(Note: There will be a few spoilers.)
To Kill a Mockingbird was not my favorite novel the first time I read it. Like all good love affairs, this one would take time, distance, and a bit of persistence. Back in 1972, when it was required reading for my 9th grade English class, I was far more interested in historical romances that featured beefy hunks and petite-yet-plucky heroines than the goings-on of a tomboy in a small town in the south. Also, I was a notorious procrastinator, so I treated the To Kill a Mockingbird assignment as I did all the others. I read the CliffsNotes. A decade later, after hearing people proclaim this their all-time favorite, I decided to pick up a copy at the library. By the time I returned that book, three weeks overdue, pages worn and tattered from my reading and rereading, it was a full-on love affair. So, when it was announced that a sequel to the novel had been found in Harper Lee's safe-deposit box, it felt as if long-lost friends were coming home. Unfortunately, those friends brought with them more than nostalgia. They brought the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The ugly - possible elder abuse. It has been no secret that Harper Lee has refused to write another novel. It is also no secret that the author has had a stroke, is in her late-80's, and is confined to a nursing home with limited short-term memory. Her late sister, Alice, reported in a letter to a friend that Nelle Harper Lee would sign any paper put in front of her, as she could no longer read what was written nor understand the implications. The story goes that Miss Lee's attorney , Tonja Carter, stumbled upon the manuscript for Watchman in the safe-deposit box. Imagine the implications to the publishing world if only Miss Lee would agree to its publication! Then, imagine Alice Lee, Harper's staunchest protector, passes away. Almost immediately afterward, word was leaked that another novel by Harper Lee will be published. Though friends of the author stepped forward to file elder abuse charges, they were not successful. The case was investigated, charges were dropped, and Go Set a Watchman went on to break sales records. After all, who wouldn't want to read the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird?
This is the other bit of ugliness. Go Set a Watchman was never a sequel, and those involved with the initial promotion knew this. Watchman was the first draft of a novel by Harper Lee in which the main character returned home to her small southern town to help tend to her ailing father. The character in question is one Jean Louise Finch, and her father is named Atticus. Her editor, Tay Hohoff, read this draft and rejected it. But, she saw promise. She suggested Miss Lee deconstruct her novel and rewrite it from the point of view of Jean Louise as the child, Scout. Two years of hard work later, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, which also became the subject of an Academy-Award-winning film and was placed on the required reading lists of school throughout the country, was born. But, Go Set A Watchman could never have reached those heights, and Tay Hohoff understood exactly why.
The portrayal of race relations in the 1950's south is not a flattering one. Unlike Mockingbird, this novel does not provide white readers with the comfort of believing that true racism was left to the Bob Ewell's of the world. In Mockingbird, Atticus is the great white savior. "Stand up, Jean Louise. Your father's passing." In Watchman, Jean Louise sees, in the eyes of her beloved Calpurnia, that she, Jem, and Atticus were, all along, "one of them" - white folks who, with their attitudes, sense of entitlement, and laws, kept the black people they claimed to love and respect in a position of always being considered "less than." In that sense, Watchman was ahead of its time. America, particularly white America, needed the soft-sell of Mockingbird to grasp the consequences of racism rather than the outrage of Jean Louise in Watchman. I believe Tay Hohoff understood this. At the very least, she understood that a great American novel needs a hero.Who shines brighter as a hero than the father of a six year-old girl?
This is where the bad comes in. Early reviews of Watchman were released and spoilers began to leak. We were all warned to stay away. The first piece of news was that Scout's brother, Jem, was dead. The worst news, however, was that Scout's father, one of the most beloved characters in American literature, was a racist. Atticus was strong for segregation, an advocate for "State's rights" (a term that was then and is still now an excuse to allow mistreatment of our fellow human beings) and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Could things get worse? Lines from the novel, often taken out of context, were used as proof that none of this was going to end well for Atticus fans.
News that could be considered both good and bad is that the publishers decided to give this manuscript nothing more than a light editing. On the plus side, this means we are reading Harper Lee's first draft exactly as she intended. On the negative side, it often reads like a first draft, which means it could have used a firmly-wielded blue pen. However, I prefer the flawed version by Miss Lee than anything that would have been produced by the modern-day, politically-correct sensibilities of the publishing house. There are pages where the prose is magnificent and flows like a clear stream. Then, suddenly, we get stuck on a rock and the water becomes murky. There are paragraphs that contain blatantly racist language and sensibilities, and those would never fly in this modern age. But, there are paragraphs that are so thoughtful, so progressive for 1957, that one comes to believe that the Atticus from Mockingbird is, in fact, right there, hiding between the lines. It's just that, in Watchman, Atticus is Jean Louise.
Finally, onto the good. With this novel, we feel Harper Lee/Scout's passion. The little girl from Mockingbird who idolized her father is now all grown up. She has discovered that the world in which she wants to live has a different blueprint than the one occupied by her 72-year-old father. To move onto her world, she has to acknowledge that the people she has admired her whole life have deeply held convictions that she can no longer abide. That will require admitting that they were never the people she believed them to be, that they were flawed, that her hero worship was misplaced. This is the heart of the novel, and a story as old as time.
Of course, that means that we, the readers, have to do the same. Atticus is still the same person in Watchman that he was in Mockingbird. He is a quiet, thoughtful man who goes about his life trying to do the right thing. In Mockingbird, it was the right thing to take on the Tom Robinson case. Here was a man unfairly accused by a Ewell, of all people. In the eyes of six-year-old Scout and all of America, that gesture signified a progressive mind-set, a hero of a man who would risk it all for a cause. In fact, to Atticus, it was a trial, not a cause. The Atticus of Watchman is a racist, and there can be no mistaking that. What do we do with that information? Do we write him off as a man not worthy of one minute of our attention? Or do we overcome the initial disappointment, as adults do, and recognize the story Harper Lee was trying to tell? Her Atticus in Watchman is the old guard - a southern man born only a few short decades after the end of the Civil War. His viewpoint towards the black population was imprinted on him since birth. Jean Louise, on the other hand, is a young woman given the opportunity to open her eyes, to see the need for change, and to decide whether or not to take a stand.
I advise people who loved To Kill a Mockingbird to read Go Set A Watchmen. If nothing else, you are going to experience the unedited words of one of the writers of the most magnificent prose in American literature. Beyond that, you will be reintroduced to Scout Finch. This time, she is the hero, as Harper Lee intended.