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A Friend of Mr. Lincolnhttp://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20160129-fiction-a-friend-of-mr.-lincoln-by-stephen-harrigan.ece

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln marks a departure for the Austin-based writer. Just like his other books, this one quickly engages the reader’s imagination with its deep perspective, rich historical authenticity and a lively cast of striving, imperfect humans.

By Joyce Sáenz Harris
Special Contributor

Of all American presidents, Abraham Lincoln is the one most often accorded something like reverence. Most of us were taught a grade-school version of his life that sketches his triumph over crushing backwoods poverty, his moral conversion to abolitionist beliefs, and his rise to become Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator, savior of the Union and martyr to the cause of freedom.

But in Stephen Harrigan’s splendid new novel, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, we meet a very different Honest Abe. This young Mr. Lincoln is a politically ambitious but socially awkward frontier lawyer of the 1830s and ’40s, one who often falls victim to “the hypo,” meaning depression and anxiety. He is driven by his concept of honor as if by Furies, yet he also relishes using his mercilessly sharp tongue to win at the law or the ballot box. He hates slavery but doesn’t really believe in racial equality. He tells terrible, ribald jokes. He is a fatalist, wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln is written from the third-person viewpoint of Micajah “Cage” Weatherby, who meets the future president as a roughhewn youth during the Indian wars and later becomes one of Lincoln’s bachelor cronies in Springfield, Ill. (Given that Harrigan wrote the superb historical novel The Gates of the Alamo, it may be no coincidence that “Micajah” also was the first name of an Alamo defender.) Cage Weatherby is a fictitious character, but Harrigan inserts him neatly and believably into Lincoln’s social circle of real-life Springfield friends such as Joshua Speed and Billy Herndon.

Lincoln takes an immediate liking to Cage, in awe that he is a published poet who has traveled to Europe. Cage, meanwhile, knows there is something special about his new friend, no matter that Lincoln is shabbily dressed, reedy-voiced and awkward as a young stork. Ambition burns inside this man, Cage realizes, and he senses that Lincoln is destined for some sort of greatness: “Lincoln was a man people tended to develop a deepening fascination with.” Yet for all the camaraderie they share, Harrigan’s Lincoln remains a riddle even to his best friends.

“The interesting thing about Lincoln,” Joshua Speed remarks to Cage, “is that he’s both the most public man and the most private man I’ve ever known. He has to hover rather precisely between the poles of his personality. Any deviation might pull him apart.”

The turning point in the men’s friendship comes when Kentucky belle Mary Todd arrives in Springfield in 1838. Lincoln is bowled over by the fact that “she knows Henry Clay! She lived only a few miles from him in Lexington and used to visit him as a girl. … It’s like living down the road from George Washington!”

Cage can’t imagine that the refined Todds would ever consider the rustic Lincoln as a possible suitor: “The union of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd was as unlikely in theory that night as it would later prove to be in reality.” But Mary is one of those people with a deepening fascination with Lincoln, and like Cage, she senses his potential for greatness.

Lincoln, in turn, knows he needs a political helpmate, and Mary is perfect on paper: a skilled hostess with charm, useful connections and an astute, calculating mind. Nevertheless, Lincoln is reluctant to commit, and the courtship is a long, rocky one. Cage’s efforts to support his friend end up backfiring, and he learns firsthand just how vindictive Mary Todd Lincoln can be.

Harrigan’s previous novels all have been set in Texas, so A Friend of Mr. Lincoln marks a departure for the Austin-based writer. Just like his other books, this one quickly engages the reader’s imagination with its deep perspective, rich historical authenticity and a lively cast of striving, imperfect humans. His Lincoln is one of them: a young man subject to the same torments, infatuations, ambitions, enthusiasms and sexual appetites as other young men. But unlike the others, he is peculiarly fated to become a tragic, heroic figure whose best speeches are the immortal poetry he yearned to write.

After a century and a half, he also remains America’s most beloved enigma. That homely face and those weary gray eyes guard a well of secrets so unfathomable that we, even as friends of Mr. Lincoln, have yet to plumb its depths.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Plan your life

Stephen Harrigan will speak Thursday, Feb. 4 at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, Dallas. The 7 p.m. talk is free; a 6 p.m. reception, which includes a signed book, is $30. Register at hpumc.org/ or 214-523-2240.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln

Stephen Harrigan

(Knopf, $27.95)

Available Tuesday, Feb. 2.

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http://artsblog.dallasnews.com/2015/07/how-a-watchman-reviewer-thought-past-feeling-betrayed-by-an-old-friend.html/

NOTE: Dallas Morning News books editor Michael Merschel asked me to contribute a DMN blog post today, discussing the process of reviewing Go Set a Watchman.  He posted it alongside the review on today’s dallasnews.com.

Former staff writer, regular critic and longtime To Kill a Mockingbird fan Joyce Sáenz Harris wrote our review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Here’s how her thoughts about the book evolved: 

US cover of "Go Set a Watchman"

US cover of “Go Set a Watchman”

When Mike Merschel asked me to review Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I must admit I got ridiculously giddy. This was the best assignment a book reviewer could ask for in 2015, and I was thrilled to be one of the very few people who would be privileged to read Lee’s new novel before publication day.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in Reader’s Digest Condensed Book form when I was 11, just a few years after it was published and won the 1961 Pulitzer for fiction. Later, of course, I would read and re-read the complete novel many times, and I can remember illustrating scenes from TKAM in pencil drawings for my high-school English class. The Academy Award-winning 1962 film also became an enduring favorite at some point.

So when the UPS deliveryman brought the book to my door last Thursday morning, and I signed for the advance review copy, I simply sat down and started reading. Less than 12 hours later, I had finished all 247 pages, and the book was littered with yellow Post-It paper strips covered with scribbled notes.

Who knew Harper Lee is a Gilbert & Sullivan fan? …NO, cousin Francis Hancock was Aunt Alexandra’s grandson, not her son! …No mention of Boo or the Radleys at all? …What is this rape trial that Atticus WON? …Jem died of a heart attack like their mother did; “they said it ran in her family.” …Dill is in Italy, just like Truman Capote was. …Harper Lee invented “What Would Atticus Do?” long before the T-shirts and bumper stickers of today.

In the second half of the book, however, I had to stop reading and digest what was happening before I could finish.

What the what? Atticus Finch, that secular saint, heading up the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council? Tolerating the speech of white supremacists and arguing with Jean Louise about whether she really wants black people integrated into white Southern society, voting in mass, holding public office? I felt very uncomfortable as I continued reading, as if I had been betrayed by an old friend, rather than by a fictional character in a favorite book.

But after finishing Watchman, I put on my reviewer’s hat and thought not like a fan, but like a writer, like an editor. Eventually, I realized that it is a novelist’s prerogative to mess with readers’ minds. To make us think, to make us doubt our cherished preconceptions. Their job is not to foster our pleasant illusions, but to present us with some sort of truth.

For Harper Lee, Watchman was her truth, because this Atticus is the father she knew as an adult. A.C. Lee, the author’s father and the courtly Southern lawyer on whom she modeled Atticus Finch, was in fact a segregationist, according to her biographer, Charles J. Shields.

I finally understood why Watchman became a discarded first draft, and why Mockingbird was written instead. Lee’s editors wanted a different, more uplifting story with a white-knight father figure standing tall for justice. They knew what people like to read, and the story of an adult daughter wrestling with the fact that her dad is an old segregationist wasn’t exactly best-seller material for a first-time novelist. No, far better to write the story of a child learning about life’s tragic unfairness, about the loss of innocence mitigated by the surety of a father’s love, wisdom and goodness.

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Now I realized what it must have cost Harper Lee to write this portrait of her father — and how relieved she must have been to revert, in Mockingbird, to the Atticus who was the father she adored as a child, rather than the aging segregationist with whom she argued about the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board decision as an adult. She wouldn’t have wanted this portrait published during his lifetime, not really. And A.C. Lee’s heart would have been crushed by it, if it had been.

Instead, A.C.’s heart grew a few sizes after Mockingbird was published. In a case of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” he began to act like a real-life Atticus the Good, campaigning for redistricting to protect black voters before he died in April 1962.

Now, if you wish, you can certainly avoid reading Go Set a Watchman altogether, or wait until you’re feeling calmer about this whole thing. Or you can decide to believe that this is Uncanny Valley Atticus, as Jeff Weiss puts it, in an alternate universe.

Or you can settle in to read and accept Watchman, with all of its many flaws, timeline inconsistencies and continuity errors, as part of the Mockingbird canon. You can laugh out loud at more of Scout’s youthful escapades, learn further salacious details of her cousin Joshua Singleton St. Clair, the insane poet, and at last find out the name of Scout and Jem’s mother. You can discover who Jem took to his prom and what kind of wardrobe malfunction Scout suffered there. You can even witness a version of “I am Spartacus” played out at Maycomb County High School.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote songs of innocence, but first she wrote songs of experience. With Go Set a Watchman, open-minded Mockingbird fans can now have both. To me, it just makes Lee’s legacy that much more interesting, complex and timely. I hope her faithful readers will hear what she has to teach us, because it is still worth learning, even if we find it rather hard to read.

Lee is a lifelong Methodist, as am I. One thing we learned in Sunday school is: There is only one perfect Father, and he is the one in heaven.

His name is not Atticus Finch.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas. Read her review of Go Set a Watchman here

 

US cover of "Go Set a Watchman"

US cover of “Go Set a Watchman”

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20150713-review-some-will-rejoice-others-resent-harper-lee-s-go-set-a-watchman.ece

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS

Special Contributor

Published: 13 July 2015 10:48 AM

When last we saw young Scout Finch of Maycomb, Ala., it was 1935. Scout had survived a murder attempt, had finally met her mysterious neighbor Boo Radley and was safe at home with her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus. That is, as every reader knows, the ending of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird — the most beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning book in history.

So from the moment it was announced in February that the Go Set a Watchman manuscript had been discovered in Lee’s archives, her readers entertained doubts and hopes.

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

The reality: This companion piece to Mockingbird, published Tuesday, will complicate Lee’s legacy in ways we never expected. Some readers will actively resent Lee’s revelations, while others will rejoice in her unsentimental realism. Both camps, though, will enjoy the many additional flashbacks to Mockingbird days and Scout’s teen years.

Watchman begins in the early 1950s with Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, 26, returning to Maycomb from New York City for a family visit. Atticus, beset with rheumatoid arthritis at 72, is still practicing law and still the moral center of Jean Louise’s universe. But everything else in Maycomb seems to have changed.

Brother Jem is two years gone; he dropped dead of a heart attack, just as their mother did. Her old friend Dill also is gone, if only to Italy. Atticus sold his house and built a new one; the Finches’ old home has been torn down and an ice-cream stand built in its place. Aunt Alexandra moved in to care for Atticus when their old housekeeper, Calpurnia, retired; and Uncle Jack, the doctor, has retired to Maycomb with his ancient cat.

Though the old guard of Maycomb resists change, the town has acquired a new middle class in the postwar GI Bill baby boom. At Finch’s Landing, the family mansion has been sold to become a hunting club. A sawmill has eliminated swimming at Barker’s Eddy. Even at the Finches’ Methodist church, modern influences threaten their best-loved hymns.

Readers will immediately notice that where Mockingbird was a first-person narrative through young Scout’s eyes, Watchman is told in the third person. Yet Lee puts us right inside the adult Jean Louise’s head, and we know this is indeed our old and dear friend, the “juvenile desperado” just grown a little older.

So when Jean Louise finds her adored father consorting politically with racists at the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, it is the worst shock of her life. Her discovery is a punch to the gut, making us nearly as ill as it makes her.

How is it possible that Atticus Finch, the inspiration and role model for generations of real-life fathers and aspiring lawyers, is not the man we believed he was?

That we’ve waited 55 years for this thunderbolt makes it all the more stunning, for the pop-culture cult of Atticus the Good is one we boomers grew up and grew old with. So we ache with Jean Louise when she realizes in horror that “she was born color blind” while her father was not.

Atticus is indeed a gentleman, kindly to everyone; he reveres the law above all things. But he has fallen from his pedestal, and Jean Louise feels betrayed. So do we.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience,” Uncle Jack tells his niece. He knows that in order for Jean Louise to become her own person, she has to see his brother as a fallible human being. Instead of believing Atticus to be the best, wisest man she knows, his daughter must accept him as a man who will “always do it by the letter and the spirit of the law. That’s the way he lives.”

Watchman is far from perfect. The text wants editing, and careful readers will spot several notable continuity gaps from the Mockingbird text. Aunt Alexandra’s son has the wrong name; Boo Radley isn’t mentioned at all; and a rape trial is recalled very differently from the one we know as Tom Robinson’s.

But 60 years after she began creating Scout’s story, Harper Lee demonstrates that it is indeed timeless. Today the nation still grapples with the harsh realities of race and civil rights; societal shifts still are divisive. Empathy too often eludes us, and children remain reluctant to let go of the cherished belief that a beloved father always knows best.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer who first read To Kill a Mockingbird 50 years ago.

Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee

(Harper, $27.99)

Walter Cronkite in 1991 (Washington Post photo)

Walter Cronkite in 1991 (Washington Post photo)

Today I’m thinking about how, back in the summer of 1992, I had a phone conversation with Walter Cronkite.

The occasion was a High Profile cover for The Dallas Morning News, a story about author James A. Michener, then 85 years old. I had spent an amazing day with the hospitable Mr. Michener — just the two of us, talking, having lunch at a local Chinese restaurant, then talking some more — at his summer home in Brunswick, Maine.

By the time I went home, I had a list of his friends and associates I wanted to chat with. And the one I was most eager to contact was Mr. Cronkite, then 75 and still busy as ever, though retired from the CBS News anchor chair for 11 years.

Over the 10 years I was a High Profile reporter, I often placed such phone calls to secondary sources who were as famous as, or even more famous than, the people I was profiling. Cesar Chavez, Lady Bird Johnson, Dan Rather, Ross Perot, Lloyd Bentsen, Barbara Walters, Franco Zeffirelli, Dame Joan Sutherland — ordinary folks like that. There were only a few times when I was a little nervous about making those calls.

The call to Mr. Cronkite was one of those times.

I mean, this was Walter Cronkite. How many times had I watched him on our family’s TV set as that deep, reassuring voice informed me about the tragedies and triumphs of the 1960s and ’70s? How often had I heard him introduce himself: “This is Walter Cronkite…”? Or sign off with, “And that’s the way it is…”?

Thousands of times, surely, over some three decades. I probably knew that voice as well as I knew my own father’s.

So yes, I was nervous. But I called his office at CBS and left a message for him. And a few days later, my phone rang, and that unmistakable voice informed me: “This is Walter Cronkite.”

So hypnotized was I that I had a little trouble remembering to scribble my notes. But he was kind and patient, and we talked for 10 or 15 minutes, mostly about Mr. Michener and their friendship. Among other things, he told me that his favorite Michener book was Chesapeake.

In the story I wrote (published on Aug. 16, 1992) I ended up using an anecdote about one of their adventures aboard Mr. Cronkite’s beloved sailboat, the Wyntje:

“One time when we went sailing on Chesapeake Bay, we picked Jim up in Oxford, Maryland. We were sailing to Annapolis, and it got nasty out there. Jim was getting pretty wet, and I was worried about him, so I asked if he’d like to go below. But he wouldn’t.

“Eventually the storm passed, and I told Jim that it was lovely of him to insist on staying with me.

“He said, “Walter, I couldn’t afford not to stay on deck. The State of Maryland just made me an honorary Admiral of the Chesapeake. How would it be if they heard I went below in a storm?’ “

I went home that day and told our then-13-year-old daughter (who had met Mr. Michener on our Maine trip): “Guess who I talked to today for my Michener profile?”

“Who?”

“Walter Cronkite!”

“Wow!” Pause. Puzzled look on her face. “Who’s Walter Cronkite?”

I then realized that Mr. Cronkite had retired from the anchor desk when she was only two years old. “He used to be the anchorman on CBS,” I told her. “He’s really iconic, really famous and respected among journalists. Well, among everyone who’s a grownup, really. I can’t believe I got to talk with him!”

All these years later, our daughter is now 30, married and the mother of two small children. I know that Walter Cronkite will never mean to her what he meant to my generation, or to her grandparents’. She’ll never think of any news anchor as “iconic,” really. The communications world has changed so radically that there will never be another news figure with the kind of respect, authority and clout that Mr. Cronkite had.

He was a serious journalist, a real newsman. He did his job well, he loved his work, and he helped to change the world and make it a better place. That’s the best way any journalist can hope to be remembered.

Home is the sailor, home from the sea. Godspeed, Uncle Walter.