Total Pageviews

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Braxton Bragg Underwood Portable Tpewriter

Henceforth this little humdinger, which I have vowed to keep, will be known by me as the Braxton Bragg Underwood portable typewriter. I'm quite well aware that in the past 55 years, Braxton Bragg Underwood has been subjected to some bad Press, being more often than not branded a bigot and, worst still, a white supremacist. But perhaps, more lately, his character has come to be reappraised, and today he is likely to be judged as someone at least capable of a more enlightened attitude. As we approach the 80th anniversary of the trial of Tom Robinson, I tend to lean in that direction, though nobody seems prepared to go so far as a Evelyn Beatrice Hall Voltaire-esque line suggesting "I may disapprove of what you do, but I will defend to the death your right to do it". Even if it's true that in the summer of 1935, Braxton Bragg Underwood hung out The Maycomb Tribune office window, next door to the county jail, taking aim with a double barrel shotgun, fully prepared to see off the Old Sarum Mob.
The men shuffled back into their cars and were gone.
    I turned to Atticus.  “Can we go home now?”  He nodded.
    “Mr Finch?  They gone?”
    “They’ve gone,” he said.  “Get some sleep, Tom.  They won’t bother you anymore.”
    From a different direction, another voice cut crisply through the night:  “You’re damn tootin’ they won’t.  Had you covered all the time, Atticus.”
    Mr Underwood and a double-barrelled shotgun were leaning out the window.
And on that subject, one can forget the Hollywood-inspired notion of a spacious newspaper office in a small mid-1930s Southern town, where the editor-cum-reporter-cum-sub editor-cum typesetter could sit in comfort amid acres of uncluttered space. The Maycomb Tribune office wasn't big enough for Braxton Bragg Underwood to bang away at a big old Underwood 5, let alone have a choice of two working desks. After all, he practically lived there. Bung in a writing table, an ever-present gallon jug of cherry wine and a Ward and Sons Central Gun Works 12-gauge double barrel shotgun beside a camp bed, and there wasn't room to swing a cat. So even if the county courthouse was just across the square, Braxton Bragg Underwood's choice of writing weapon would have been one light and compact enough to carry about, like a little Underwood four-bank portable. Or even a Corona 3. He'd given the Underwood 5 away to the young 'uns.
A few things to consider:
1. There was such a person as Braxton Underwood. He was born in Kentucky in 1872, and his dad was called John Underwood (one for Ripley's Believe It Or Not, I concur). Sadly, I have no idea what became of him.
2. It has always been assumed that Harper Lee based the character of Atticus Finch on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee (with Harper above). So much so that when 'Coley' Lee died on April 15, 1962, one US columnist wrote,  "A great many people paused for a moment when Atticus died." And with good reason - 'Coley' Lee was a lawyer in Monroeville, Alabama. But he was also, from 1929 to 1947, editor of the Monroe Journal. Indeed, he was editor of the Journal in the period in which To Kill a Mockingbird is set, 1933-35. 
Atticus Finch forsakes The Maycomb Tribune for the Mobile Register and Scout can't understand why.
So was 'Coley' Lee the inspiration for both Atticus Finch and Braxton Bragg Underwood? (The surname Finch was Harper Lee's mother's maiden name.) From 1927 to 1939, 'Coley' Lee also served as a member of the Alabama House of Representatives.
Harper Lee rediscovers her old haunts.
3. The name Braxton Bragg Underwood was obviously inspired in part by the Underwood 5 typewriter which 'Coley' Lee gave his daughter Harper and which she and Truman Capote took in turns from the Lee home to the from Faulk home, where Capote (the son of Lillie Mae Faulk, but back then known as Truman Persons) spent his summers. The kids would probably have preferred the little portable, at least for the tree house!
4. Local opinion held Mr Underwood to be an intense, profane little man, whose father in a fey fit of humour christened Braxton Bragg, a name Mr Underwood had done his best to live down.
Braxton Bragg Underwood takes his name from Braxton Bragg (1817-1876), a consistently cantankerous and generally inept Confederate general who is reputed to have single-handedly contributed almost as much to the outcome of the Civil War as the whole of the Union Army. Bragg was born in North Carolina. He became principal Confederate commander in the Western Theatre and military adviser to the Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The son and husband of slave owners, and a slave-owner himself, there were rumours that Bragg's mother was imprisoned for allegedly murdering an African-American freeman, and that Bragg was born in jail. During the Civil War, a fellow officer told him, "You have played the part of a damned scoundrel." Once considered the most disagreeable man in the US Army, a superior officer told him, "My God, Mr Bragg, you have quarrelled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarrelling with yourself!" His troops twice attempted to assassinate him. After the Civil War his plantation in Thibodaux was confiscated by the Federal Army and served as a shelter, the Bragg Home Colony for freed slaves. Bragg lived briefly in Lowndesboro, Alabama, north of Monroeville, and became superintendent of the New Orleans waterworks, but he was soon replaced by an African-American as the Reconstructionists came to power. In 1871 he was employed by the city of Mobile, south of Monroeville, to improve the river, harbour, and bay, leaving after quarrelling with a "combination of capitalists".
5. It is also evident that town drunk, the evil Bob Ewell (above, played by James Anderson) was given his name by Harper Lee after General Robert Edward Lee. Civil War historians take very differing views on whether Bragg and Lee liked one another very much. The consensus, however, seems to be that "detested" would be putting it rather mildly.
6. One theory suggests that To Kill a Mockingbird is based on Coley Lee's experience, while still a title lawyer, of defending two African-American men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. His clients, a father and son, were hanged.
7. Given Harper Lee's clear grasp of Southern history, it's possible a figure such as Braxton Bragg Underwood might have been based, to some degree, on notable campaigning Southern journalists and editors such as Henry Woodfin Grady (above, 1850-1889), who helped reintegrate the states of the former Confederacy into the Union after the Civil War, and the duplicitous Thomas Edward Watson (below, 1856-1922). Watson long supported black enfranchisement in Georgia and throughout the South, as a basic tenet of his populist philosophy, condemning lynching. However, by 1908 Watson identified himself as a white supremacist and ran as such during his presidential bid. Indeed, Watson turned out to be anti-Semitic as well, and the personification of pure evil. In 1913 he called for the lynching of Jewish prisoner Leon Frank and celebrated this vile act in print, then intimating that another Ku Klux Klan be organised. In other words, a truly, truly nasty piece of work.
8. To Kill a Mockingbird infers Braxton Bragg Underwood went the other way. The claim he was a racist comes from the mouth of Atticus Finch himself:  
In the morning, Aunty, who knew about what happened last night, said that children who slipped out at night were a disgrace to the family. Aunty also said that Mr Underwood was there the whole time and nothing bad would have happened.
    “You know, it’s a funny thing about Braxton (Mr Underwood),” said Atticus.  “He despises Negroes, won’t have one near him.”
    Aunty took offense to Atticus saying this comment about Mr Underwood in front of Calpurnia.  “Don’t talk like that in front of them.”
    “Talk like what in front of whom?” he asked.
    “Like that in front of Calpurnia.  You said Braxton Underwood despises Negroes right in front of her.”
    “Well, I’m sure Cal knows it.  Everybody in Maycomb knows it.  Anything fit to say at the table’s fine to say in front of Calpurnia.  She knows what she means to this family.”
    “I don’t think it’s a good habit, Atticus.  It encourages them.  You know how they talk among themselves.  Everything that happens in this town’s out to the Quarters before sundown.”
    “I don’t know of any law that says they can’t talk.  Maybe if we didn’t give them so much to talk about they’d be quiet.”
Estelle Evans as Calpurnia, with Jem and Scout.
Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch) and Mary Badham ('Scout') read the script 
After Tom Robinson was found guilty and killed while trying to escape jail, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch gained a far clearer understanding of the implications of these events by reading Braxton Bragg Underwood's editorial in The Maycomb Tribune:
Mr B. B. Underwood was at his most bitter, and he couldn't have cared less who cancelled advertising and subscriptions. (But Maycomb didn't play that way; Mr Underwood could holler till he sweated and write whatever he wanted to, he'd still get his advertising and subscriptions. If he wanted to make a fool of himself in his paper that was his business.) Mr Underwood didn't talk about miscarriages of justice, he was writing so children could understand. Mr Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting, or escaping. He likened Tom's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children, and Maycomb thought he was trying to write an editorial poetical enough to be reprinted in The Montgomery Advertiser.
"How could this be so, I wondered, as I read Mr Underwood's editorial. Senseless killing - Tom had been given due process of law to the day of his death; he had been tried openly and convicted by twelve good men and true; my father had fought for him all the way. Then Mr Underwood's meaning became clear: Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed."
Gregory Peck, John Megna as Charles Baker 'Dill' Harris (the Truman Capote character), Phillip Alford as Jem Finch and Mary Badham as Scout Finch.
So what's elicited all this renewed interest in To Kill a Mockingbird? A reappraisal of Braxton Bragg Underwood, a racist whose prejudice was overridden by his sense of justice? Well, maybe. Maybe it's time he got a little good Press. He must have had some redeeming features, surely? But I have a grandchild on the way, and the would-be parents, being great lovers of Harper Lee's classic, along with the paternal would-be grandmother, are thinking about the name Scout, if it's a girl. I guess I'm just entering into the spirit o0f it all, by naming an adorable little portable typewriter the Braxton Bragg Underwood.
Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as Jem find something left by Arthur 'Boo' Radley (Robert Duvall).

1 comment:

Taylor Harbin said...

The Confederate general was the first man that came to my mind when I read the name. Very interesting, as always! I was at a book store in Charleston, SC recently. They had a signed copy of Lee's book for $1700.