Thursday, July 30, 2015

Setting the Watchman

OK. I've finished reading Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, and here's my take on it. I'll try to avoid any spoilers for those of you who haven't read it. And honestly, I didn't pay much attention to the writing. If the story is good - and I think this one mostly is - and if there's nothing appallingly horrible in the writing - which there isn't in this case, I don't read as a literary critic. So I ignored what criticism's I read beforehand.

The whole Atticus brouhaha didn't impact what I felt was the truth of the book or how I read it, because Scout is my Mockingbird hero, not her daddy. Knowing Scout/Jean Louise as a little girl made me curious about a grown-up Scout/Jean Louise, and for the most part she didn't disappoint me in Watchman. She's still feisty and bull-headed, kicking against the pricks but mostly in a good, brave way. She's not perfect, though. Some of the stuff toward the end made me cringe, because she says and thinks some disturbing stuff. I had to keep reminding myself of the time and setting. I still love her.

The big question that kept popping into my head was why didn't Lee's editors want this story told in 1960? Why did they want the 1930's backstory instead of this far more timely tale (for then and now) of a small Southern town coming to grips with the Supreme Court's decision on Brown v. The Board of Education and the rise of the Citizens Counsels? Was it too controversial? A little incendiary for the times, especially coming from an Alabama girl?

Let's face it, the brilliant editor of Mockingbird could've worked his magic on the truth of Watchman just as easily. I guess we wouldn't have wonderful Mockingbird if they'd stuck with Watchman, and that would be a loss, but still. Why the more nostalgic, distant tale instead of the happenin'-right-now one? Just wondering.

I have no idea if Nelle Harper Lee wanted Watchman published. I hope she's OK with it. In any case,  she has her brilliant, beloved Mockingbird. But I'm glad this first effort was published. I like getting to know Scout/Jean Louise as a 26-year-old who lives in New York City and isn't afraid to say what she thinks. And I mostly understand Atticus - he was a man of his time (pre-Greatest Generation) and place. Like most folks, he had heroic moments and he had his cowardly moments. Sad about Jem. Sad about the relationship with Calpurnia. But it ain't 1930-whatever anymore.

Go Set A Watchman is not To Kill A Mockingbird, but the gift of this book is not its literary genius. The gift is the story told in the late 1950s by a young Southern woman about the impact of changing attitudes on a small Southern town and on an entire country. It's a Black and White story, an Old versus New story, Childhood Beliefs versus Grown-up Reality story. And, boy, it's pretty darn relevant in 2015.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

My Own Southern Heritage

"Southern heritage" seems to be all the rage (in every sense of that word) in these days following the unspeakable murders in Charleston last month. Seems what I consider my Southern heritage isn't the same as what the media or folks waving that awful flag think it to be.

My Southern heritage can be found in places like Atlanta History Center, or Chickamauga Battlefield, Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, Memphis' Graceland, or New Orleans' Preservation Hall. It can be found in the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Outer Banks, and the Okefenokee Swamp and in the quilts of the women of Gee's Bend, Alabama, the baskets of Sea Island, Georgia, and the dulcimers, fiddles, and banjos of Appalachia.

And since nobody tells a tale like my Southern brothers and sisters, I'm proud of my story-spinning heritage from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Thomas Wolfe, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, Maya Angelou, and, yes, Margaret Mitchell. William Styron, Alice Walker, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, James Dickey, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty - yep, I'll claim all of them as part of my Southern heritage. Writers from the South or writing from a Southern perspective are the stars of American literature, past and present. Mine. Claimin' 'em. By the way, I get my current Southern storytelling fix from The Bitter Southerner. It tells more about the South than any sound-bite media fascination or hateful racist hell-bent on shooting up or burning a church.

My Southern heritage is wrap-around porches, broad-leafed magnolias with punchbowl-sized blossoms, fried chicken and watermelon, Co-Cola and Goo-Goo Clusters, pallets on sleeping porches, and family, family, family. It's y'all and yes, ma'am. It's humidity, lightning bugs, and flip-flops in the summer and going crazy over a few flakes of snow in the winter. It's laughing until you cry. A lot. It's hospitality and hugs and that double-edged sword, "Bless your heart" - for everyone, whatever your color or gender/sexual preference, economic background, education, or religious affiliation. And of course, "How's yo' mama?"

The Gresham-Weed family cemetery right on busy Chamblee-Tucker Road in Atlanta, as well as the Nicholson-Pardue cemetery behind the farmhouse in Henrietta, Tennessee, are both a part of my Southern heritage. Of course, some of the men resting there fought for the South in the Civil War, though to my knowledge they were all poor dirt farmers, not slave-holders. Not excusing their participation - it was what they did at that time in history, may they rest in peace. Many more, however, served the United States in the World Wars and beyond, fighting for the US flag.

Certainly, slavery and racism are part of my Southern heritage, too. Many other parts of the United States share in that history, but this isn't about them; it's about my particular part of the country. I will own it. I will learn from it. I will check myself if tempted to place blame on an entire race or class of people, even poor (and rich) Southern white folks, since only God knows what's in people's hearts.

So. I'm telling you that the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia is not a symbol of my Southern heritage. For me and many, many people born and raised in the South, it represents sinful oppression and a lost, really bad, cause. There were many flags of the Confederacy, but this is the one that is used by the KKK, folks opposed to Civil Rights in the 1950s and 60s (and, it seems, beyond), and is proudly waved by crazy, wild-eyed racists and people bent on causing evil. So, no, not my Southern heritage.

As a proud daughter of the South and what I believe is my true Southern heritage, I resent that rich legacy being hijacked by the folks still fighting the Civil War or the media constantly shining a spotlight on the least educated or most hateful among us. Most Southerners didn't build this region using slave labor, so dig deeper on that story if you don't know it. Thanks to the genius and hard work of both blacks and whites, the South is a culturally diverse powerhouse, with unsurpassed scenic beauty and a knack for telling a good story and singing a great song.

Most importantly, my Southern heritage is a piece of a great American crazy-quilt - a piece I love, but just one of many squares. When it comes to citizenship, I am an American, y'all.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Take the pledge

Celebrate! Run, eat, swim, hike, enjoy fireworks and baseball. Just please take a little time to re-read The Declaration of Independence. Yes, some of the signers were slaveholders, women had no active role in its writing, and we've never lived up to its ideals (could any nation?). It was a product of its time. Still, the ideals set forth are something to aspire to.

Everyone may interpret it differently. Some may see Corporate America as the modern day King George; others will see the President, Congress, or the Supreme Court in the king role. But it is not a Republican or Democratic (big R, big D) or Tea Party  or Green Party document. The signers wrangled over every word. There were almost insurmountable disagreements. And yet, they pledged to each other "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

Goodness gracious, can we not do the same?