National Post (National Edition)

The Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor smackdown.

Watchman-mania is celebratin­g commonness


The unease surroundin­g the publicatio­n of Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, is not entirely due to fears that the work will be a letdown. There is that, of course; nobody is sure that Harper Lee, now 89 and fragile, is completely possessed of her wits and has made a good decision.

But there’s another aspect of the publicatio­n of this sequel of To Kill a Mockingbir­d: the part Lee plays in the never-ending culture war between the middlebrow and the highbrow.

In this case, the conflict began shortly after the first, 1960 publicatio­n of To Kill a Mockingbir­d. The novel became an immediate bestseller and caught the attention of another female southern writer, Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor thought To Kill a Mockingbir­d was a good novel — for children. “When I was 15 I would have loved it,” O’Connor wrote to a friend at the time. “I think for a child’s book it does all right. It’s interestin­g that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book. Somebody ought to say what it is.”

That somebody turned out to be, well, Flannery O’Connor. Marja Mills, in her 2014 memoir The Mockingbir­d Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, made it clear that Lee never forgot what she considered to be O’Connor’s dismissal of her book. Yet no one has ever disputed this characteri­zation of To Kill a Mockingbir­d as a child’s book, or thought it inappropri­ate, say, for teaching eighth graders. In fact, advo- cates of the novel have gloried in its childlike simplicity. “Many of us have read To Kill a Mockingbir­d many times throughout our lives, falling in love with it as a child and then rereading it,” novelist Heather O’Neill commented in a recent essay. Like most good children’s literature it contains a bracing moral. “The power of the book resides in the idea that we must all engage in fighting against oppression.”

Flannery O’Connor, on the other hand, is highbrow: There is no “idea” behind her work that can easily be summarized. What is crucial to the highbrow mentality is not a summarizin­g idea behind a work but the intention to expand awareness beyond clichés such as “fighting against oppression.” Highbrow literature uses various techniques to focus attention on language. Some of these techniques are “experiment­al,” some of them of ancient derivation. In O’Connor’s short story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” for example, she uses what is very close to what the ancient rhetoricia­ns called an epic simile. She writes, “In the darkness Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire.” It’s a multilevel metaphor used to conjure up a multi-level reality, a world of meaning behind a smile.

But it is hard to define middlebrow, other than to say that middlebrow doesn’t do good epic similes. Highbrow and lowbrow are comparativ­ely easy. Highbrow, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “characteri­zed by high culture;” lowbrow, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the opposite, namely “not highly intellectu­al or cultured.” As for middlebrow, the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang states only that the term is “used for describing bourgeois taste.”

Greig Henderson, professor of English at the University of Toronto, uses a kind of sliding scale of technical virtuosity and rhetorical devices — think of Joyce’s puns, or his use of onomatopoe­ia, or other “defamiliar­izing” verbal tools — to measure the depth of brows. “I posit a spectrum from the formulaic to the experiment­al,” he comments, “and middlebrow, unsurprisi­ng, would come in the middle.”

Here are examples of novelists and how they fit in with this scheme of things, beginning with American literature. Highbrow: Flannery O’Connor. Middlebrow: Harper Lee, and perhaps Margaret Mitchell. Lowbrow: Jacqueline Susann. For Canadian literature you would have the following examples. Highbrow: Sheila Watson (author of the modernist novel, The Double Hook). Middlebrow: Margaret Laurence, or Carol Shields. Lowbrow: Harlequin Romance.

For British literature you could start with Virginia Woolf, who waged fierce combat with the middlebrow culture of her era, in the highbrow slot. For middlebrow you could pick out a number of works found in the personal library of a rather mediocre, fictionali­zed character in Wyndham Lewis’s novel Self-Condemned. Lewis had a formidable brow, indeed, and clearly wanted to put these authors in their place by making their books the proud possession of a fool. Among these middlebrow authors in his library are the poet W. H. Auden, the novelist J. B. Priestley, the author of the Father Brown detective stories, G. K. Chesterton, the short story writer Katherine Mansfield, and a few others.

Harper Lee never forgot what she considered to be Flannery O’Connor’s dismissal of her book

The difference between brows was remarkably illustrate­d by an episode that happened to O’Connor, the day after an adaptation of her short story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” appeared on national network television. Television, as usual, made a hash of it. The hero, instead of a sinister tramp, was turned into a comic hillbilly and the story rendered formulaic, in Professor Henderson’s term. But O’Connor’s neighbour was impressed. “Why Mary Flannery,” she gushed. “I do declare I never dreamed you could do such nice work.”

Thus spoke the voice of the middlebrow. Swelling the chorus of this voice now are the myriad tones of Lee fanatics who are overjoyed and at the same time worried about the publicatio­n of this new version of Scout and Atticus Finch. Will it spoil their fantasy of the hero when they learn that Atticus Finch in his declining years holds segregatio­nist views? “You can’t pretend this book doesn’t exist,” intones a PBS commentary regarding Go Set a Watchman, wherein these unsavoury revelation­s reside.

But actually you can pretend the book doesn’t exist. It’s a novel, after all. It’s someone’s fantasy. If you don’t like it, try something different. Read Flannery O’Connor.

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