18 September 2015

Ahab Lives! And Other Tales

Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman has elicited strong reactions on all sides. Even my own reaction is strong. I’m overwhelmed with bewilderment. Do I really want to read this book by a beloved author — published in questionable circumstances — radically upending the way a couple of generations have viewed the principal characters of her other novel — and what’s going to happen to all those people who named their sons and daughters Atticus and Scout? I’m still trying to make up my mind.

But while I do so, it’s important to remember that Harper Lee isn’t the only author to publish a novel that affords the reader a controversial alternative perspective into an acclaimed early work. Let us consider a few excerpts from these notable but seldom-read books.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Jordan Baker, 1935.

I told her again that I loved her and wanted to marry her. Now she turned her face toward mine and whispered, “Oh, poor, foolish Nick! You know you have no money — and how can I marry you when I know that you’ll never love anyone but Jay Gatsby? Daisy and I talk about it often. That’s why she could never run off with him. As soon as she saw all those shirts of his — what straight man has so many shirts? She’s always understood how you two felt about each other. And frankly I’m a little suspicious about your friendship with Meyer Wolfsheim, too.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Sensibility, 1819.

“Mrs. Darcy, we have been wed but some three months, and yet I find more cause for distress than for happiness,” Mr. Darcy said. “Dinner is between five and fifteen minutes late, seventy-five percent of the time. The silver is not polished after every meal, my socks have gone weeks without darning, and I see on every floor a waxy yellow buildup that is most disagreeable.”

Elizabeth bowed her head. “Yes, Darcy, but the servants — ”

“Silence, woman! I will not have you blame others for your own idleness and sloth! Go to your room, and do not come down again until you are ready to apologise.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Mid-Term Exam, 2010.

“Snape,” said Dumbledore, “you’re fired. And take that ass Gilderoy Lockhart with you when you go.”

George Eliot, Middlemarch Heights: A Study of Rural Life in a Luxury Housing Development, 1879.

Dorothea rushed to Casaubon’s side. She was much shocked by the change in his appearance, his sallow cheeks flushed, his cold eyes feverish.

“Thank God you have come!” he cried. “I feared I would not live to speak the words I must say to you now!”

“Calm yourself, my husband,” Dorothea replied. “I am here, and would listen to whatever you wish to tell me.”

“I have behaved most shamefully to you, Dorothea,” Casaubon said. “When I think how you have shown me every kindness, even as you refrained from pointing out the utter idiocy of my unfinished masterwork, The Key to All Mythologies. And when I compare you to the wives of other men — that awful Rosamond Vincy, for example, and the way she walks all over poor Dr. Lydgate — I tremble to think of the judgment that awaits me in Heaven!”

“Hush, hush — ” Dorothea began.

“No, I must — I shall — I tell you that I shall spend whatever time remains to me atoning for my sins toward you,” Casaubon gasped. “I have emended my testament to that effect. Everything shall go to you, without condition. And if it should please you to marry Will Ladislaw, then from Heaven I shall smile upon you both, and wish you every happiness.”

Bram Stoker, The Many Lives of Count Dracula, 1903.

Through the open window, Mina saw a ghastly silhouette against the full moon. She screamed. “It is he! It is — Dracula!”

The Count paused, then murmured, “I have come — ”

“Yes, yes!” Mina cried. “To bite my neck! To drink my blood! To make me thine — forever!”

“Er, no,” said the Count. “I’m flattered, really, but I couldn’t possibly. Actually, I have come to ask for a tax-deductible, charitable donation to the Carfax Orphanage.”

“Foul demon!” Mina shrieked. “An orphanage full of innocent virgins whom thou shalt corrupt! Little children to walk among the undead — oh, woe!”

“Good grief,” Dracula replied. “What kind of monster do you take me for, anyway?”

Harper Lee, Go Reap a Profit, Man, 2017.

“I see you now for what you are, Atticus,” Jean Louise said through clenched teeth. “I thought you were a man of principle and honor, a man committed to justice for others. But now I know you are a racist, without even the courage to admit your bigotry.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Jean Louise,” Atticus said thoughtfully. “I know that Jem and your mother would be sorry, too. But I can’t stand here all day talking about it. I’ve got to go and kill a mockingbird now.”

That damned bird has been keeping me up all night.


Anne said...

I found out I liked learning Atticus was a flawed human being instead of a super hero. That he could fight hard on behalf of a innocent black man, yet not want to share a water cooler. I do not approve of the latter feelings of course, but that is a human being and in the the context of 1930's, still a hero. We humans are a motley patch work of light and shadow and not perfect.

What I also like is the book is not merely about the 1950's, but from the 1950's and therefore it has not gone though the PC censorship meat grinder of today. It is of its time. We live in a time where children's books has the c word, yet we cannot be honest about the past without a call to silence. Miss Lee may be blind and deaf, but she was with it enough to nix the idea of, (shudder) " editing"

I also suggest Watchman has done so well, not only because of Mockingbird and lavish PR campaign , but because it is actual literature. First draft , unpolished, whatever,it's literature. As supposed to the fifty shades of warmed over porn we have been endlessly told is literature.

As for the other scenes in the post; Dear Bill, your romance writing is so vastly superior to passes as the gene and so deliciously camp, I wish you would write more of it! lol.

I didn't comment on Madeline at the Metropolitan Room because I was too moved for words. Life offers few moments as great as that. You have been blessed

William V. Madison said...

Thanks for those thoughtful comments and kind words, Anne. I’ll probably wind up reading Go Set a Watchman — it’s entirely possible that I’m enjoying my own moral–aesthetic dilemma more than I can actually justify. Something delicious about twisting this way.

As a native Southerner, I certainly knew very few paragons and vast numbers of flawed but well-meaning humans. The challenge was always to love them when they were wrong. A decent novel that considers that challenge, from a writer I already admire, would indeed be welcome.