Go Set a Watchman, to use a tired description, is what it is: a sixty year-old first novel that its author, with guidance from a thoughtful editor, revised into a beloved classic of American literature.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (image courtesy Goodreads)
I wrote about Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman, a couple of weeks ago and discussed the problematic history of its discovery and subsequent publication. At that time I wondered whether Lee was able to discern how her decision (upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court) might affect her literary legacy.
I’ve read the novel now and can offer two observations: 1) if one is to appreciate Watchman, one must approach it as what it is – a 60 year old work that might have been published as a work of its time; 2) had Watchman been published in 1957 when Lee first shopped it to publishers, it would have been reviewed as an uneven first novel by a young author who showed flashes of promise but as a work was ultimately a failure.
Southerners have trouble ruling out the possible. What happens to a man to whom all things seem possible and every course of action open? Nothing of course…. – Walker Percy
The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy (image courtesy Goodreads)
At long last the time has come to talk about Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman both on its own merits as a great Southern novel and in relation to my novel The New Southern Gentleman and about Percy’s influence on both me and on that novel.
As promised, let me talk first about my relationship with Mr. Percy. In 1984 I was a doctoral student completing a creative dissertation which became (several years later) the novel mentioned above. I was in contact with an editor at one of the major publishing houses in New York who liked my work and kept pushing me to write something/anything that would please the new masters of publishing, the corporate entities who were swallowing up the old family owned publishing houses left and right and for whose decision making power they had shifted from editors to marketing departments. He liked my manuscript, but he figured it would not fly with marketing (he was right; the novel only appeared years later from a small, independent litfic house in California). Because of the similarity in the title of my work and the title of Mr. Percy’s masterpiece, he wrote to me and suggested I write to Walker Percy. Continue reading →
Complete detachment or complete engagement – as Billy Joel observed, it all depends upon your appetite….
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (image courtesy Goodreads)
I am still making my way, rather too leisurely probably, through Walker Percy’s marvelous novel The Last Gentleman (about which I will have much to say, since I corresponded with Mr. Percy while completing my first book, a novel, The New Southern Gentleman). I’m also awaiting delivery of my copy of about which I’ll write some more once I’ve read it and digested its what promises to be awesomely hyped mediocrity.
That left me casting about for something to write about for this essay, and I found it by stumbling upon an essay in The Nation about the latest trend (counter trend might be another way of viewing it) in literary fiction: novels composed of the musings of completely detached narrators rambling on in some sort of Onionesque version of the literary equivalent of a “nattering nabob of negativitsm” that the vice-crook of the Nixon administration once was on about.
By now I’m sure you know that the US is preparing to invade Texas. All kinds of self-medicating gongbats concerned sovereign citizens have dissected Washington’s nefarious scheme and they stand ready to defend The Republic from …
Okay, here’s where I need some help. I’ve been studying a map of the US, and I even consulted Wikipedia. Best I can tell, Texas is part of the United States, right?
The soon to be released Harper Lee novel Go Set a Watchman will be an interesting experiment: a sequel that seeks to explode the mythology surrounding her only other work, the ubiquitously revered celebration of high-minded Southernness, To Kill a Mockingbird. How that will go down with the myriad Atticus Finch acolytes is what will make or break both the novel and perhaps Lee’s reputation as a writer….
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (image courtesy HarperCollins, NY Times)
By now anyone within reach of media of one stripe or another knows that Harper Lee, the long reclusive and now aged and fragile author of one of, if not the the most beloved of American novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, is now, at long last, bringing out a second novel, a work which is both a sequel to Mockingbird and, at least in the minds of early reviewers, a sort of rebuttal of that myth of Southern race relations.
However, such questions, and the arguments they have fostered, seem, at best, pointless now. Go Set a Watchman will be released 07/14/2015. And Chapter 1 of the novel is already available from numerous sources for those seeking a preview. What remains, then, is to consider the work – which probably must be done both on its own merits and in terms of its relationship with its iconic descendant. Continue reading →
During the epidemic of denial regarding the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, accurately described as PTSD-like by my friend Sam, the genius editorialist Ta-Nahisi Coates published an open letter to his son, in which he struggles with the violent and psychologically disturbed position of so-called “white” people regarding “non-white” people, and the consequences of that position. It reads like a letter he wishes someone had sent him during his youth, surviving the streets of Baltimore.
His letter is an apology, both for his personal inability to protect his son from the violence which his son will surely endure solely because of his “non-white” status, and for his failure as a man and a leader to bring about the change necessary to give “non-white” people a level playing field. He lays out the reasons for his failure in painfully accurate terms. The primary culprit is the insular nature of white privilege, the illusion of normalcy which allows “white” people to pretend that “non-white” people do not exist, thereby rendering their suffering invisible. Continue reading →
James Street’s The Gauntlet, a novel about the trials of a young Southern Baptist minister in the 1920’s, will ring true, sometimes painfully so, for anyone who ever experienced small town church life….
The Gauntlet by James Street (image courtesy Goodreads)
From the literary efforts of arch poseur Jerzy Kosinski to the earnest writing of James Street is a pretty far leap, but I made it last week. I added this work to my “Southern, mainly North Carolinian” section of the 2015 reading list because I stumbled upon an account of Street’s untimely death in Chapel Hill, NC, in 1954 at the age of 50. That’s probably a rather macabre reason for adding a writer to a reading list, and certainly Street’s literary reputation is that of popular novelist rather than “serious” literary artist. The times we live in have pretty much eviscerated giving any form of art consideration by any other measure than “the marketplace,” however, and almost all of Street’s 17 novels were bestsellers in their time, so by current standards of literary excellence I can easily justify including him among those whose literary reputations might be more admired by the litfic crowd (of whom I’m a proud, card carrying member) whose achievements (and rewards) are too often intangible.
Besides, truth be told, Street is an able writer and The Gauntlet is a pretty good book that rings true in its depiction of small town church politics. Continue reading →
White people: Don’t get defensive. I was brought up in the South. I know what it’s like. A bunch of grown men, pillars of the community, get together around the grill, maybe at the volunteer fire station, maybe at church. These are your neighbors, people you know and respect. You want them to like you. Then one of them tells a racist joke and they all laugh. So you laugh too. What’s the matter, boy, can’t you take a joke?
My public elementary school was 100% white. The Baptist Church where I was baptized was 99.9% white. One time a local boy married a negress (CRINGE) and it was a big scandal. They don’t come around much anymore. Everyone is happier this way I suppose, although his folks are a mite touchy about it, so it’s best if you don’t mention it. They can’t help what their boy did I reckon. Kids these days got no moral fiber. Continue reading →
Whether it flies over the state house in South Carolina, or flaps from the back of some redneck’s truck in Southern California, this motherfucker has got to get pulled down, burned, and gone from our ways…
(Picture taken at Grover Beach, California in January, 2015)
There’s much to like about Bernie Sanders, but can he really help us kick the war habit?
Occupy Democrats and US Uncut have a handy macro going around that highlights Bernie’s 11 point economic agenda. It’s big. It’s important. It’s to be lauded. And if we’re not to have Bernie, it’s to be emulated. But we’ve also seen the devastating effect war has had on our economy, to say nothing of the lives lost to our wayward military adventurism. Below you’ll find my own reasons for supporting this 11-point economic plan as well as some serious consideration of his missing 12th point. Continue reading →
“That’s the South’s trouble. Ignorant. Doesn’t know anything. Doesn’t even know what’s happening outside in the world! Shut itself up with its trouble and its ignorance until the two together have gnawed the sense out of it.” – Lillian Smith, Strange Fruit
Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith (image courtesy Goodreads)
Books come to us in all sorts of ways. Some come assigned; some come recommended; some come by accident. Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith’s powerful indictment of the Jim Crow South, came to me in that third way. I was browsing the “sell off” books at my local library when I came across this powerful novel and decided to buy it based solely on the title – which may or may not have come from the Billie Holiday classic about lynching. Once I had decided to divide my reading year into world lit/Southern lit groups, StrangeFruit became a natural choice for the latter group. Following as it does Peter Taylor’s brittle, elegantA Summons to Memphis and Harry Crews’s over the top Southern Gothic nightmare A Feast of Snakes, Strange Fruit is a book that synthesizes both of those views of the South – though it was written 40 years before the former and 30 years before the latter works.
This is a book with a remarkable history. Vilified as obscene, there were numerous attempts to ban the book. The controversy made the book a best seller, in fact the best selling novel of 1944. No less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt became a champion of the book. Perhaps, as has often been noted, the greatest outrage over the book came when it became known that the author was a Southerner – and a white woman. A generation later, of course, a Southern white woman would become a national heroine – eventually a national treasure – by writing much the same story – only in a more saccharine treatment. Continue reading →
When a writer combines washed up All-American football players, sexually frustrated former majorettes, a rattlesnake roundup, a racist, rapist sheriff, and dog fighting and sets it all in the rural South, one expects pretty much what Harry Crews gives us – a darkly tragicomic tale that delights even as it gives one the willies.
A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews (image courtesy Goodreads)
And perhaps that’s an important point to make about this novel. What makes A Feast of Snakes a powerful read is that for both those who like their Southern lit on the Gothic side, there’s plenty of the grotesque, eccentric, and sinister. For those who, like me, appreciate the economy of style and and cold-blooded examination of those in the lower ranks of the 99%, Harry Crews offers a novel that both delivers plenty of weirdness and plenty of honest examination of the wretched. From snake handling preachers to body building lawyers, this is a book with a little something for everyone. Continue reading →
Americans of both parties fundamentally reject the regime of untrammeled money in elections made possible by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and other court decisions and now favor a sweeping overhaul of how political campaigns are financed, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.
A ray of hope? A touch of sunshine? Can our long national nightmare of billionaire-bought elections be ending?
And by a significant margin, they reject the argument that underpins close to four decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence on campaign finance: that political money is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. Even self-identified Republicans are evenly split on the question. [See the poll questions.]
What Forbes is after is not easily achieved: he seeks to portray both a society in crisis and the life of a person who, in crisis himself, still strives to draw public attention to the social crisis in hopes of saving, if not himself, at least that society. Derail This Train Wreck is a ray of light in a world going dark.
Derail This Train Wreck by Daniel Forbes (image courtesy derailthistrainwreck.com)
Derail This Train Wreck is a book of our times. It has elements of the near future dystopian tale so popular in our times. Its political satire veers between the somberly apocalyptic vision of a Truthout piece and the tongue in cheek irony dripping humor of an article from The Onion. And its domestic/romantic plot line (a failed relationship and the struggle of the parties to reorient their lives) is the stuff of which our lives and those of many we know is made. That Daniel Forbes has been able to weave these disparate elements into a narrative that is not simply cohesive but compelling is to his great credit – and the reader’s delight. Continue reading →
The following is a Facebook post from NC Senator Josh Stein.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Bob Rucho flouted the democratic process yesterday to ram an anti-clean tech bill through committee.
We considered a House bill to curtail the development of solar and other renewables. Before we took the voice vote, Sen. Blue called for division, which is a process where members raise their hands to be counted. The Senate Rules are explicit. When a member calls for division, the chair “shall” do so.
Sen. Rucho refused saying he was exercising his authority as chair. He has no such authority. It was a rank abuse of power. Continue reading →
For that matter, on a list of the ten poorest Congresstocrats, good ol’ Alcee comes in 8th poorest with a net worth of $2.23 million, to say nothing of that teeny weeny salary of his. Poor Steve Scalise, hobnobber with Duke-inspired hatemongers that he is, at least has the decency to get by as the poorest of the poor with a net worth of only $671,000.
Scholarly inquiry is often like panning for gold: patient tedium yielding the occasional nugget. Then again, sometimes it yields to the temper of the times and decides to hype the discovery of iron pyrite.
Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s laboratory (image courtesy Wikimedia)
That fount of all that is worth knowing in life, Facebook®, provided me with a couple of interesting items yesterday that were a step above the usual “look at what I’m having for dinner” and “here I am at (insert event name here)” fare. One was provided by a FB pal and fellow Scrogue who thought I’d find interesting a news item from Cal-Berkeley reporting that scholars have located a number of Mark Twain’s early newspaper pieces. A second item came to my attention via one of those pages one “likes/follows”: in this case, the FB page of a certain early 19th century British novelist with whom I have a nodding acquaintance. This item concerns a new book by a scholar who claims she has positively identified (which puts her in a queue with several other scholars) the historical figure upon whom that writer based one of her most famous literary creations, a rather proud sort of fellow named Fitzwilliam Darcy. Each of these stories is treated in a breathless sort of reportorial “wow, cool” tone. Continue reading →