Friday, July 24, 2015

Hello, Luke. I Am Your Father, Atticus--First family changes baby's name from Atticus.

Okay. The first one has happened. After the publication of Go Set a Watchman, where the heroic, saintly Atticus Finch, of To Kill A Mockingbird, joins the Klan, (briefly) and foments rebellion against integration or even the NAACP providing legal service to the grandson of his beloved family housekeeper, Calpurnia.

David and Christen Epstein have changed their baby, Atticus' name to Lucas, Luke for short. Big sister, Ayla, is pretty confused, but they're hoping that neither will get a complex about it.

I get this. I totally do. We adopted a dog once who we thought was named Tonto. That was going to have to change. And when one of my great-grandparents got super sick, her parents changed her name, so as to confuse the angel of death. (Angel flies down, looking for "Mary, Mary, Mary--who's this? Oh, that's Jane. Nope." And flies away.) It worked, so who am I to argue?

And Harpo Marx was born Adolf, but changed his name to Arthur.

Still, really? Because there are two versions of a fictional character? Oh, please.

I always did wonder at all the little Atticus' running around. Had that been my set of mind, I would have named a child Amasa, (after Harper Lee's real father, and the model for both Atticuses.) And then, we would have been fine.

Yes, Go Set A Watchman Really Was Poured on the Page, says Charles Shields.

It's fascinating to dig into Charles L. Shield's unauthorized biography of Harper Lee, published in 2006, when Go Set A Watchman was merely a title implying Atticus standing guard outside Tom Robinson's jail cell and a few notes in Tay Hohoff's files.

What happened was this: in November of 1956, after some years of part-time writing, Nelle Lee felt she had five good short stories, titled: The Land of Sweet Forever, A Roomful of Kibble, Snow-on-the-Mountain, This Is Show Business, and The Viewer and the Viewed. It seems those short stories have disappeared, and we know next to nothing about them, except Snow-on-the-Mountain, a short story about a southern boy who takes revenge on the flowerbed of a nasty old lady in the neighborhood--a story that later appears in To Kill A Mockingbird, as Jem flattens the flowers of vicious old Mrs. Dubois. 

Harper Lee's friend, Broadway composer and lyricist, Mike Brown, connected her with an agent named Maurice Crain, who said he especially liked Snow-on-the-Mountain, but said short stories were hard to sell, and suggested she try a novel. 

December of '56, Mike Brown sold a novelty song about Lizzie Borden--

 ‘Cause you can’t chop your papa up in Massachusetts
   Not even if it’s planned as a surprise
   No, you can’t chop your papa up in Massachusetts
   You know how neighbors love to criticize. 

and he was feeling flush. As a Christmas gift, Mike and his wife gave Harper Lee gift of a year away from work, writing full time. 

That January, Harper returned to Crain's office with a short story, The Cat's Meow, and the first fifty pages of a novel called Go Set A Watchman. A week later, she was back with a hundred more pages. Every week through February, she dropped off about fifty new pages to Crain. 

By early May, after two months of back-and-forth revisions between Crain and Lee, Crain sent the manuscript out, but with a new title. (He felt the old one sounded like the book was about clocks or something.) The new book was sent to publishers under the title, Atticus, which is how it reached the offices of J.B. Lippencott, whose last best-seller was Betty McDonald's charming (but now dated) The Egg And I, fifteen years before. 

Meanwhile, Nelle surprised her agent at the end of May with 111 pages of another novel, The Long Goodbye. Days later, Lippincott requested a meeting with Harper Lee about Atticus

Male Lippencott editors filled the room, along with one skinny woman with a tight gray bun. Theresa von Hohoff was getting up there in age, her eyesight failing. She'd be raised a Quaker, so Quaker her family used the archaic intimate form, "thee and thou," to indicate that all people were equal, and no one deserved the honorific of Sir or Madam. She loved working with young authors. Thomas Pynchon was a client of hers, and she was working on a biography of a leader in the settlement house movement for New York Cities poor immigrants. 

The editors spent a lot of time discussing Atticus. The characters "stood on their own two feet; they were three-dimensional." But the manuscript was "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel." They made suggestions. Nelle Lee nodded and said, "Yes, sir. Yes, ma'am." (Nelle was not Quaker, but Methodist.) 

They wished her luck on her revision and hoped to see her again. 

Okay--so stop a minute here and imagine this happening today. Rough manuscript. Meeting with editors around the table, spending quite a long time discussion how they believe the novel could be approved. Polite author takes notes, pays attention, gets to work on the revision. 

Then, they spend the next two years working together on what turns out to be another To Kill A Mockingbird. 

Sigh of envy. 

Back to reality and our story. 

By the end of the summer, Nelle had resubmitted her manuscript to Hohoff, who had volunteered to work with her. "It was better, but it wasn't right. . ." "There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity--a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning." 

In October, Lippencott offered Nelle a contract with an advance of a few thousand dollars. If other words, if a few means 3-4, then she was paid somewhere between 25,000 and 34,000 in today's bucks, which would have been plenty of to live in in a Manhattan cold-water flat of the time. 

She worked on the book for two and a half years. She battled to find an overarching plot. She battled to find the right voice, writing first in third person, then in first, and later, in the final draft, choosing to use essentially two narrative voices, one an older Jean Louise looking back, the other Scout's immediacy. 

So, yes, Go Set A Watchman was the first endeavor at long form writing by a novelist who steadily gained strength, skills and wisdom under the tutelage of a fine editor.  

Wouldn't you love to get a look at that other novel, The Long Goodbye?


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Rachel Dolezal, Dolphus Raymond, Reverse Passing, And The Vagaries of History

Okay, for awhile, I will post blog posts at both sites, until people make the switch. Here's what I just put up at

I would be profoundly surprised if Rachel Dolezal is the first person in history to successfully pass as black. When you live in a world of multiple gradations of color that have been divided in power for centuries into black and white, there will be many people who find those flat boundaries don't fit, and who choose ways to cross them.

Some will do it blindly and with hatred, like Clarence Thomas, some via fairytale, like Rachel Dolezal.

Then, there's Dolphus Raymond from To Kill A Mockingbird, who pretended to be a drunk so that the white people in his community would allow him to live away from their pale hypocrisy, with his colored family. (And who surely must be based on a real, creative problem-solver, a man who was obviously not the only one in the country.)

It's just, we almost never hear about those people, just as, until recently, it was harder than pulling a healthy tooth to find out about people in this country who were able and willing to pass from black to white.

When I was calling academics, looking for contemporaneous oral histories or accounts of people who crossed the color line, I got, "Oh, that never happened. People might pass to ride the bus at the front, or to shop inside a department store, but as soon as they came home, they reverted back to their true selves."

I understand the desire to pretend this is true. When you're working so hard to find pride in that which is considered shameful by the outer world, when you're struggling every day to imbue your children with pride in themselves, in a culture that shames them, it can be deeply painful to consider those who gave up the battle, who painted on the face powder and left their fellows behind. This is something I'm exploring in my novel, "The Color Of Safety."

Still, Walter White, the blue-eyed, blond-haired, fair-skinned president of the NAACP for many years, said in his 1948 biography, "'Every year approximately twelve thousand white-skinned Negroes disappear—people whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration. Nearly every one of the fourteen million discernible Negroes in the United States knows at least one member of his race who is “passing”—the magic word which means that some Negroes can get by as whites, men and women who have decided that they will be happier and more successful if they flee from the proscription and humiliation which the American color line imposes on them." 

So, back to Dolezal, who was raised under a different kind of oppression, in a Christian cult that believes children are carriers of the virus of original sin, and thus must have the evil beaten out of them. Dolezal was sixteen when her parents adopted four young children of color and would have been older when her parents sent two of they children off to a camp that was even more harsh than their upbringing at home, in an effort to free them from the devil. Those two children have completely rejected their parents, with one even filing for legal emancipation--something that has to be tough in the rural Western state where he lived.

So, somewhat like Dolphus Randolph, Dolezal recreated herself. She studied the culture she had been sideswiped with as a child. She has, it appears, become an expert in black hair, (something a friend of mine who was then starring on a soap opera fought to have but never got.) She has, it appears, become an expert on aspects of black history and politics. She married an African-American man and is raising two African-American boys, and somehow has persuaded herself that color is something you can convert to, like Judaism, or, these days, like gender.

Twenty, thirty, a hundred years ago, that would have been that, she would never have been found out.

But this is now. The world of the Internet makes everything viral. Dill would have blogged about Dolphus Randolph and his secret would have been blown.

The white world ridicules Dolezal. The world of color seems divided, with some saying, 'Welcome aboard," and some saying that she is a deluded example of White Privilege.

Yet, I cannot believe that Rachel Dolezal is historically alone in either her life-masquerade or her choice.

Does anybody have any historical stories of those who passed for black? What do you think about Dolezal's choices? And why?


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hello o o o o. I've been blogging, it's true, but over at

I know I used to have quite a few followers on this blog. I did not mean to abandon you all. Especially not for two years--more than two years.

The good news is it's not my fault. (Unless you consider that confusion around technology is my fault. I do not. I think it is genetic.) I didn't just get bored with blogging. Instead, I could not figure out how to get back into this blog. I could, like you, read the posts already there, but when I tried to log in to the dashboard, it would kick me back out.

That's why I began blogging at I'm having a great time over there: writing about research for my just-completed novel, The Color of Safety; a few film reviews (A very few, as we don't tend to get out to movies much.) I've written about other things, mostly racial and related to bigotry, things that catch my eye. Lately that's Rachel Dolezal's psychological, ethical and racial conundrums and, of course, Harper Lee's new/old novel, Go Set A Watchman. There's a lot more to look at in this rich rough draft of a novel, like reconsidering To Kill A Mockingbird.

It's such a delight to plunge into research on Harper Lee, seeking out her small writings, reading unauthorized but well researched biographies, and approaching her sideways, through research on those she knew or knows.

At any rate, I don't think it makes much sense to haul two comparable blogs side by side. I hope to see you on the other blog. I hope life is treating you all well. Take care of yourself. Join me there.