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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Go Set A...Memory


My wonderful, Literary-Leaning son Jared surprised me with a gift copy of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee's original manuscript of what eventually became her opus To Kill a Mockingbird. Actually, he told me he got me a copy. It didn't matter; either way, I felt terrible when I said, "Oh, Jay, thank you so much! How thoughtful. But I hope you can return it or give it to someone else. I'm not going to read it. I just can't. I can't bear to have Atticus ruined for me. I have a lot invested in him." And it's true.

Oh, sure, there's the almost thirty years I taught the book, teasing out the finer points of his character, analyzing and illuminating his famous address to the jury in the Robinson case, and stopping the film every single time my more vocal students would say, after Bob Ewell spit in his face, "If I was Atticus, I'd knock him out!" in order to explain why maybe they would, but a man like Atticus never, ever would.

No, I have a lot invested in Atticus because I parented based upon the Atticus Model. I don't lie to my children, and I have always spoken to them like they have sense. I have tried to be patient and be confident that, in the long run, their better nature will assert itself and they will eventually do The Right Thing. The To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus taught me that. He also taught me that this kind of parenting will encourage my kids to feel as if they could ask me anything. As I said to Jared, I'd prefer to have the To Kill a Mockingbird  Atticus be the seminal Atticus for me, forever.

Memory is a fragile and unpredictable thing. We can't always choose what we will remember or what we will lose to oblivion. This is part of the reason why I don't go to funerals and memorials even when the services are touted to be Celebrations of a Life. "Oh, Nance," you might say, "my aunt's wake was a big party! We all laughed and told our favourite stories! It was a great time!" But your aunt wasn't there, and it was still tinged with that sadness. And her immediate family had to deal with all the arrangements and be there, tired or not, grief-stricken or not. Not one memory from my father's funeral comforts or cheers me. And now, whenever I think of one of my former students, all I can see is his face in his coffin. Both of these facts cause huge waves of resentment; I don't want those memories.

In our lives we will have sorrow. Our loved ones will die, people will disappoint us. Our heroes will prove to have feet of clay. But sometimes, we are lucky enough to be able to avoid small sadnesses and hurts. We can choose our memories, even by keeping some intact.


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16 comments:

  1. I don't know if I'll read the book or not. I have mixed feelings about it. While I've never been as emotionally invested in To Kill A Mockingbird as you are, I'm not sure if I have it in me to learn, as Paul Harvey used to say, "the rest of the story." Plus I'm still not convinced that Harper Lee wanted this book published, which makes me feel a little dodgy about reading it. Time will tell if I read it or not, I suppose.

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    1. Ally Bean--I feel the same way you do about Harper Lee's intentions and true wishes. It's clearly a first draft, the original manuscript rejected by the editors in favour of the more focused story of Atticus and the Tom Robinson trial that became TKAM, told from the different POV of a much younger Scout.

      I do have a lot of emotional investment in this book, and not just in Atticus. This book was a big deal for a large number of my students. For many, reading it was a pivotal moment for them in some way. I still hear that to this day. Will this recent publication change that? Probably not. But the whole thing is, as you say, a little dodgy altogether.

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  2. I think you made the right choice. I'm not going to read Go Set a Watchman either. Like Ally Bean, I do wonder if Harper Lee wanted it published at all. It seems unlikely to me. Perhaps she decided that she got it right with Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird. What else can one think if it's considered the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird? Last, you are so right that some images will never be erased. How I wish they could be.

    Shirley

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    1. Shirley--Thank you , as always, for your kind words. Harper Lee has always been famous for her reticence and her careful selection of where and when she appears in public, either in person or in print. I struggle with the idea that she willingly allowed the TKAM Atticus, one of the most revered American fictional characters, to be torn down and sullied. If she did, I worry that, in her age and health, someone took advantage of her overall state. I watched an interview with her primary biographer, and she carefully chose her words and responses as to that subject. Her tone, pauses, and overall mien spoke volumes. How sad.

      Finally, as to the rest of your comment: I know. Life presents us with enough terrible stuff. Why choose to create more? I just cannot, so I avoid what awfulness I can. I highly recommend it. Save yourself.

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  3. I'm not reading it either, mainly because based on what I've read about the publication process leads me to believe it is a money grabbing opportunity for a few of her hanger-ons. And I don't want to contribute to that type of scheme in any way.

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    1. Rose--It's so worrisome, isn't it? She wrote a wonderful, moving, important book and created some of the most memorable and rich characters in American fiction. Why tarnish that legacy?

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  4. I'm one of the few people who never read the book or saw the movie so I won't be reading the new book. I am not disappointed, which is nice. The only thing I have to add to this conversation is that I always liked Gregory Peck because he was a true liberal and lived a good life.

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    1. phoebes in sf--If you like(d) Gregory Peck, then you owe it to yourself to see him in the role that really defined him--Atticus Finch. Or read the book and imagine him in it. He was perfect.

      But I won't be one of those people who says, "WHAT!? YOU NEVER READ THIS BOOK? YOU HAVE TO STOP WHATEVER YOU'RE DOING AND READ IT IMMEDIATELY." Obviously, you've gotten along famously without reading TKAM thus far, and you will continue on just fine.

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    2. The shear number of books that I SHOULD have read but didn't is very, very high. I read very few novels compared yo non-fiction, who I enjoy much, much more. For instance, I haven't read anything Bronte, but both major Tolstoy. Can't explain it.

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  5. Our book club debated reading the book for next month but I said that I had no interest in it - it wasn't meant to be published, it shouldn't have been published, and I'm not contributing to the folks who made it happen! Interestingly, two of the people had already read it & loved it, and one of the women had read it & hated it. I guess I'll never know what I would have thought!

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    1. The Bug--I wonder if the women who enjoyed the book had also read TKAM? Your book club must value your input if they decided against reading GSAW. So far, my commenters are pretty much in accord with you (and me).

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  6. I'm not interested. I think that after the success of TKAM, if she had wanted this other version published, she could have made it happen decades ago. I only read TKAM within the last 10 years. I don't remember exactly when, but I know I was blogging. It's an amazing book.

    Regarding funerals, I completely respect your point of view. For me they are comforting. Even for my dear mother, when I was sadder than I have ever been before or since, it was comforting to have people around me. They wouldn't have been there if there weren't a funeral. But I know it doesn't help everyone, and if someone doesn't want a funeral, I get that. Maya's classmate who died on the 21st...no funeral that I have seen notice of, no obit yet. If there is one, maybe I'll go. I went to the vigil that students (including her brother) had, and yeah, it helped a little bit.

    But I totally get how that is the picture that stays in your mind, and how it can change your memory of the person. That's the crappy part. For the first year or two after my mom died, my only memories of her were of her illness and the fear and stress of that. It took a long time for me to be able to remember our younger days.

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    1. J@jj--I agree with you that, had Harper Lee ever thought this original MS should see the light of day, it would have years ago.

      I'm glad that you were comforted by your mom's funeral. And I know that there are lots of people like you that find tremendous support from it. My problem is that there remains tremendous social pressure on people like me who do not. I still do not go, but the fallout is terrible.

      I have wonderful memories of my father; I have sad and painful ones, too, from his later years, which were filled with illness and frequent trips to the ER. I've shared lots of good ones here at the Dept. My point is that his funeral did not comfort me in any way, nor did it help any of my memories. We had one because we had to. There was no viewing, either, and you should have heard the old Croatian ladies who were outraged by that, wondering "where he was."

      Anyway, I think each individual should be able to do whatever will comfort him or her the most. Grief, as we both know, is so highly personal.

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  7. I hate being torn between wanting to know and keeping my idealistic memory unsullied. At a younger age, I might have read it, but now... not so much. I so agree that there are parts of our formative psyche that need to remain in tact. It has taken me many years to reconcile myself with the fact that certain things are better left un-read and un-said. I think it takes a lot more courage to make that decision than to decide to read it because it might seem as if we weren’t getting the whole picture. Sort of like being presented with the personal diary of someone you love and admire and being told “There are parts of this that you might find disturbing.” Some sleeping dogs do need to lie. (No pun intended.)

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    1. Ortizzle--I think that you're so right that Age is the mitigating factor here as well. In my youth, I might be driven to read it since, like the Everest analogy, IT WAS THERE! OF COURSE I MUST THEN READ IT. Now, older and less driven and more reflective, I don't feel like I have to do it. The compulsion is gone.

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  8. I still haven't read it and am - like so many - torn. I'd kind of like to read it just to have my own take on it - who knows? Maybe I'll read something into it that all those reviewers didn't. On the other hand, TKAM's Atticus was such a mensch it's hard to want to read anything that will tarnish that image. I certainly won't be reading it before I head back to England at the end of August, so I've got some time to read some more reviews and mull it over. I've never been a fan of reading anything just because everyone else is, so I probably won't start now.

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Oh, thank you for joining the fray!

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