Three: it’s a magic number.

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.

9 thoughts on “Three: it’s a magic number.

  1. Thank goodness the internet provides quality diversions from revisions! I’m also looking forward to reading Go Set a Watchman. It sounds like it will provide the basis for lots of interesting conversations on race.


  2. Thanks for the link to the AHA blog. . .I forget to check that.

    And I’ve been surprised that people are upset that Atticus Finch turned out to be a segregationist. He may support equality at the courthouse, but outside. . . (And as someone who did not read TKAM until I was in my 50s — hard to know how I missed it — I don’t have a romantic vision to displace.)


  3. I read the first page of _Watchman_ this morning, while exiting a Barnes and Noble where I’d gone in search of another surprise literary late-comer, a newly discovered and published work by Dr. Seuss called something like “Which Pet Should I Get?” Any book that begins looking out the window of a dining car rolling through Georgia (_Watchman_, I mean), and then jumps to an account of a half-naked author getting trapped in the upper berth of a sleeping car, has to have some interesting episodes just ahead. As for Seuss, the staff at B & N didn’t seem to have much knowledge about it, although it was all over the front pages of the New York Times this morning. This is how you get swallowed up by Amazon.


  4. I, too, have not yet read Watchman, but have ordered a copy (somewhat reluctantly, since I do worry about who’s benefiting from sales, but the marketing blitz/resultant conversation got me), and will read it once I get grades for my summer class in. And I, too, am not really surprised by the reported portrayal of Atticus Finch, and suspect I may even find the earlier draft of the book more interesting than TKAM (which I enjoyed, but I’m also very aware of the point of view from which it’s narrated, while I’m afraid too many readers — including a good many teachers teaching the book to high school students who are often still in a somewhat idealistic/simplistic binary heroes/villains thinking phase — tend to overlook that, and adopt Scout’s perspective as their own). If Watchman makes people rethink TKAM as go-to reading about race in American schools, or at least rethink how it’s taught, that, too, strikes me as a good thing. Maybe they’ll go back to Huck Finn (which also poses problems/questions, but makes it harder to avoid the inevitable complexities of discussing anything about race in an American context, and can be used to teach some of the same lessons about narrative perspective), or consider something else from/about C20: John Lewis’ graphic memoir? Coming of Age in Mississippi? Pretty much anything by Richard Wright, James Baldwin, or (if one doesn’t mind a northern setting, which can bring up useful points of its own) Ann Petry? There’s a lot to be said for hearing the story(ies) from the point(s) of view of those most intimately affected.


  5. I love those videos (and can still sing all the songs by heart). I so agree with you about the rich premodern history of transgender lives and social reactions to gender complications. There’s so much interesting work on this from different angles, I agree.

    I’m so not interested in reading “Go Set A Watchman” because I understand it as Harper Lee’s shitty first draft. Frankly, life’s too short to read lots of those. Plus the whole worry about who’s profiting from this trainwreck also has me spooked. But, also, I’m not an American historian or teaching in a U.S. environment so TKAM doesn’t have that enormous baggage here.


    • Oh, awesome!!! This is why I’m sad that I’m no longer a daily reader of the LAT: “”To Kill a Mockingbird,” . . . tells the coming-of-age story of Scout and her older brother, Jem, in the 1930s in a Southern town. That the town has a tortured history goes without saying, but what struck me most on my rereading was that it did not seem nearly tortured enough.”


  6. Historiann,

    Have you read this post on race and class in To Kill a Mockingbird by Michael Lind? Lind takes Harper Lee, James Dickey and others to task for giving a pass to the southern gentry which carried out a violent class war against poor whites and blacks.

    I have no intention of reading Go Set a Watchman, or re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Revisiting books I read in high school seems counterproductive when there are so many other new things to read. Maybe I will go read some James Baldwin or Frederick Douglass instead.


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