Monday News: Harper Lee, Umberto Eco, and Antonin Scalia
Go Set a Legacy: The Fate of Harper Lee – Harper Lee’s death on Friday has generated a number of excellent chronicles of her life (like this one from AL.com). It has also spurred several inevitable discussions about her literary legacy, especially because of the cloudy circumstances around last year’s publication of Go Set A Watchman. In the article linked to above, from The Atlantic, Megan Garber argues that the cultural popularity and power of To Kill A Mockingbird will be the focus of Lee’s literary legacy, glossing over the more complex, and less overtly admirable, character of Atticus Finch in Watchman (unless you are a fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s nuanced reading of Finch in this article from The New Yorker).
Ron Charles, in The Washington Post, argues that the circumstances of Lee’s last book (I had no idea that TKAM was still generating $3 million a year in sales), along with the less-idealized version of Finch, are a “shame” and a “tawdry Southern gothic playing out in the news.” While I am still suspicious of the circumstances behind Watchman’s publication, I am also uncomfortable with the way I think Charles sentimentalizes both Lee and Finch in the way Garber cynically suspects the collective cultural memory ultimately will. Unlike Garber, I imagine that the circumstances of Watchman‘s publication will cast a larger shadow over Lee’s literary legacy in ways that invite important questions about how publishers continue to shape their authors’ reputations, and how that, in turn, can affect popular reception and interpretive engagement with the books.
Atticus may be an even more interesting character in Watchman than he was in Mockingbird; he is, however, a distinctly less admirable one. And Lee, for her part, may still be the author who gave us the man who has been called one of the “all-time coolest heroes in pop culture” and the “Best. Dad. Ever” and “the greatest hero of American film”; she is also, however, the person who revealed that this great champion of racial justice was also a racist.
The question, now, is whether that complication will be reflected in the legacy of Harper Lee. Will she be remembered for Jurist Atticus, or Racist Atticus? Will she be remembered as the author of a book so beloved, and so revered, and so culturally dilute, that it seems wrong to call it simply a “book”? Or as the author of the work that complicates Mockingbird’s tidy vision of right and wrong?
Both, of course. But if literary history is any indication, cultural memory will be both selective and, perhaps like history itself, biased toward justice. Instead of Watchman, as some have argued, “troubling the legacy of a literary hero,” Lee’s first and second book could well serve as simply a coda to her great, if otherwise single-work, career. “Harper,” along with “Atticus” and “Scout,” could thus remain symbolically pure. – The Atlantic
Umberto Eco is dead: Long live Umberto Eco – Columbia University’s Hamid Dabashi’s piece is really a eulogy of novelist and literary philosopher (specializing in semiotics) Umberto Eco, who also died in Friday. But it’s a powerful and passionate tribute to Eco, and if you are unfamiliar with Eco’s life and work, you might want to start with the more conventional obituary in the New York Times or even this 2008 interview with Eco in The Paris Review. Best known outside academic circles for The Name of the Rose, Eco was also a professor emeritus at the University of Bologna who, in the 1980s, created a program there called Anthropology of the West.
Eco was trained as a medievalist, but he also happened to be a pre-eminent semiotician (massively simplified to: the study of signs in language and the way they are created and, in turn, create meaning) who turned his interest in culture, language, and signification, to the writing of fiction. His fiction was famously criticized by Salman Rushdie (who Dabashi refers to as a “jealous novelist”), but he enjoyed great popularity from his first novel, which was turned into a successful film starring Sean Connery. I think Dabashi’s admiring description of Eco’s writing inadvertently illustrates the quality of Eco’s prose that generated criticism from writers like Rushdie:
The Name of the Rose is a study in semiotics, hermeneutics, biblical exegesis, and medieval philosophy cast ingeniously as a murder mystery.
He would write a few other novels, and his sublime wit and exquisite sense of humour were for many years on display when he wrote regular columns in Italian newspapers. His prose was replete with the vertiginous wit of a polyglot thriving at intertextuality and virtuoso performance of his astounding erudition. – Al Jazeera
Stanford Law Faculty on Justice Scalia’s Legacy – I didn’t initially report on the death of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, wanting to avoid some of the initial reactions, which were pretty, uhm, passionately ad hominem (both pro and con). As much as I disagree with Scalia on almost everything (and “disagree” here is a vast understatement) and even find some of his views appalling and ignorant, I also know he was a close friend of Justice Ginsberg (probably the Court’s most liberal justice), and was often enlisted to write the Court’s most difficult holdings, such was his writing skill and intellectual command.
The Washington Post ran a pretty good obituary on Scalia, and if you are not familiar with some of his most notably controversial opinions, this ABC News piece is a decent primer, but the piece linked above does a good job, I think, of articulating Scalia’s complex legal legacy, which is more overtly political than he would ever admit, and more intellectually and legally rigorous than his critics like to admit. As Barton Thompson points out, “the Court today has more dynamic and enlightening arguments than before” Scalia was appointed, in part because his active and even aggressive questioning generated more discussion; indeed, many legal scholars credit (or blame) Scalia for changing the nature of oral arguments before the Court. But as Pamela Karlan argues,
If Justice Scalia had had his way, we would live in a nation where all affirmative action by the government was forbidden; where same-sex couples could be denied the right to marry and where the federal government could ignore their marriages even in states that do provide marriage equality; and where people with mild to moderate mental retardation could be executed (since in 1791, only those “commonly known as ‘idiots,’ enjoyed any special status under the law,” and those referred to as mere “imbeciles” could be put to death). Justice Scalia’s constitutional vision forced those of us who disagreed with him to sharpen our arguments; it did not, however, change the minds of a majority of his colleagues on many of the most important issues of his time. – Stanford Law