tv Panel Discussion on Harper Lee CSPAN August 30, 2015 3:00am-4:01am EDT
[applause] >> thank you. i like being called an expert on something. i am on that debt nelson, i would like to reiterate the welcome to our panel and i would like to introduce my panelist and we will jump right in and the last ten minutes will be reserved for audience questions. this is my panel obviously. sterling plumpp is the author of 14 books including a home base, the editor of two anthologies, some how we survive, a collection of south african writing and writing historical and cultural society writers workshop. professor emeritus at the university of illinois chicago where he served in african-american studies and english department. most recently served as visiting professor and chicago state
university, recipient of numerous awards in african-american cultural storytelling including the 2014 american book award for literature. currently at the 13 is writer in residence at mississippi university. [applause] >> next is beth ann fennelly directs the program at ole miss where she was the outstanding liberal arts professor of the year. work is included in the best american poetry series, published three poetry books, her first open house won 2001 can review prize, great lakes college association writers award and the top ten:36. and the third unmentionable in 2004 and 2008. elson published a book of nonfiction in 2006 and essays on travel, culture and science, southern living,
african-american and others. thank you so much. >> next is kerry madden who wrote the trilogy concerning the musical wing family and their home in the smoky mountains. the critically acclaimed coming of age story on the side was followed by a biography of harper lee for young adults which is released this spring in conjunction with "go set a watchman". the compendium creating writing advice and dozens of short stories, essays in the los angeles times, washington post, teaches creative writing at the university of alabama birmingham and the university of los angeles. [applause] >> last but not least, w. ralph eubanks is the author of ever is a long time, a journey into mississippi's dark past, a story
of three generations of intergenerational families in the american south, 2007 guggenheim fellow and recipient of swartz fellowship at the new american foundation. his essays and criticism are found in the washington post, wall street journal, time and initial public radio. he will beat the visiting scholar in 7 studies, native of mississippi and alabama, now lives in d.c.. welcome. come un in. we are going to to jump right in. "go set a watchman"'s recent release is harper lee's new novel, issues regarding race, "to kill a mockingbird," atticus is perceived as rather racist. let's jump in. and i am going to quickly reach harper lee quote who told the
birmingham-birmingham post, there's a universal theme. it is not a racial awful. it portrays an aspect of civilization, i show the contract of the human soul reduce the simplest terms, a story of what could happen to anybody anywhere where people live together. harper lee did not see her own book as racial all but u.s. american readers about their favorite books on race, civil rights is usually at the top of the list. i would like to ask the panel why they think that is, why do many readers consider "to kill a mockingbird" to the america's equality novel when it is not about that at all? you don't have to go down a line. >> a lot of it has to do with the time "to kill a mockingbird" came out. was released in 1960, the film version, 1962. because of what was going on historically at that time, it is
tied in with all of that. i was working on my piece for time on the eighteenth, i randomly asked people what year was "to kill a mockingbird" set in and not a single person said 1935. i think we conflate the timing of it and because of the time we often think it must be a civil rights novel. that is one of the reasons. and the way that harper lee worked with folklore and myth exploring some 7 myths and blowing through the means always. that is another reason. >> i agree that it was the time and also with "go set a watchman" and what happened to charleston, her books come out at these explosive periods and that is what people think of it
as. >> is possible that harper lee is incorrect in her assertion. it would not be the first time a writer doesn't have a good sense of his or her own projects. i think it is a novel about inequality, racial inequality is at the core of the novel and she claims it is not is curious. >> i think it is more subtle. 1991-1995, the anc invited me to south africa, revolution is supposed to change the second place. there were a lot of discussions and one gentleman said to me
directly we will address the issue of race more directly in a country of black majority than you will ever address it in on america, a country of white majority. i think america is somewhat in denial. you have a black man on trial for -- a white southerner defending him come and innocent narrator is seemed not to have been poisoned by the racist environment. i don't care what harper lee calls it, at social justice, whatever, at the base of civil
rights, but it is. america is in denial about race. absolutely in denial. i live in chicago. the mothers of these black boys being shot by police in, that that is not race, nonsense. i thought it was a brilliant novel mischaracterized by its creator. >> along that line, in "go set a watchman" atticus goes to plan meetings, opposes integration vocally and readers have reacted
very visibly to this new version of atticus finch including one instance of a family named their son atticus changing his name legally because of the newport frail. why do you think readers reacted so strongly to a new version of a fictional character? he is not real so why is it so important and what should readers who love atticus, what they think and atticus represents in "to kill a mockingbird" do with this new atticus who is not nearly the same in quality as the original? >> atticus is part of the southern myth. that is the thing. atticus has become very real. there is a plaque to atticus at the courthouse. i was in monroe vote for the literary festival and after the performance of "to kill a mockingbird" with fellow writers
will standing by that statute, we were talking about him as if he actually existed and i think it is that idea that what atticus represented, these values we wanted to have, white southerners wanted to have and atticus served as a proxy for a lot of that. we also refer to southern heros, he is a real atticus, that is the highest compliment and that complement is now gone with this change in who atticus is. they are two fictional universes and not on the continuing based on the way if you really study "to kill a mockingbird" and "go set a watchman" they are very different fictional universes. they overlap but there's also a
bizarre quality to "go set a watchman". >> speak into the microphone. >> gregory peck's portrayal made in this iconic white savior, it is important to remember in "to kill a mockingbird," a woman i heard speak at auburn and montgomery said in "to kill a mockingbird" he wasn't at the school when scout was playing that ham, he was human in "to kill a mockingbird," he was not perfect and he is fiction too. i do think gregory peck and -- he makes compromises in "to kill a mockingbird". >> there is the sense of
betrayal for a lot of people who really worshiped atticus and did accept him not just as a character but as a symbol. maybe many of us came to that book as younger readers. to me it was one of the first serious books i ever loved that i still love and it is hard to match those two kinds of knowledge and look in hindsight act "to kill a mockingbird" and what do we make of it now? one thing, the different age of the point of view character which is to say in "to kill a mockingbird" scouts is young looking at her father through the point of view of a girl and she does see it more simply and the older spouse is looking at the point of view as an adult and is more nuanced and i don't think atticus seems mortal. the dog is dead in the street, he can do anything.
gregory peck who apparently harper lee call yummy adds to the way we view him and it is hard to wrap our new knowledge around. >> speaking of "go set a watchman" let's talk about the release of that novel. the official story is atticus at -- harper lee's and lawyers founded in a safe deposit box and it is a first draft of "to kill a mockingbird" better editor said pull out some aspects and it took two years to turn "go set a watchman" into "to kill a mockingbird" and there have been a lot of thick pieces about whether harper lee is able to consent to the book being published at all. i want to ask what you thought of the release of the novel and the way it has been handled and the publishing of it, should it have been published at all?
>> i would argue no. should have been left in an archive for scholars to study. the other thing, i know that it was not edited and someone who's spent a lot of my career as an editor that it was just when i read "go set a watchman" i knew as an editor that these flashbacks to childhood are really working so why don't you go back and use that as the way you are constructing your narrative. i am almost certain, we know that is what happened. once you know that it is hard to read "go set a watchman" and not think of it as you are reading a rough draft. at least for me as an editor. i have spoken to other people who don't have that editorial mindsets and they are perfectly fine with it, seeing it as a
separate fictional universe almost, i understand and respect that. i also think as i was trying to write about "go set a watchman" i was trying to get a copy in advance but i couldn't and was told only two people had read the manuscript. that is something about six weeks before publication kind of as an editor and publishing professional made me -- made my ears perk up a little bit. >> what i appreciate about it being published and is confusing all the difference stories that have come out but when i like about the publication of "go set a watchman" is we discover how a young writer finds her a voice and that is most important, how
she found her voice and it is also a novel of redemption and reconciliation like trying to find a way to make peace, seeing atticus as -- as an adult and not taking away the hero worship as a child. i get it but i also -- it was exciting for me as someone who wrote her biography to see how she came to write it and imagine i wish we had letters, i wish there were letters we could see their relationship. >> i read an excellent piece on the publication of "go set a watchman" and he end ed with this beautiful line after all it is a sin to kill a mockingbird suggesting the new book
shouldn't have been published and part of the agreed and part of me thinks if i heard a second manuscript exist out there and someone decided not to publish it i would be furious. i want to read, let me decide. i would say it does sound like a pr concoction that they found the book in the safety deposit box. that seems very unlikely to meet but coming from a ryder's perspective i also think those of us who loved "to kill a mockingbird" tend to think that this book sprang into creation and was destined, ordained, a 26-year-old terrified woman everyday facing a blank page and trying to work forward in the dock. this is also a writer who didn't have publishing history, a handful of short stories, so what? then she publishes a book that wins a pulitzer prize, what is she going to write next?
imagine the pressure, she was writing the whole time. i took a lot of comfort, she said what she had to say. and next door, talking about the fact that the whole time harper lee was writing it must've been painful for her to be writing and never to publish. then i think why now? why take his old manuscript she is not adding and really can't edit and publishing it now? part of me thinks who are we to say she shouldn't, and also she is 89. maybe she doesn't care what we think anymore. >> speaking of atticus. kerry madden mentioned "go set a
watchman" is about a child discovering her hero is not as heroic as she fought and that closely mirrors american readers's experience with the book, we read this and think he is not this mythological person that i thought he was and i want to talk about-as it intersects with is happening in current events with race relations in america and how atticus seems when i talk to readers they say things like i loved "to kill a mockingbird," i can't be a racist, that the represents to people a false sense of how far we have come when we haven't really. i heard people say atticus is not the hero we love but the hero we deserved in "go set a watchman". is that true? having a more realistic portrayal of a white man in the 30s, "go set a watchman" is what we need now as opposed to the
activist, he relates an incident where he was beaten by the plant in alabama. in fact he was kicked. and he says five years later he was in washington d.c. and a young man tapped him on the shoulder, are you mr. carmichael? and he said yes and the gentleman said i am the one who kicked you in alabama. i was wrong. part of the problem with the novel, atticus, whether or not
any number of black elected officials and sunflowers and i am sitting down eating and whenever i go for some reason they won't let any other black people in except for me. i am the only one dining, eating chicken. i really don't know how to discuss race in america. i do not know how to discuss race in america because the only
we need to listen to b.b. king, great singer, and the other thing that i find very interesting about mississippi, they say that muddy watters was born in rolling fork, and i go another there and people say, no, no, he wasn't been here. he was born down in some field in a house that no longer exists. there's a mythology of -- about african-americans and i talk for 30 years, and it is my firm belief that whites 40 years ago knew more about african-americans than they do today. that they actually study.
that once you get all of these fine programs, with facts, it seems that the whites have not made -- availed themselves of it. >> i think there is this -- this is one of the things i wrote about. i think there's this myth of equality that permeates southern culture. think about it. we're a region that developed something called separate but equal, and there's this whole myth of equality. one thing i think that harper lee was trying to do was trying to shatter that myth that we have.equality. we setting thises up so erv has -- thinks up so everybody has -- we have separate but equal. she was trying to break through some of the myths. today, because we have "black lives matter" movement and that a really important movement, but also a movement that is trying to find its voice and finding
policies that will actually work with that, and which is very complex. that the issue of race in america today is an incredibly complicated issue. during the civil rights movement, there were dissecrete policy resolutions that the naacp and sncc had. voting rights, equal accommodations but with the "black lives matter" movement it's difficult to pinpoint the policies. we know black men are being gunned down in the street being unarmed, and what your public policy solution for that? that a really difficult thing. one of the things with a novel, with fiction, there's kind of a way for us to get in and discuss the issue of race. i think lee was trying to give us a platform for talking about it. i'm not sure she knew exactly how to talk about it either.
she was -- but let's give her credit for at least trying, and she was trying to put it out there. we may have taken it on and placed our own mythologies on top of it over the last 50 years, but it at least gives us a platform. >> what she also did, she became friends with mary tucker, who was an african-american teacher in monroeville, and she -- because of all the publicity with mockingbird, she we go to mary -- they became good friends and she provided scholarships for students of color but number of that was ever known. mary just talked about that in the courthouse because she didn't want it known. she just didn't -- so much publicity in that town. so i think that was -- it is all this mythology. >> all right. we're going to move off of this
topic. i want to talk about harper lee as an author, he reclusive persona. do you think that an author could do that now? could an author -- a debut novelist of 26 put out a book like this and then never do publicity for it and succeed? can that be replicated but has the mod concern literary culture quashed the idea to be a private novelist. >> you want to take that question? >> well, authors today -- mark childress said the best thing when -- we were talking about the very same thing. he said that if this book had not hit it big, hallway are lee would have -- harper lee would have been out hustling like the rest of it. it's hard to imagine a facebook page. and authors who don't have a facebook or twitter, they're almost rebels.
elena, the only one i can think of, nobody knows who she is but it's always exhausting because of what you're expected to do as -- because the publishing -- they won't. they can't. they're going to focus on their big authors. so, i'd like to think -- a friend of mine who is not on facebook, will never be, and i admire her for that. i think it's great. it's -- i love that she didn't have to do that. >> i think it would never happen today. i think it would never, ever, ever happen today, and i think that is sad that the publishing industry changed so much that so much of the business is not this, i did my best, wrote my book, here it is, it's the hustling part, and i -- my last book was a novel that i cowrote with my husband. i don't like technology, don't have a facebook page, and the
publisher was frustrated with me that i wouldn't do these things. would go out read, i have friends. i'm not really strange, but i'm not going to e-mail people and ask them to buy my book. i'm not going to do it. and they were very upset i wouldn't -- they actually hired someone one day to tweet my responses. isn't that weird? she asked me questions, and we talked about them, and then she tweeted them. i didn't even know how to do it. so, i think, no, the days when you just publish a book and walk away and say, my part's over, are gone forever. >> i would agree with that as someone who has worked in publishing more than 30 years. those days are gone. and i really do -- it's sad that we are at the point that all of us have turned into shameless hucksters, as authors.
rather than our publishers doing the huskerring for us. that's what it used to be. the publisher did all of your -- they pushed you out there, you didn't have to do that and you were just to be the talent, the writer, and you could pull away from that and unfortunately now the way things have evolved, we can't. every day we're hustling. >> damaging to the creative writing brain. the weird place in silence and mystery you get to dwell when you are doing -- i don't know the crazy things people do. book groups on -- >> skype,. >> yes. >> i've done those. i confess. >> it can be helpful and the book group is happy, but where is that dreamy place you went to, to get the good stuff in the
first place? it's published away with every e-mail you answer. >> and is the exception that proves the rule. it's so notable and she is getting thus notoriety because she won't get on twitter or anything. >> it's a brilliant p.r. scheme. >> it is. we'll find out she is like jonathan franzen. >> i believe she is a woman. sorry about that. >> so we are almost out of time. i want -- this is my last question. we might have time for one more. but what do you think is harper lee's ultimate legacy? how has he worked shaped southern american fiction and will she be read 100 years from now? is her place secured or are we going to forget about her? she is still selling almost a million copies a year now. maybe not. but in a hundred years who knows. >> i think that -- i really do think it's time for "to kill a mockingbird" and harper lee's work to be taught in hoyt
classes because there's so much you can learn about american hoyt from her work, with mock mock mcbeing set in 19 -- "to kill a mockingbird" being set in 1935, and being inspired by the scottsboro trial and then the publication date in 1960, there's a lot that happens in between there. you can talk about tom robinson and that one of the motivations to the great migration. ow can talk about the scottsboro trial. talk about brown v. board, now that you have "go set a watchman." so there's a way to be taught in history classes. so i think she will have a legacy when we're talking about this period in american history, because that -- but i think it's going to be more of a historic legacy than -- both historic and a literary one. it will brim both worlds. >> i -- bridge both worlds.
>> i think it's a great idea to teach it in hit. also it's such a beautiful book that people will read it. it's a book about home. a book that we return to, and i think it's got its place and we will be reading it. and also the fact that she and truman grew up next door to each other, how do writers find their voices and the bravery it took for her to drop out of law school, one month before graduating to to go to new york and try to become a writer when alice and her father war saying, come home and work at the monroe journal. that -- i think finding voices, writers, and a sense of home, yes. >> i think mockingbird will be read 100 years from now. i think her her going is read. >> i think it will be read 100 years from now. one of my concerns, will americans be reading 100 years from now. [laughter] [applause]
>> fair enough. so, we are going to open the floor to audience questions. the microphone is right there. so go up to the microphone if you have any questions of the panel. >> at the podium. >> hi. in "go set a watchman," we learned that tom robinson was actually acquitted, so it's kind of an alternate universe, and i was wondering what difference you all think that makes on the story and on atticus' character and scout's character.
>> you said and scout's character as well? i think that the point you make is a good one, that it's a different -- fictional universe. i think the way watch watch is set up -- watchman is set up and atticus' character, having the acquittal there and also having atticus as a racist, basically, it actually from a standpoint of the tension in the novel that really works, as opposed to the way it works differently with the jury trial in "to kill a mockingbird." so, it makes you think differently about atticus but also makes you think differently, i think, about scout, about jean louise, because you're seeing that she is looking at her father in a different way, and without the
idealized eyes she had before. and her reasons for idolizing him in watchman are different than the ones they were in "to kill a mockingbird." >> i think we have all had that experience as readers of reading a novel and seeing an author refer to an earlier novel they'd written, and seeing a character, and there's always a pleasure where you almost feel like you're in the in joke and that experience was very different in watchman for me. because when she referred to something from the earlier book it often seemed incorrect. who am i to say this. little facts or details would be changed. i almost felt like, didn't you know? he wasn't acquitted? so, i had to approach the book as something different than a continuation or a prequel or sequel or anything to mockingbird and take it on its own merit, because it's not as
well written and edited book, how i would teach this book to the graduates, what are we going to find into n it for literature rare value. i began to think of it as -- because it was written before mockingbird, looking at matisse's studies for the bather and how he was positionings different figures in to try to understand how to hey would be in relation to each other before he painted the big painting, and understand how she was working out certain things in mockingbird, certain things that weren't working but certain things she would pull through and return to in mockingbird. >> i think she -- as she was revising and writing, i think she went back to a real trial in monroeville of the walter let t trial that was basically the same as tom robinson, and her father was the editor of the monroe journal there and she was
eight or nine when the trial was happening. so i think she took that and used that as the basis. >> any other questions from the audience? yes, okay. >> talking about the legacy of the book, and what concerns me is i love having the book. it reminds me -- books i had from college or high school, and i wonder, with ebooks, that when you don't have that -- maybe that book that you saw and you see that spine and it reminds you of the 1930s and where we have come from, and impact of ebooks on our younger people. they may not have that love of books because they don't have possession of the book. i just want to know your thoughts about that. >> i think that a lot of millenials -- not a lot of millenials are using the ebooks. they're mostly using print books and actually prefer print.
so, it may be that they will -- i know we're worried about people actually being reading -- >> reading at all. >> but there may be a little bit of ray of hope there, with people. but die agree with you that having the electronic version is not the same as having the book on the shelf. just changes the way that you interact with the text, the way you perceive the text. i think the way you actually take it, and i just think about this because in my trying to write my piece, the way i was able to get that quickly was to download the ebook at midnight to go through and have something to work with as i wrote, and it's not the same for me as the annotated version of "to kill a mockingbird" which i was reading, which has my daughter's annotations in it, which is also
fascinating, but it's a very different experience. >> as far as "go set a watchman" goes, the book sold way more than the ebooks have ever sold so i think young people are reading more books. it's nice to have the ebook, you can download it about i want a houseful of books and i hope i have imparted that to my students and children. >> anymore audience questions? okay. >> that was a great leadup because i've been reading the book, both "to kill a mockingbird" and "go set a watchman" this summer with my 12-year-old son. my 15-year-old nephew also recently read it, and at a family weekend recently, we were having a book discussion, and my 15-year-old nephew said, well, atticus was a racist in watchman, and what do you think the difference was, what do you
think changed? i started wondering whether all of us would regard atticus a little differently had he nod been cracked out of a time capsule. the book watchman had been published in 1966 or '67, would we judge him as harshly as we do today? i'm from new orleans and we have a significantly african-american population. we all seem to get along really well together, but there is a binary choice for some people in the country, you ethe are racist or you are not, and in watchman, he wasn't really yes or no. at that time he had, i think, authentic values, whether they were correct or not i don't know, but would we all see watchman in a different light had it come out 50 years ago? thanks. >> i think at the time -- if we
had watchman at the time that it came out, seeing atticus as a citizens council member, someone who was advocating for jew -- you generallic -- eugenics i dope think would we have been able to have those discussions about what organizations really meant. they were still very much in existence and part of the social fabric of the south. it would have been very difficult. i think that one of the reasons that -- had harper lee revise the book, because we weren't ready to have that discussion yet. so -- does that answer your question? >> i agree with that. >> one more question? >> i think you just answered my question that i had.
because unfortunately i came in late. this is a session that i was very interested in attending, and my question did pertain to how much you had gone into the fact that this novel was somewhere along the series of a revision in a partnership with tai hohoff and whether or not you had any opinion on where it was in that partnership, do you have an opinion? >> i'm reluctant to have an opinion on that because i have nothing in fact to bail it on. i think -- to base it on. for me it's really -- i was asked to write a piece with that thesis, and i said, no, i can't
write that because i have nothing factual to link it to. so, that a really difficult one for me -- anyone else have any thoughts about that? >> when i was writing the biography, i heard that there was a book in the vault but i thought it was going to be the reverend, and that was the book that she wrote sort of in the vein of "in cold blood --" >> about the preacher -- >> yes in alexander city. so when i heard the book came out issue thought, it's the reverend. it does exist. then it wasn't. i was "go set a watchman." so that was all i knew and i don't know any of the others' particulars. >> i had read some material that indicated that miss hohoff was a quaker, that she was a social advocate, and that she was writing her own biography of a
relatively renowned quaker social activist, and that this activist was in fact a model for atticus finch. and this was an article that appeared in a "boston post" article. are you all familiar with mrs. hohoffs buying agraph? it was actually published in 1959. >> no i'm not familiar with that. >> neither am i. >> there's really some fascinating stuff that has come out. gosh, i wish i'd been here for the first part of this. >> we were fabulous. >> i'm sure you were. [applause]
>> you had some very efficientgatekeepers out there. thank you -- efficient gatekeepers out there. >> haste gotten the signal we're done yet. one more minute. one more question. thank you. >> i was very interested in the comments you made about "to kill a mockingbird" being used as a book for literary instructions in the future. i'd be interested in your comments regarding, in light of the present racial divide win -- within our country, the type of portrayal in "to kill a mockingbird" whereas we have this heroic person who is going to be the defender of african-americans, in the light of the '60s, are you saying we should continue that portrayal by using this book as a literary
tool for teaching about race relations in america? >> i think that mockingbird is a valuable text for teaching race relations in america but i would pair it with books by african-american writers and other writers of color. it's one voice in concert from which we can learn a great deal. >> i have to agree with beth on that. that's the way to go. pair it with other book us because that can generate a very robust discussion by looking at various points of view. one of the things i thought about recently was, william st. tyrands confections of nat turner. there was controversy when it came out because african-americans had not told their open stories now that there's more of that out there, it can -- in pairing that you
can have a more robust discussion. >> we need books with tom robinson's point of view, we need to have a range of voices, not just that as the teachable book. >> we need diverse books. >> yes. >> the way i would respond, harper lee wrote a brilliant book no doubt about it. she is celebrated to my knowledge, -- i don't know she supported sclc or sncc or the naacp, she is lauded in this century. last time i was in south africa, a very petite white woman did a reception for me, and her name