This is how I’m spending my time on the world wide time-wasting web these days when I’m trying to avoid my book revisions for twenty minutes or so: reading various commentaries that come in threes. It’s fun! And there are THREE of them, not just one, so more time-wasting that feels a little like intellectual work, but really isn’t compared to finishing my book!
First, the blog at the American Historical Association has published three blog posts by historians wrestling with some of the questions and comparisons of transgender and transracial identities inspired by the summer of Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner. First, Susan Stryker wrote last week on “Identification, Embodiment, and Bodily Transformation;” next, Daryl Michael Scott wrote “The Problem is Ethnicity, Not Race,” and said that there’s no such thing as trans-ethnic identities; and finally, Allison Miller in “Beyond Binaries: How Transgender History Advances Discourse on Identity” makes a provocative argument for seeking transgender people in history, and looking far beyond the late nineteenth-century psychological diagnoses of “inverts” and the twentieth-century medicalization and surgical interventions on trans bodies.
It’s too bad either Miller or the AHA blog decided to illustrate this post with a photograph of Radclyffe Hall, someone who unfortunately links this post to this modern era of transgender identities and bodies! I wish they had sought out an illustration of a “medical curiosity” from the early modern era, when stories of transpeople were popular and occupied a blurry patch of medical discourse, folklore, and entertainment–not unlike the way we talk about trans issues today.
The second three-parter I’ve enjoyed this week is William Giraldi’s outstanding three-part review of the tsuris surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. First, “The Suspicious Story” of the “new” book’s publication, which was almost surely engineered by Lee’s attorney, agent, and publisher; then Giraldi asks “Just How Good is To Kill a Mockingbird?,“ in which he incisively identifies the limits of Atticus Finch’s moral leadership and suggests that (white) critics who are so shocked by the KKK- and CCC-allied Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman really shouldn’t be.
Finally–and this is the only major argument of his with which I disagree–Giraldi says that “Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman Should Never Have Been Published,” preferring that it had mouldered in an archive where “it might have been mildly nourishing for future tweeds in search of tenure, but it should never have been expensively packaged, gaudily hyped, unscrupulously employed as chum to lure lovers of Mockingbird.”
I disagree, although I find the necrotic greed and exploitation he details in part I as distasteful as Giraldi does. I haven’t read the book yet, but I will because I’ve been frustrated by all of the (white) critical breast-beating about Atticus Finch’s exposure as a pillar of his racist community. It’s as though these critics are still children like Scout Finch, rather than adults who have been exposed to the moral failings of other adults in history and literature if not in their very own lives. (And who among us can get to the age of thirty entirely innocent of the knowledge that human beings are flawed, complex, and frequently contradictory creatures?)
Anyone who reads To Kill a Mockingbird as an adult has to see, as William Giraldi argues, that Atticus Finch is a leader of the white community of Maycomb/Monroeville, Alabama, and anyone with a passing knowledge of American history has to know that men (and they were almost entirely men in those days) didn’t get to become or remain pillars of the establishment by celebrating Brown V. Board of Education, pushing for integration, or celebrating the Civil Rights movement. (How else could the widowed Atticus have afforded that stately home with the full-time housekeeper to look after his children all day long? He clearly wasn’t going to do anything to risk that privilege.)
I’m glad we’ll all get the chance to read Go Set a Wachman, and talk about the realities of life in a midcentury Alabama small town, and how a person could be both a defense attorney committed to do his best for both white and black defendants and also a Klansman and a member of the Concerned Citizens Council. Because that’s the only version that sounds true to life and history to me.