Okay, yes, I’m going to join in with all the ruckus about Harper Lee’s latest novel, released today, Go Set a Watchman. Join me?
And no, I haven’t read it; so if that’s going to make you crazy, consider this fair warning.
On the other hand, I’m not planning on spending a bunch of time on conjecture on writing or plot, although at least one review that does will come into play – and it is based upon the advance reviews that got my brain going.
I’m kind of fascinated with the fallout of these advance reviews. I’ve been conflicted about reading this new novel, but to be totally honest, the thing that most kept me away was that I didn’t want to read what was basically a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. I mean really, what good can come of that? One of my friends, Jen, had this to say a few days ago:
“So the main takeaway from this for me is, had things been like today, Lee would’ve just published [GO SET A] WATCHMAN and we would’ve been stuck with that story instead of [TO KILL A] MOCKINGBIRD. Right now, I’m thankful for gatekeepers and editors.”
Most reports indicate that Go Set a Watchman was the original story Lee submitted for publication, but her editor nudged her into what became To Kill a Mockingbird. ie: Lee’s manuscript was presumably improved because that is what we all thank editors for when we get those final, published books in our hands.
But then we find out this from Michiko Kakutani’s review in the NY Times:
“…Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘The Negroes down her are still in their childhood as a people.’ Or asks his daughter: ‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?’”
Whoa. This is not the Atticus we thought we knew from “Mockingbird”. (Although, honestly, while Atticus definitely is not this awful in “Mockingbird”, I did not seem him quite as saintly upon a recent re-read.) It’s because of this drastic change in characterization that both worries me and fascinates me.
Here are some of the things banging around in my brain and I’d love for you to discuss with me. Let’s start with one of the most popular issues:
“I don’t want ‘Watchman’ to ruin my love for ‘Mockingbird’.”
I totally get this. Check out this post by Liam Stack who culls some reactionary tweets to Kakutani’s review (and other reviews). It’s hard to face something that could sully our memories of something great. On the other hand, sometimes we need to check those lenses on our glasses. How rosy have we let them get? A few weeks ago I wrote about this potential problem and even mentioned – glancing though it was – “Mockingbird” in that post about discovering that maybe the books we loved weren’t so great after all. Don’t get me wrong, I am not disparaging “Mockingbird” in the sense that we should drop it from anyone’s canon; there are a tremendous number of great talking points in it. But, well, my friend Sarah has a point when she says this:
“It has also made me think about my own possible prejudice. Like, do I love To Kill a Mockingbird because Atticus wins (and is white etc.)? Do I personally know any PoC who declare it to be the best book ever?”
Exactly. When I re-read the book this past year, I had some misgivings. And in that Twitter reaction post of Stack’s it’s worth noting that most, if not all, quoted tweets were from white people.
Also, wouldn’t it be a really good idea to offer a similar book by a black author that covers the same time period and region? How different would those perspectives be?
[UPDATE: check out Morgan Jerkins take on why we shouldn’t be surprised that Lee wrote Atticus as a racist. Yes to all of it.]
Speaking of perspective and a change of characterization, let’s talk more about what this means:
“Our beloved icon, Atticus, is not the hero we know and love from ‘Mockingbird’”
First, I’d argue that he was never quite as heroic as many would make him out to be (we can leave out the controversially misguided use of the term, “hero” and “heroic”, for now, okay?). Atticus did the right thing to defend Tom Robinson and he didn’t do any half-baked defense, either. He did it well. And he guided Scout and Jem to the best of his ability to stand tall in the face of insults, but… I don’t think he ever really gave a satisfactory argument in favor of equal rights for blacks. Am I wrong? I helped my son with his thesis about this kind of thing for a school essay and it was pretty hard to find direct evidence to support the idea that Atticus didn’t still have prejudice against African Americans.
Again, just how deep a shade of pink do we have on our glasses?
I really appreciated this take from my friend Jenny:
“I find the idea of an older, jaded, and yes, racist Atticus Finch so intriguing. Especially because that’s what Lee started with. The concept that Atticus was holier not because he was actually pure of heart, but because he was being perceived through the eyes of a 6-year old Scout actually makes me respect To Kill A Mockingbird a little more than I did before.”
Interesting. I can’t say I am fully on board with the idea that Lee re-structured “Mockingbird” to this end, but based upon Kakutani’s review, maybe she did? And if so, my fascination has grown.
On the other hand, this runs into a shallower issue for me:
Inconsistencies between the two books
You know how you watch a TV show over the course of a few seasons and you say, “Wait a minute, whatever happened to that clock that Pelant was messing with in Booth and Brennan’s bedroom?” or “Didn’t Booth used to have a son?” (Both are references to the TV show Bones, by the way, for newer readers of my blog, haha.) Inconsistencies can drive me crazy in a series. I can forgive a lot in a TV show, because the parameters they have to work with are far different than an author, who should be planning and referencing their own work over the course of a series.
I get that Lee’s publisher didn’t have quite that same luxury (although honestly, why not try? All news articles ultimately indicated that Lee is of sound mind, just can’t hear or see very well…. well, okay yes, it still would have been a challenge. Okay.), but it is one of my fears of reading the book. Sure, it could upend everything I thought I knew about Scout and Atticus, but if it all matched, then all right, I’m on board.
But it can’t. It just can’t. Not when there’s no opportunity for developmental edits.
Bringing me to a final, but related point:
“It’s a messy book. I mean, honestly, it reads like a failed attempt at a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird”
These words are from reviewer Maureen Corrigan, interviewed on NPR. (Transcript of the story is given, but like many of their interviews, the transcript doesn’t quite catch everything – listening to the story is pretty interesting.) This circles back to my friend Jen’s words about gatekeepers and editors and to some of my misgivings right from the start. I love To Kill a Mockingbird for the polished story it became, not the “not-quite-ready” version it was. My cynical and pretty near-on-point side says this “found” manuscript was published only for the money and I want to cling to my altruistic side that says “who cares, it’s Harper Lee and Scout, for heaven’s sake – don’t we want more of that?”
I’m still not sure – but I’m still pretty interested. Will I read it? I did read the first chapter and there’s a little too much front matter though in parts it’s nicely lyrical. Also, I enjoyed the banter between Jean Louise and her boyfriend (? sort of), Hank. Also, just before posting this, I decided to put it on hold at the library. I’m #310 on the list, so I have some time to decide. 🙂
Look at all these talking points… what do YOU think? Will you read it? Why? Why not? What excites or concerns you?
You know who’s character doesn’t change? Scout – or Jean Louise as she is known in her more mature years in “Watchman”. Maybe, above all else, SHE is who we need to remember and appreciate in both books, don’t you think?