had a good guess why these ladies had taken on their simple “American” monikers. It was so their racial background would not scream from the top of the résumé whenever they applied for a job. They weren’t ashamed of their origin or family names; they just wanted the hiring manager’s first reaction to be, Oh look, Catherine Charlton went to Duke, instead of: Oh wow, another Cathy Ching.
There’s a lot of silliness and whimsy in this situation. Everyone noticed the incongruous names, but it seemed verboten to talk about them. Taboos are catnip for me. Humorously, obliquely, I’d say, “Annemarie Jensen! Gosh, my grandmother was a Jensen. I wonder if Annemarie and I are related?” And then I’d smile blandly while everyone else in the room visibly stiffened.
An Appalling Place. I started out in the editorial department of Wine & Dine but since I worked for the online edition, I regularly met with the “developers,” who inhabited a filthy, ill-lit warren two floors above me. It really was a sty, an extreme caricature of a crowded, ugly developers’ space. The techies sat cheek-by-jowl along white melamine countertops about 20″ deep, their noses up close to their monitor and laptop screens. Paper plates, sauce bottles, and other detritus of past lunches littered the window sills and tables. The worn, torn, shredded grey carpeting hadn’t been vacuumed in years. Dead flies and mouse turds occasionally tumbled out of the HVAC vents and ceiling panels.
The developers were mostly slobs, dressed in hoodies and sneakers that should have gone to Goodwill ten years ago. Six Caucasian and two Chinese developers huddled together (side-by-side, back-to-back) between the first pair of counters. Farther back, behind a partition, was Stinky-winky Land. You had East Indians, Pakistanis, and one very raffish, Jewish concert musician and composer who did contractual dev work so he could tour with symphonies when he wanted to, and not have to struggle for gigs at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
The South Asians were mostly there on contract, through an Indian company called Cognizant. Two or three years before I arrived, someone in management was sold on the idea of “offshoring” and “outsourcing” most of our development work, with the result that we had some Indians on site who were there merely to coordinate with the Indians in India, and other Indians on site who did nothing at all but useless make-work projects that were conjured up because our contract with Cognizant had another two years to run and we had to give them something to do.
Devland was an appalling place. I thanked my lucky stars that I worked down in Editorial, among normal, hygienic people in ample offices and wide cubicles; where the carpets were clean and plants got watered and mouse turds didn’t tumble from the ceiling. My daily nightmare was that someday, somehow, I might be exiled to the 11th floor, to work amongst this crowd. The likelihood of this seemed remote, up until the very day that I was exiled there.
The Culture Wars. In the meantime I took in the cultural conflict between the two groups. Down in Online Editorial, the devs were regarded as stubborn, difficult, lazy, and usually out of the office. If you go to the corporate-gossip websites, e.g. Glassdoor.com, you’ll find complaints that the devs need to improve their “work ethic.” Nearly all the devs took Wednesday off. Officially they were “working at home,” but no one in Editorial was fooled. You could e-mail or telephone one of the devs about some emergency on Wednesday, but whatever your problem, it was never going to get fixed till Thursday. Ha ha ha!
Devs made fixes and updates to the Wine & Dine site as seldom as they could. The devs called the updates “sprints,” and initially made them every two weeks. If you wanted to change something on the Wine & Date site, it had to be finished and approved by the Tuesday of the “sprint,” so that it would be “live” on Friday. Editorial complained about this for years, and finally the devs changed to a policy of “continuous enhancement” and “Agile development,” whereby the Wine & Dine website could be updated any day of any week, provided Editorial screamed loudly enough.
When I got kicked upstairs to Devland, I quickly sank into the lazy, slobby mode of the developers, and saw the other side of the argument. The editors and designers were fickle; they always wanted something done right away, and whatever you did for them, it wasn’t enough. You took Wednesday off because by Tuesday evening you needed a goddamned break, for crying out loud. When we declared that no new deployments, no “sprints” could be added on Monday or Friday, it wasn’t to be arbitrary, but to reserve some quiet time for work and testing. We said there could be no discussion meetings between Development and Editorial on Monday, Wednesday, or after 3 on Friday. We laid down these rules out of practicality and principle. Editorial were ditzy and undisciplined.
Editorial didn’t like us, said we were lazy and unhelpful. When the Truth was that Editorial had this nutty notion that all we had to do was Push a Button to work our magic. They didn’t realize how much trouble it was to write new code, and test it, and throw it out, and write it again…
From our filthy perch in Devland we gazed down and judged harshly. The Editorial people were stupid stupid stupid. They knew how to type and go to lunch, and that was about it. They were capricious. Irresponsible.
Your Obedient Servant, the Project Manager. Irresponsible because they couldn’t or wouldn’t take ownership of their own actions. They had these things called “project managers” carry their desires to us. Now, these project managers were nothing like old-fashioned project managers from engineering or construction, with their timelines and Gantt charts. Our project managers were typical of most modern project managers. They were basically clerical, administrative employees who filled many of the same functions that used to be served by low-level supervisors and secretaries (remember secretaries?) Supposedly they communicated the desires of one end of the business (editorial or marketing) with another end (the developers), but their real purpose was to keep the two ends peacefully separated. Relations between the two departments were marked by petulance and mutual suspicion. Editorial felt scorned by Development, and scorned back in return.
Thus the project manager as referee. The devs habitually thought of the PMs as flunkies of Editorial, but actually the PMs answered to a different department entirely, a cluster of managers with vague responsibilities and even vaguer titles (e.g., Vice President, Digital Content Strategy). Whatever their personal attributes, project managers had the stupidest, least effective roles of all. They weren’t “managers,” they weren’t decision-makers, and they had no real skills. Their job was merely to make noise and send e-mails, and that is how they spent most of their work days.