What do you think of Go Set a Watchman?
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday. I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Usually I answer most questions (worth answering) in roughly the order I receive them, but auspicious timing for a book release may mean someone jumps the queue.]
What do you think about Harper Lee's new book and what they're doing to Atticus Finch? Will you read it?
In a twist that will shock only people who have never really read much of my writing and/or never seen an M. Night Shyamalan movie, I have a pretty complicated and nuanced answer to this, so I'll start with some of the Things That Must Never Be Forgotten™ and then talk about why I'm probably not as horrified by the prospect of a sequel as some people seem to be.
First let me get the clumsily inserted exposition out of the way. If you've been living in a cave or have no friends on social media who love books, you may not have heard that Harper Lee is releasing a book that is a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird
called Go Set a Watchman
. While we've been hearing that this book exists
for nearly a year, as the details come to life, they get more and more quirky. Atticus Finch in this book apparently becomes a segregationist, and seems to stand for some level racism that he never did before (more on that in a bit). It takes a lot to upset readers even more than when they realize that not all the Starks will be getting to see how the Song of Ice and fire ends.
But first we must keep a few things in mind...
Things That Must Never Be Forgotten™
There are a couple of Siberian-Winter-cold facts that need to be dropped to contextualize this book, and they must inform everything that comes after. While we don't absolutely know what has happened in the assisted living home where Harper Lee now resides, and whether there were hazy meetings amidst cigar smoke (punctuated by Machiavellian laughs) or not, these are the facts we do know, and they do not paint a gracious picture:
- Go Set a Watchman is based on an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. In typical style for a literary book, it changed substantially between its first and final drafts. Characters were altered. Settings were changed. Themes were teased out that hadn't been consciously in the mind of the author until they read their own work. This happens all the time–especially in books we consider to be "literary" or "classics." Let it be a lesson to writers about just how much can change in a draft.
- We know that this early draft was coherent enough to actually be published, and that Lee was very worried people might do so. It is a contiguous story with a beginning a middle and an end. It might not need more than a polish to be a perfectly passable book.
- To Kill a Mockingbird is BIG, BIG, BIG business. To this day, it pulls in over three million dollars PER YEAR. Imagine how many people in the publishing industry would want to get a "lost" Harry Potter novel published if they knew one existed, even if Rowling said it wasn't for the public or forbade its publication. Watchman is now the MOST preordered book in Harper/Collins history.
- Harper Lee was explicitly clear that she never wanted GSAW published. In fact, the last time anyone really saw her, she was very clear....crystal clear....water-in-Hawaiian-vacation-commercials clear.....that she would never publish again.
- In 2007 Harper Lee suffered a stroke that impaired her mental functions. She charged her sister Alice and her lawyer with making sure that GSAW was never turned into a book.
- Her sister died not too long ago, and within months there was an announcement that a new Harper Lee novel had been found.
- The book could not be published right away. It needed some polish. (Almost like...maybe it was a draft.)
- No one really knows what Harper Lee wants in all this. She lives in an assisted living home and has a list of only six visitors who can see her. All are involved in publishing GSAW. Her lawyer speaks for her in all matters.
- Harper Lee's lawyer has written an op-ed in which there is absolutely no mention of Harper Lee's wishes, her thoughts on the new book, or her thoughts about how Atticus is being portrayed. None.
Those are the facts. It's not too hard to see why even a modicum of skepticism can conjure an image of a stroke-addled Lee being manipulated by a group of profiteering caregivers so that they can all secure VERY cushy retirements. Maybe they want a payday and made a pact. Maybe they honestly think the book isn't too bad and want to see it in the world. And then again, maybe Lee is a completely lucid misanthrope and is tired of a nuanced character being seen through a two dimensional lens. (Oh yes. I said it.) Whatever is going on, though, they sure haven't done anything--like a press release by Lee, or allowing a reporter to do a short interview--that might assuage so much as the slightest concern that this isn't a horrible case of elder financial abuse. Even so, the official term for situations in which manipulation seems so likely is, "sketchy as fuck."
But let's move on from the scandal part. The book is published and copies are on the shelves and Atticus fans are causing a sudden resurgence in the number of fainting couches in the world. That bell isn't going to be unrung in ever.
Just ignore it.
First of all, I've never understood why people become pedants about canon. Like I've seen fights almost come to blows over the fact that a book in the Star Wars extended universe once established a power of Boba Fett's. This always perplexes me. Once a book is in the world, do with it what you want. You don't like that one, pretend it didn't happen. My mind is full of series that ended when they should have and never went on too long because the author wanted a gravy train. It's filled with books that never had a forgettable sequel. I know those things exist in the same way I know there was a season five of Babylon 5....or a Spiderman 3....or an X-man 3....or midichlorians....or Jar Jar Binks....or....well you get the idea. I write it out of my head canon and I go on with my life. IT'S ALL FICTION–NONE OF IT IS ACTUALLY REAL! So being disappointed that an author did something you didn't want them to do with a fictional character has always just seemed strange to me. Just....pretend they didn't. The author created a world in your imagination. Simply alter it. They are just borrowing real estate in YOUR brain, and it's not like knowing all these things is ever going to let you sweep a category column on Jeopardy or anything. Is it that hard to comfortably accept a world where Harry ends up with Hermione just because your day-to-day brain knows there exists a version where they didn't?
Maybe that's because I've got a better-than-average imagination. Maybe it's because I'm good at compartmentalizing. Maybe it's because I've had a lot of practice trying to accept paradox. Whatever the reason, reading a book that sullies a character isn't like reading an account that would sully a real person. In Sci-fi parlance, it will create a parallel time line where I am aware of two Atticus Finches. One from TKAM and one from GSAW.
But if you need some sort of technical pretense to substitute head-canon for "official" canon, remember this: GSAW may take place twenty years later, but it was written before. However...even so, it is not a pre-sequel. It's an earlier draft. It is an earlier draft that we readers just happen to get access to. That means technically it was replaced by TKAM and the events never happened. Enjoy a glimpse of how dramatically violent the writing process can be to the settings and characters and plots of writers who care enough to keep revising until a work is just perfect.
Or is he?
Now despite all these shady dealings, most people were pretty excited to see a new Harper Lee book hit the stands. It was only when they heard that Atticus Finch might be getting a segregationist makeover that they began to rebel against the idea or declare that they would never read such a book.
Atticus is their hero. A real open minded guy who tells people to walk around in other people's skin (but not in a Hannibal Lecter kind of way). He tells Scout that people are good if you get to know them. He defends a black man when no one else will. He stands against a mob.
He's a good guy.
There's a rule in writing literature about depth of characters, and a character who is comically good is just as ludicrous as a character who is mustache-twirlingly evil. Everyone is a mix of virtue and vice, beauty and its opposite. The thing about Atticus Finch is that he is accepted (generally by white readers) to be a paragon of good. The reason people are so upset is that this new book taints that impression of him as a non-racist. Not just as a non-bigot, but even as someone who would passively accept a status quo that benefitted him.
There are two problems with this. One is that racism isn't always active hatred. Obviously that's one expression of it and a dramatic and powerful one and oft used in literature and film to shortcut the more complex, nuanced, and lengthy portrayals of impact over intention. But racism is also a set of invisible social, cultural, economic, and political forces that create a power imbalance and a system of white supremacy. The struggle of social justice in our generation has been to expose the fact that an individual can contribute to (and benefit from) a racist system without being an overt bigot.
But let's read closer. Did Atticus ever really work to understand Tom Robbinson? Did he "walk around in Tom's skin"? Did he tell the jury (or Scout) about who Tom was as a person? (I assume he had a family and a job.) Did he send Jem to garden at a black person's house? Does Atticus have black friends? Atticus's treatment of Calpernia is often held up as evidence of his non-racism, but is it true acceptance or does Calpernia lead a double life? Does Atticus accept her as she really is or does she have to act the way he approves of to earn that acceptance? Was there ever any indication at all that Atticus wasn't a person comfortable with the social order?
Or did Atticus act a little bit like a white savior? Did the whole black community standing up for him (something that bothered me even as a child) simply for defending a man who clearly wasn't guilty strike a very sour note? Was Atticus simply a decent white person who is a product of his time? Do a few assumptions about the order of thing that peek through? Did he do nothing to challenge the systematic white supremacy, but basically mounted a defense that not only kept that system intact, but depended on it? Did he tell basically the jury that HE (Atticus) was honorable and so why would he defend a guilty man? Is there a reason why whites generally love this story and blacks tend report finding it depressing?
Is there every indication that Atticus is seen through the adoring lens of a young daughter and may be a complex person who makes a Faustian deal with the society in which he lived?
Is GSAW really adding a dimension to Atticus at all? Or is it just teasing out something that was always there? Could twenty years of social upheaval find an older man (who may have been the "vanguard of change" twenty years before) hasn't really shifted views? Could a father, a hero of a young girl, be seen to have flaws later in life? Many of the greatest voices we can think of in history were racists of some stripe or another, and even some of the greatest fighters against racist expressions were racists to some degree. Some were unrepentantly so, and some did a lot of good on the issues of their time but went no further. Abolitionists didn't always like black people. People who fought for desegregation turned around and opposed the Fair Housing Act. Abraham Lincoln ended slavery....and also wanted to send the freed slaves back to Africa. Is it really that hard to imagine a generous hearted white man in the nineteen thirties–a progressive of his time–who doesn't want to see a black man lynched for a crime he is not guilty of, but maybe isn't quite as progressive as being ready to accept desegregation?
It's always been there.
A major theme of social progress is often that we are a little embarrassed by the good-hearted assumptions of the generation before us? Perhaps GSAW is really just exploring this dynamic, and Lee reset the piece on revision to an earlier era so that it could more closely reflect the coming of age story that echoed so many of the turbulent themes it explored and to keep a father character from being so ambiguous.
But "less ambiguous" or not, multi-dimensional characters should not be untouchably good any more than they should be unrepentantly evil. Perhaps we've got it all wrong with Lee and the scandal of her estate's management. Perhaps she is remarkably clear thinking, no longer worries about the backlash from an incensed audience who idolized a character she intended to be more complex, and now she wants to set the record straight. As incredible and inspiring and compassionate and empathetic as Atticus is (and he IS–especially for 1936) it is as ridiculous for people to think Atticus has no faults as it is for Jem and Scout to imagine that Boo Radley has no virtues.
Or as the oft quoted hero among my friends puts it: It's my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sumbitch or another.
Am I going to read it? Absolutely. Am I going to read it with skepticism? You bet. Am I going to incorporate it into my broader world of TKAM and Atticus Finch? Just possibly.
But I will also always have Atticus Finch too.
Harper Lee’s Father, Inspiration for Atticus Finch, Changed His Views on Segregation-WSJ
Review: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Gives Atticus Finch a Dark Side- NYT
Racism of Atticus Finch in ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Could Alter Harper Lee’s Legacy- NYT
What Does Harper Lee Want? -Bloomberg
Be Suspicious of the New Harper Lee Novel -Jezebel
What Harper Lee’s attorney doesn’t say in an op-ed is revealing -Washington Post