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Silencing Jean Louise: the media and Harper Lee

For a brief moment in July of 2015, the American news media exploded with headline stories about a work of literature, something of an unprecedented turn for the mass media. That this coverage should have focused almost exclusively on race issues and ignored the “new” volume’s revelations about gender issues in Lee’s novels is understandable. The explanation lies in the coincidence of the book’s publication with a series of wrenching racial events from Ferguson to Charleston and summarized in the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which had lingered for four decades in a vault before “discovery” and publication, turned out to carry a surprisingly realistic message about racism in America. The New York Times put its review about the “dark side” of Atticus Finch on the front page. CNN’s coverage carried the banners “‘Atticus Finch’ Was Racist and Segregationist” and “Readers Shocked by Portrayal of Atticus Finch.” Virtually every review and commentary piece repeated the same story.

Harper Lee's bombshell of a book. CNN, July 14, 2015. 17 U.S.C. § 107: Fair Use
Harper Lee’s bombshell of a book. CNN, July 14, 2015. 17 U.S.C. § 107: Fair Use
The New York Times, July 11, 2015 Edition. 17 U.S.C. § 107: Fair Use
The New York Times, July 11, 2015 Edition. 17 U.S.C. § 107: Fair Use

Readers in the US and abroad were described as “devastated” and “disappointed” to learn that this version of Lee’s tale featured a bigot rather than a liberal hero. In a follow-up phone survey, the Times reported “that nearly six in 10 Americans, including heavy majorities of both whites and blacks, think race relations are generally bad, and that nearly four in 10 think the situation is getting worse.” Given that To Kill a Mockingbird has been the most frequently taught novel in American schools for decades, its reputed power to teach lessons of tolerance and racial liberalism appears to have been greatly exaggerated. As Isabel Wilkerson saw it, the “unmasking of the nation’s mythical conscience” was as necessary as taking down the Confederate flag.

While all this discussion was valuable, the characterization of Mockingbird upon which they relied often repeated the most wide-spread error in interpretations of the book: the assertion that the book is narrated by the six to eight-year old “Scout” Finch.

To understand Mockingbird, it is vitally important to maintain the distinction between the adult, first-person narrator Jean Louise and her childhood self.  We access Scout only through Jean Louise’s memories and stories. Jean Louise looks back upon her idealization of her father from a distance, rendering the child’s admiration with great success but placing it in a linguistic and social context that should make us aware of Atticus’s limitations and the ultimate practical futility of his liberalism, flaws many scholars have taken pains to demonstrate. Commentators and the general public seem to be remembering the Gregory Peck adaptation instead of Lee’s novel (see the special issue of Life Magazine featuring Peck reading the novel, a cover that unintentionally captures how Peck made the novel his own, and Atticus’s, story). The film silences Jean Louise’s voice, leaving only a few sentences of voiceover and expanding the role of Atticus in comparison to the novel. This creates the illusion that the story is told from the viewpoint of the child Scout, who is often positioned by the camera looking up to her father, an angle the audience must then share. In contrast, Mockingbird’s narrator rarely misses an opportunity to mock her community’s norms, especially about gender. Reacting to Aunt Alexandra’s effort to rein in her tomboy ways, Jean Louise writes, in decidedly adult language: “I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me, and for the second time in my life I felt like running away” (182). This exquisite phrasing, which also ties the tomboy’s imprisonment to the fate of Tom Robinson, does not emerge from the mouth of a six-year-old.

The Enduring Power of to Kill a Mockingbird, Life Books, 2015.
The Enduring Power of To Kill a Mockingbird, Life Books, 2015.

In both Watchman and Mockingbird, this distancing stems from Jean Louise’s—and Harper Lee’s—feminism, which is every bit as essential to the rebellious insights of these books as is Lee’s racial liberalism, if indeed they can be separated at all. Something queer is happening in Maycomb, as Truman Capote also saw when he placed his 1948 gay coming-of-age novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms in a fictional version of the town where he shared summers with the young Nelle Lee. Capote had probably discussed the book with Lee during visits back home, and she moved to New York the year after its publication, causing her father, A.C. Lee, to blame Capote for her daughter’s desire to move north to become a writer.

In studying Lee’s development, I puzzled over the change from her college writing to Mockingbird. As a student she penned biting satires, including a farce about Southern race politics that pulled no punches. Clearly Watchman was the missing link, directly addressing the current race events of the 1950s in direct if sometimes awkward and confused ways. Yet the Jean Louise of Watchman reads very much like a fictionalized version of the Nelle Harper from the 1940s. “I didn’t wear anything but overalls till I started having the Curse—“ recounts Jean Louise. She’s a grown-up tomboy, as Henry observes: “she still moved like a thirteen-year-old boy and abjured most feminine adornment.” “How do I go about being an enchantress?” Jean Louise flippantly asks him, only to be answered with these solemn patriarchal platitudes: “First. . . hold your tongue. Don’t argue with a man, especially when you know you can beat him. Smile a lot. Make him feel big. Tell him how wonderful he is, and wait on him.” Eventually Jean Louise unleashes her tongue on her father, denouncing his racism and hypocrisy until exhausted by his gentlemanly response. Reviewers rightly find the novel’s conclusion unsatisfying, as, after being slugged in the mouth by her uncle, Jean Louise ends caught between her knowledge and her love. When the manuscript is rejected by her editor, who tells her to set it twenty years earlier and from the viewpoint of little Scout, Harper Lee takes another one, figuratively, on the chin.

In Mockingbird, Jean Louise remains the narrator, but all the details of her life are expunged, and we know nothing of her, her adulthood, or her life in New York. Yet her irreverent sensibility still informs every sentence in Mockingbird, as it does lines like her rejoinder to Alexandra in Watchman: “Aunty, why don’t you go pee in your hat?” There are many more passages in Watchman of overt description of Jean Louise’s “malignant limbo of turning from a howling tomboy into a young woman.” Her rejection of the “world of femininity” dooms her romance with Henry even more than her discovery of his racism. The fury of Jean Louise’s reaction to the revelation of Atticus’s participation in the White Citizens Council seems fueled by a general need to break with patriarchal Southern norms, especially after her cosmopolitan liberation in New York. “You who called me Scout,” thinks Jean Louise, “are dead and in your grave.” But in order to tell her story, Jean Louise, or Lee, must revive Scout and quiet her own voice, turning much of the work of exposing Maycomb’s fear of the other to the new Boo Radley plot. By inventing that closeted figure, Lee gives Jean Louise an objective correlative for her own ghostly status and queer life of limbo. Lee was able to publish a novel that her hometown, and her nation, could embrace, but not one in which she was ever quite at home.

Headline image credit: “11/366″ by Bear. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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