Great Expectations v. 2.0



by Marcela Davison Aviles

Don’t cry for Atticus, America. The truth is he never left you.

I bought The New Book. As an occasional Op-Ed contributor, and would-be novelist, I had to. Plus, in spite of myself, I became a lawyer and named my dogs Atticus and Calpurnia. So, I HAD to. And I did what I always do when I acquire a book of fiction. I turned to the last page, and I read the last line. I heard on the radio (still the arbiter of all things we consider) The New Book was “a mess.” So with trepidation, I read the last line of the last page.

The last line was not classic. And, not an evocation of the First Book. In its emerging way, it was heritage. And the hard lessons of history. But don’t read Go Set a Watchman if you are looking for the cadence of a child’s memory. Don’t read it to go home again.  Because if you do, you won’t find what you’re looking for. What you will find is Harper Lee on her way to remembering why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird and imagining the voice of that admonition.

How shall we recall the memory of first attempts? Or the path toward greatness? Most times, we never have the chance.

I recall, in cracking the spine of “Watchman,” the forward to another memoir. The circumstances were similar. A young man, raised by an authority figure he reveres as a youth, discovers as an adult the moral deficits of the man who raised him. The youth was Walker Percy, and the man who raised him his uncle, Alexander Percy, author of “Lanterns on the Levee,” the classic and tragic epistle of the post-war South. Walker Percy, writing the forward for “Lantern’s” third printing in 1973, observed:

“For most of us, the communication of beauty takes two, the teacher and the hearer, the pointer and the looker. The rare soul, the Wolfe or Faulkner, can assault the entire body of literature single-handedly. I couldn’t or wouldn’t. I had a great teacher. The teacher points and says Look; the response is Yes, I see.”

On the issue of race, his response was “Yes, I see too well.”

Alexander Percy and Harper Lee struggled with questions on the morality of civil war, humanity chained, and identity. Both found a redemption in the cadence of youthful recollection and idealism. It was left to Walker Percy, and to us, to retrieve the lessons learned by a Plantation poet and a tomboy – that the rationalizations of honor lost, however romantic, are a thin cloak for justice denied. The one truth I discovered on my own journey with Alexander Percy was in our relationship to the land:

“And there is still no sound in the world so filled with mystery and longing and unease as the sound at night of a river-boat blowing for the landing – one long, two shorts, one long, two shorts. Over the somber levels of the water pours that great voice, so long prolonged it is joined by echoes from the willowed shore, a chorus of ghosts, and, roused from sleep, wide-eyed and still, you are oppressed by vanished glories, the last trump, the calling of the ends of earth, the current, ceaselessly moving out into the dark, of the eternal dying.”

The published opinions about Go Set a Watchman are almost equivalent to the sales figures for the book. As most of us should know by reading the latest Op-Ed, Watchman is set in the 1950s during a trip the now grown-up Scout Finch takes to Maycomb, her hometown and the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird. The one truth Jean Louise Finch discovers upon returning to Maycomb is not that Atticus is a racist. It is that the “true north” which fixes her code of life is within herself. And she discovers this upon her return to Maycomb by sharing the elixir of the South – a cold Coca-Cola, not with Atticus but with Mr. Fred the grocery man, who also moved away from Maycomb and then returned:

“… the longer I stayed away, the more I missed Maycomb. I got to the point where I felt like I had to come back or die. You never get it out of your bones.

Mr. Fred, Maycomb’s just like any other little town. You take a cross-section —“

“It’s not, Jean Louise. You know that.”

“You’re right,” she nodded.

It was not because this was where your life began. It was because this was where people were born and born and born until finally the result was you, drinking a Coke in the Jitney Jungle.

Now she was aware of a sharp apartness, a separation, not from Atticus and Henry, merely. All of Maycomb and Maycomb County were leaving her as the hours passed, and she automatically blamed herself.”

Alexander Percy was “the fixed point” in Walker Percy’s world, but the uncle’s views on race were the crossroads where their journey together did not walk the same road. And in Walker’s words we find Harper’s search for Atticus Finch:

“But even when I did not follow him, it was usually in relation to him, whether with him or against him, that I defined myself and my own direction … Surely it is the highest tribute to the best people we know to use them as best we can, to become, not their disciples, but ourselves.”

Harper Lee became herself by shaping and re-shaping the paradox of Atticus Finch. His core was always there – the man who defended Tom Robinson but not the jurists of Brown vs. Board of Education. With Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird Ms. Lee created the book ends of her quest for identity. There is no reason to mourn Atticus or the better angels of his quixotic compassion; we never lost him, or our yearning, to begin with.  But we did find something. We found our own true north. And that is both the hard and hopeful reason to read this Watchman’s tale.

Marcela Davison Aviles is an author, lawyer and founder of Chapultepec Group, a leading cultural insights agency serving the arts and entertainment industry and Managing Director of El Camino Project, a new arts social venture initiative.