In a world where we increasingly consume information online, it has become rare for the publication of a book to draw significant attention. On Tuesday, July 14th, however, not one but two newly released books did just that. Journalist and public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates published Between the World and Me, a searing reflection on race and American history and identity, and novelist Harper Lee published her long-awaited and controversial second novel, Go Set a Watchman, a companion work to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). The critical and popular reviews of Coates’s book have been far more positive than those of Lee’s. Yet there is one way in which prominent responses to both books echo one another, and offer a useful lens for analyzing what these works can tell us about contemporary and historical American narratives alike: the concept of “distorting history.”
Two New York Times writers apply that concept to Coates’s book. In her mostly positive review of Between the World and Me, Michiko Kakutani faults Coates for an overly critical perspective on American history, one that does not take into account the kinds of “very real,” if “still dismally insufficient,” “progress that has been made.” And in an op-ed column responding to the book, David Brooks makes this line of argument much more overt and takes it substantially further, writing to Coates: “I think you distort American history. This country, like every person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every KKK.”
In a different but related way, many critiques of Lee’s novel have focused on a change in the portrayal of Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird’s most famous character (and, thanks in no small part to Gregory Peck’s film portrayal, a national icon). The noble, idealized lawyer and father of the earlier novel is, in Go Set A Watchman, reframed as an aging bigot, one who, his now adult daughter realizes, opposes integration and has participated in KKK rallies and other white supremacist efforts. For many readers and reviewers, these shifts in the portrayals of Atticus represent a definite distortion, not only of a beloved character’s identity and perspective, but also of our own communal history with the character and his social and political views.
These critiques are united by the notion that Coates and Lee have muddied a particular understanding of American history in which heroic white people sit at the center. In a telling moment, Brooks argues in his column that “the disturbing challenge of [Coates’s] book is [its] rejection of the American Dream,” adding, “My ancestors chose to come here.” What has been disturbed, it seems, is Brooks’s equation of the American Dream with his own white heritage and with what America meant to those immigrants fleeing “the crushing restrictiveness of European life.” But broadening our narratives of the dream and of America itself beyond those of Brooks’s imagination, as Coates does, necessarily complicates our stories, and not always in flattering ways. It is little wonder Brooks was so troubled by his reading.
Similarly, Atticus Finch could only serve as an iconic figure if he is situated in a progressive narrative of American history, and especially of the Civil Rights Movement, where white people are the protagonists. In To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel published six years after Brown v. Board of Education and five after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, the only vocal advocate for African American civil rights in the fictional 1930s town of Maycomb, Alabama, is a white patrician town lawyer. In truth, even in the 1930s, national civil rights organizations such as the NAACP were active throughout the South, as reflected in the 1931 trials of the Scottsboro (Alabama) Boys, and by the mid-1950s setting of Go Set A Watchman, the Civil Rights Movement was well underway, thanks to African American leaders such as Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and many others. All of which is to say that in neither era would a white lawyer have been an Alabama community’s leading advocate for African Americans. To idolize Finch as such in the original novel or to object to his portrayal as something different in the new one is to focus on a white role in African American civil rights far more than is justified by our history.
There are many reasons to read, but high on the list is to have our existing perspectives challenged, to distort what we already know and believe and in the process help expand, deepen, and make richer and more meaningful our sense of the world and ourselves. Which is to say, David Brooks was not wrong that Coates has distorted history, as Brooks and so many of us understand it. But such a distortion is purposeful and necessary. Indeed, in very different but complementary ways, both Coates’s and Lee’s books offer white readers – and all those who privilege a white-centric narrative of American history and identity – a vital such distortion.