Friday, July 17, 2015

To read or not to read "Go Set a Watchman"

My daughter says she doesn't think she can read Go Set a Watchman, the just released first draft of Harper Lee's beloved book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Both of my daughters grew up with To Kill a Mockingbird and the image of a morally impeccable Atticus Finch. He was one of their heroes.

That heroic image was enhanced by the wonderful movie in which the sainted Gregory Peck played Finch to such perfection. It is hard to think of that image being tarnished and changed by the knowledge that the author initially had an entirely different profile in mind for Atticus Finch, and I understand that many of those who loved Mockingbird are very troubled by that. I feel quite ambivalent about it myself.

But having now read several reviews of Watchman and more about the history of how it came to be, I think I better understand what Alabama writer Harper Lee was trying to do with her first draft and why her editor in New York wanted her to change it to focus on the voice of the younger Jean Louise (Scout) Finch and her childish vision of the world and her father.

At the time that To Kill a Mockingbird was written in the 1950s and published in 1960, perhaps that was the story that we needed to hear, the story that would resonate with us. The noble white Southern man with the vision to see that people of any color should be treated with respect. That was the more palatable representation of Atticus' character and one that gave inspiration to many, including me.

There were such white Southern men, but, truth to tell, they were outnumbered by the kind of men represented by the darker version of Atticus that appears in Go Set a Watchman.

By all accounts - and, again, I haven't yet read the book, only the reviews - the Watchman Atticus seems like a much more nuanced and much more human character. That seems thoroughly normal to me, because the first version that we had of the man was what was seen by his six-year-old daughter. Most men are spotless heroes to their six-year-old daughters.

The next version that we see is from a twenty-six-year-old daughter who has left her small hometown and lived in other places in the world, most recently in New York, and she now sees her beloved father and hometown with different, perhaps clearer, eyes. She sees the warts and hairy moles that grow on the skin they present to the world. She recognizes ugly racism for what it is.

I grew up in a place not unlike Scout's hometown and have had a somewhat similar journey in life. There are things that I was not able to see about the place where I lived when I was six, because I was a child, and I lived in the protected cocoon of my family and church and community. I never questioned the view of the world that I was fed by them.

Then I grew up and learned to look at the world without those hometown-imposed blinders. I learned to think for myself, and I learned that the world vision that had been presented to me in childhood was one-sided, that I needed to open my heart and mind to other views of the world. To try to see society in its reality, not the rose-colored-glasses version.

Harper Lee supposedly based Atticus on her own father. In that way, she fulfilled the first commandment of writing: Write what you know. I suspect that the nuanced Atticus is closer to the view that the grown-up writer had of her father and perhaps the sainted Atticus of Mockingbird is closer to her childish view. Maybe they are two parts of the same whole. If Lee had written another draft later in her life, the character might have evolved and changed once more. The two parts might have meshed more closely to present the reader with an even more nuanced character.

Harper Lee is an excellent writer. I think she is also a very brave writer - braver than her New York editor perhaps. It's my understanding that the one thing she required for the long-delayed publication of Go Set A Watchman was that it be published as is, without editing. She may have feared that it would be watered down in the editorial process to make it fit better with the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yes, she has shown courage and that courage deserves to be honored and so I will read her book.

6 comments:

  1. My cousin, who co-manages an indie bookstore in a suburb of New York City, read Go Set a Watchman in a day because she couldn't put it down. She gave it a positive review. I read part of the first chapter and decided I could not pay the attention to it that it deserves at this time, so I have put it aside for later. I am not bothered at all by Atticus being revealed as a racist by the adult Scout. I was saddened, however, by the fate of Jem Finch.

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    1. All the reviews that I have read have been positive, which is rather unusual. I think you are probably wise to put the book aside until you can give it full attention. It's on my TBR list, but it may be a while before I get to it. Yes, it is sad that Jem has been lost in this book.

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  2. I agree. I am nervous about reading "Go Set a Watchman," because I really don't want anything to tarnish my feelings for the Atticus Finch character in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
    As a girl growing up in Alabama I related so much to the book, although my own father was the opposite of the Finch character. However, to honor Harper Lee's courage I will read it too. After all, this is the book she intended to write originally. I'm very curious.

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    1. That's my feeling exactly - this was the book she wanted to give us all those years ago. How fortunate we are that we finally get a chance to read it.

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  3. I ordered my copy just the other day and plan to read it as soon as I get it. I've read so many negative comments on Facebook from people who say they refuse to read it, so I don't have high expectations for it. But your comments are very insightful, Dorothy. I don't want my image of Atticus Finch tarnished, but at the same time all humans have flaws, and a more realistic characterization of him seems only natural.

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    1. I don't trust much that I read on Facebook!

      Yes, I've lived among characters like the Watchman Atticus all my life. They are not all bad - they have a huge blind spot. They were not born with it. They were taught to have it when they were children. They just never took the blinders off. In so many ways they are to be pitied.

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