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    Wednesday
    Feb042015

    Why Harper Lee used the title To Set a Watchman & more on new book

    The announcement of the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which is both a sequel and prequel to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird, is a confirmation of William Faulkner’s famous statement:

    “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

    I was interviewed this morning on WJBC about the new novel and wanted to share more of my thoughts here. Harper Lee’s new novel is in fact an old novel. She wrote it prior to the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. The title is the first working title of the manuscript which would become To Kill a Mockingbird. Originally, Mockingbird was titled Go Set a Watchman. She later revised the book with the title Atticus, and then revised again to To Kill a Mockingbird. Charles Shield wrote about these books in his unofficial biography of Harper Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.

    What many commentators have overlooked (but the Birmingham News did not) is the Biblical reference in this new title. Go Set a Watchman comes from the King James translation of Isaiah 2:16:

    “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

    As a writer who told Roy Newquist in 1964 that "all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama," Harper Lee is steeped in the Bible as is her character Miss Maudie, the cheerful neighbor who is a female mentor to Scout. But as the title of the new novel suggests, it may be a more darker novel than To Kill a Mockingbird since the reference in Isaiah to the watchman is about the prediction of the fall of Babylon. So, if Go Set a Watchman is set 20 years after the events of TKAM and features many of the same characters, the time period has changed. TKAM takes place in 1935 when Scout is 9. The sequel will take place in approximately 1955, when Scout is 29.

    The publisher said in the press release announcement:

    Scout (Jean Louise Finch) has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father, Atticus. She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.

    This means that Atticus, who was nearly 50 in TKAM, is now in his early 70s. It also means that Scout, who has been living in New York City, returns to her hometown of Maycomb. Between 1935 and 1955, the cultural and political landscape of the South has been transformed by the rise of the Civil Rights movement. For instance, in December 1955, Rosa Parks, under the guidance of Martin Luther King, Jr., initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Montgomery would be within a few hours of Maycomb (Monroeville). Alabama would continue to be a flashpoint in the Civil Rights era, a legacy that it is still coming to terms with.

    If this is a novel that was written before TKAM and is not as heavily edited, it may not be as strong a work. But very few novels are as wonderfully written as TKAM. Nevertheless, readers of TKAM will want to read the sequel and to see how characters such as Atticus, Scout, and others mature and change over time.

    The timing of the announcement of this novel probably has much to do with the recent death of Harper Lee’s older sister Alice who died in November 2014. Alice, who like their father, was a practicing lawyer until she was 103 years old. Alice served as Harper Lee’s lawyer and protector from unwanted publicity. The word was that the other books she was working on were lost in a burglary. 

    Alice later told a Chicago Tribune reporter that the book never got beyond the conceptual stage.

    It is clear that Harper Lee, like Boo Radley, did not want to be in the limelight, as she explained to Oprah. Alice, who Harper Lee called her ‘Atticus in a skirt,’ is no longer alive to protect Lee’s literary legacy.

    One of my favorite former professors when I was a student at Stamford University, was Wayne Flynt, who is aWayne Flint friend of Harper Lee. Flynt, an emeritus Auburn University professor, talks with her regularly. The Birmingham News interviewed Flynt yesterday and said that he saw her over the weekend. He described her as “quite lucid, because I was there talking with her.” He told NPR today that:

    Lee can still quote long passages of Shakespeare from memory and discuss the complete works of C.S. Lewis. She can still write and she reads voraciously, using a giant magnifying machine. He says Lee is hard of hearing but sound of mind.

    What  is certain is that she has been frail since her stroke in 2007, going deaf and blind. But Flynt reports that she is control of her faculties. So the questions of whether this is an exploitation of an aging writer seems to be unfounded based on Flynt’s observations.

    Update: An article in the Birmingham News on Feb. 5 by a reporter who interviewed several locals in Monroeville who know Harper Lee suggests that they think she was pressured into releasing the book. In an article from CBS Atlanta on Feb. 5, the reporter interviews a few more people and is not as conclusive. Clearly her lawyer is involved and encouraged Harper Lee to publish the book. Yet, I think that this book would probably have been published as soon as she died, so maybe it is better to get it out now while she is alive and can be cognizant of more appreciation.

    What makes the publication of Go Set a Watchman so fascinating is that it is like having Boo Radley come out of his house after all these years. 

    So 55 years after the publication of TKAM this sequel is a summons up from the past. Just like Scout, in this new novel readers of TKAM are drawn to return to Maycomb to see how the past measures with the present.

     

     

    Wednesday
    Jan212015

    Into the Woods, Into rethinking fairy tales

    The new Disney film Into the Woods delves into fairy tales by looking at them through a psychological lens. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine also wanted to ask the question "What happens after fairy tales end?" when they produced the musical on Broadway.

    Should fairy tales be re-told and re-imagined? As I explained in this article on the ISU Media Relations site, "Into the Woods fractured fairy tales right on track," people are constantly looking at fairy tales as a kind of mirror to understanding contemporary times. Fairy tales, which were once mainly told to adults around fire on cold winter nights, are now routinely seen as children's literature. Yet, they are still scary, still intended to teach about harsh reality, and are riveting entertainment. For further thoughts, check out the article.

    Thanks to Rachel Hatch for interviewing me for the ISU Media Relations article.

    Friday
    Dec262014

    Peter Pan play marks 110th anniversary

    Tonight is the 110th anniversary of J.M. Barrie's play "Peter Pan" first being performed. Laura Kennedy, the local NPR station WGLT, interviewed me about Peter Pan and its multitude of forms that Barrie created. Thanks to Laura Kennedy for being such a great interviewer and making me sound so good.

    Here's the link to the interview.http://wglt.org/wireready/news/2014/12/05436_12-26PeterPanWEB_040330.shtml

    In the interview, you will hear how Peter Pan is linked to the legendary Victorian Pantomime's that filled theaters with laughter during the holiday season. I also talk about how Barrie befriend a family of boys and then based much of the Peter Pan story on playing with them as well as missing his younger brother, David, who died in childhood. Barrie published numerous versions of the story in adult novels, as a play, as a novel for children and more.

    Monday
    Sep012014

    Richard Linklater's film Boyhood an interesting study in kids growing up

    The compelling acting in Richard Linklater's, Boyhood, which follows a family over an arc of 12 years, is what isEllar Coltrane as he ages in Boyhood kept my son and I rivted during the three-hour film. The film is as much about parenting as it is about a boy growing up. All four main actors -- Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, and Ellar Coltrane -- bring a poignancy and intelligence to their characters. The film follows Patricia Arquette and her two children as she is estranged from her husband (Hawke) although they are both intent on raising the kids. 

    The storyline seems to be somewhat autobiographical for Linklater. It ends, coincidentally, just where Dazed and Confused might begin.

    The interested buzz on the film is coming from my teenage son, Linklater fans, people aware of indie films, and even family members over 80 who occassionaly see films. What does that say? To me it's that this film is going to be around for awhile, maybe into Oscar season. I would like to see it again before that.

    Read the review on RogerEbert.com for a more thorough analysis.

    Wednesday
    Aug272014

    Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers & ISU connections, an interview on WGLT

    Thanks to Judy Valente for her delightful interview of me on WGLT about Mary Poppins as both a delightful filmJulie Andrews as Mary Poppins and P. L. Travers, author of the book and a popular children's book as well as a small, but interesting connection of ISU to P. L. Travers. Judy is such a great interviewer.

    Disney's Mary Poppins film was released 50 years ago this week. As we learned in the recent Disney film Saving Mr. Banks, P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins series, was never happy with the adaptation. Pamela Travers was opinionated, but thoughtful, and certainly had a wide range of interests including Zen Buddhism and mytical Sufism. 

    In the WGLT interview, Judy asks why Mary Poppins, the film, has such a long-standing appeal with both adults and children. I think that it is partly because Travers understood that children whose lives are in even a small amount of dissarray fantasize about order and everything working out. But it is also because Walt Disney understood the humor and charm of the story and could add the studio's magic to make it wonderful entertainment. Finally, the film causes adults to not only reflect back on their childhood but to consider how they are as parents; are they fulfilling their own hopes and dreams for their family?  The film is more complicated than we perhaps realized when we saw it as children, but that, in turn, makes seeing it again just as fulfilling.

    Thanks, again, to Judy Valente for the opportunity to thoughtfully reflect on the delightful film as it turns 50.