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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What About Harper Lee's New Book (Mailbox)

What do you think of Go Set a Watchman?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com 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.]    

Danielle asks:

What do you think about Harper Lee's new book and what they're doing to Atticus Finch? Will you read it?  

My reply:

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?

Read closer.

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?

Read closer.

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? 

Read closer. 

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?

Read closer.

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


  1. I think there's a potential snark here somewhere about people who are working to maintain a head-canon in which Bill Cosby is not a serial rapist and reacting angrily to every additional piece of evidence confirming that fact that he is. I wonder how much overlap there is between that group and the people having conniptions over GSAW violating their mental images of Atticus Finch as the patron saint of their post-racial colorblind fantasy of America? Seems like the folks who want to canonize Atticus would be equally inclined to canonize Dr. Cliff Huxtable.

    1. There's probably something there worth exploring.

  2. I'm not a fan of rigid cannonicity, and I think you make good points about some people overly idealizing Atticus as a benevolent figure, but my reading of the previews makes it seem liek the changes are not just jarring but nonsensical. I think it's natural for fans to be disappointed in the same way Marvel fans wouldn't be happy if in the next Avengers movie Cptn America turned out to be pro-Hydra, with some poorly cobbled together backstory to match.

    Anyway, your broader social point makes sense to me, but I think on the basis of what we know so far (which is little) there's not much evidence to say that this hardcore racist side of the character was always there if you analyzed enough.

    As an aside, I read TKaMB for the first tiem like 6 months ago, and I was struck mostly by the sense of deep injustice in it, and not by any heroism in Finch. he seemed to be trying to uphold justice in a system that didn't even realize how injust it was, and his level of egalitarianism is very dated by modern standards. I remember finishing the book and feeling like I wanted to punch someone.

    1. P.S. I am a different Danielle

    2. Yeah, there may be something to that. I suspect we'll get the first reviews in a day or two.

  3. It's a much better book than many people think, and I am very glad I read it. Sure, it could use an editor's hand and a polish, but it is STILL a damned good book. RIGHT NOW, in the current social and political climate, GSAW has a raw and vital message about the origins of racism as we know it TODAY. It's important. It's timely. Lee may very well have changed her mind and want it published NOW.
    After reading it, I can honestly see Lee wanting this book published at this particular time. It is an important book. Lee has effective walls against the world, and I am not hearing consistent and credible reports that her mind isn't working NOW. She's old and lives in assisted living and she had a stroke a few years ago, but that does not equate with lack of legal competence or interest in society TODAY. Her current attorney is also a relative, and has been involved in Lee's affairs for many years: she was the partner of the sister. This isn't some officious interloper jumping in and taking charge against Lee's wishes as far as they are known to that lawyer.
    Nobody but me has said ONE SINGLE WORD about the sexism expressed by all characters, particularly Jean Louise. "It was the times," I hear. So...racism on any level in the 1950's is NOT OK, but sexism IS? Think about the implications of that. Are not fictional characters allowed to be a product of their times and places? Must every character be a super-hero?
    Atticus, to me, was always first and foremost a lawyer from the very first time I read TKAM (when I was Scout's age). He defended Tom because it was the right thing to do, and the right thing to give it his very best. That was his duty to justice as a lawyer: to let nothing get in the way of properly representing his client. He wasn't acting as a civil rights activist. He was acting as lawyer. Danielle is quite right in her comment, though I do think that being a GOOD lawyer in the context of that time and place was indeed heroic. Atticus continues to be a good lawyer. Recommending a deal for Calpurnia's grandson may well be the very best result obtainable -- sounded like it to me -- not some kind of cop-out. He's a good man according to his lights and the era in which he lived. That's the point. This book is a searing insight into a time and place just as people were awakening to the possibilities of changing racism in society, when decent white people who had always behaved well according to their lights found themselves cast as villains by people they sincerely care about or even love. Oh, just read the book. It's worth it.

    1. Well now I'll definitely have to make time for it.

  4. I saw this and thought you might be interested... it's by Ursula Le Guin about GSAW - http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/08/03/a-personal-take-on-go-set-a-watchman/