Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board. He came to Long Island in 2010.
Harper Lee passed away on Feb. 19, 2016. Here is a column written last year about "Go Set a Watchman" when it was released.
Harper Lee's classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" was not about race or the trial of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. But we often forget that because the movie, so focused on the trial of Tom Robinson, dominates our memories of the book, and because Gregory Peck's righteousness and Tom's plight are so vivid.
It was the story of an imperfect, charming small-town Southern world, dark but magical, opening up before the eyes of the 6-year-old narrator, Scout. And it was about the relationship between a motherless daughter and a seemingly flawless father.
"Go Set a Watchman," showing us a more quickly changing world through the more practiced eyes of that girl, now a 26-year-old woman, completes the tale. Unfortunately.
Race and unequal justice are the backdrops in "Mockingbird," the canvas on which the story of Scout and Jem and Dill and Atticus, and their loving maid, Calpurnia, is painted. But the book did not put forth a truly controversial point about race. Who in 1960 was arguing that black men should be prosecuted and convicted of crimes against white women they did not commit?
In fact, the book and movie became so universally beloved thanks to the unchallenging nature of the race plot point it offered: The vast majority of white people saw that Tom had been done wrong and Atticus was on the side of angels, and felt righteous in doing so.
In "Watchman," we again get a theoretically contentious race issue that today really isn't. "Mockingbird" takes place in the early 1930s. "Watchman" takes place in the 1950s. Scout, now living in New York City, is deeply disappointed that Atticus thinks equality for blacks must come slowly. She's even angrier when she follows him to a local Citizens' Council meeting where the agenda is the fight to maintain segregation. This racism on the part of Atticus has caused a firestorm among "Mockingbird" lovers, but reflects the complicated relationship between Lee and her own father. Early in his career, he did defend two black men accused of killing a white man, believing they were innocent. They were convicted and hanged. He also was a segregationist later, a stance he reportedly softened on only very late in life.
This, while regrettable, is not a contradiction any more than Abraham Lincoln's work to better the lives of blacks and his belief that they were inferior and should be recolonized in Africa was a contradiction. People often believe more than one thing, are half-right, are partly good. Even beloved fathers. And no one who watches as loved ones age should be surprised that Atticus began to object to a world changing too fast to suit him. Often that's how aging works.
Had "Watchman" been released when Lee wrote it in the mid-1950s, the desegregation battle in it would have been divisive. Today, though, it mostly isn't. How many now call for segregated schools or bans on black voting? There is no one credible to take Atticus' side.
And, as with "Mockingbird," it's not what the book is about.
"Watchman" shows us that a child who defines herself and her place in the world by idolization of her father can never become a full adult. And it illuminates the fact that love of another person based on the blind belief in his or her perfection, while easy and delicious, can never be mature love.
It's unfortunate that this very fine new book, more emotionally complex than "Mockingbird," completes the tale, because I could use one more. Lee has let us see how Atticus aged and the truths she found in the process. If only I could see how Scout aged through adulthood and what truths she found in that process, then I'd truly feel I'd gotten all Lee had to offer.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.