Monday, July 20, 2015
A skeptic by nature, I was blown away when I first heard some time ago that a "forgotten" and "mislaid" manuscript of Harper Lee's first novel had been found. While I have no idea whether or not she actually wanted this manuscript published, I strongly doubt that it was forgotten by Harper Lee all these years. I cannot imagine any author being unaware of the location of the first manuscript she presented for publication. In any event it has indeed been published and released this past week as the most talked-about book in some years. Pre-orders sent the book to the top of the best seller lists. I refer, of course, of "Go Set A Watchman."
When I first heard that the book would be published, I made a quick decision that I would not help line the pockets of the publishing company and Ms. Lee's agent. I would simply not buy the book. When early reviews painted Atticus Finch as a racist my decision not to buy the book was confirmed. Atticus Finch a racist? Might as well tell me there is no Santa Claus.
So am I writing a post telling you why I'm not going to read "Go Set a Watchman?" Not at all. I'm writing a post to tell you I DID read it and what I think of it.
How did this change come about? I was in my local book store where I saw copy after copy of the book. I knew the book store had already paid the publisher for the book so my buying it meant money for the book store, not the publisher. And anyway, I plan to give the book to a friend who would otherwise buy it. Make sense? Not to me either. I bought the book because I am a reader. An avid reader. And I often feel compelled to read controversial books.
Few books have affected me in my lifetime more than "To Kill a Mockingbird." I tend to re-read this wonderful novel every year or so. So how could I fail to read another book by the same author?
I begin by telling you that the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird and the Atticus Finch of Watchman represent two sides of the same coin. Both are honest men, leaders in the community and avid defenders of the law. Atticus of Mockingbird is viewed through the eyes of his adoring six-year-old daughter. Most little girls at that age view their father as a perfect man, a Superman who knows everything and can solve all problems. Atticus of Watchman is viewed through the eyes of his twenty-six-year old daughter who has moved away from her home in Alabama and lives in New York City. Like most of us in our 20s, we begin to recognize the shortcomings and faults of our parents and we realize they are human after all. Watchman is set 26 years after the time of Mockingbird.
The Watchman Atticus represents the views of most people in the South at the beginning of the civil rights era. Separate but equal was the common cry. My own parents would never have been unkind to a black person. They never considered themselves racists or bigots. I remember them taking food to a black family in need. My mother played the piano at the funeral of a black friend. They taught me to treat all adults with the same respect whether they were black or white. But my parents believed in racial separation in schools and (heaven forbid) marriages. And they honestly thought the civil unrest was caused by Northern agitators coming down South to stir up things.
The Atticus in Watchman believes that the civil rights movement is dangerous on several counts. He believes that the Southern blacks are not sufficiently sociologically advanced to govern themselves. That they are "backward" and simply unable to participate and accept the civic responsibilities the Civil Rights movement would impose upon them. So he honestly believes his stance against civil rights is only to protect the blacks and also his county by keeping these people from making uninformed and bad decisions in block voting for candidates and reducing the quality of life not only for themselves but for all citizens. Was his thinking flawed? Of course it was. But it represented the thinking of the day by many citizens and civic leaders in the South.
The adult Jean Louise remembers her days as a young Scout sitting on her father's knee. He shielded his true feelings from her and she now feels angry and deceived. Why did he not share his views with his children? How could she have spent so many years not knowing what he really believed. He led them to think that blacks were equal. In truth he felt they were entitled to equal protection in the court system...a far cry from believing they were equal to whites.
The writing in "Go Tell a Watchman" is not polished and is not as lyrical as "To Kill a Mockingbird." It is a mediocre book at best. The publisher who sent Harper Lee back to re-write the story did her the biggest favor of her life. Watchman cries out for editing.
But the story is nevertheless interesting and gives us another view of the man whom we so idolized in "To Kill a Mockingbird." In no way does it diminish my love for Mockingbird. I will continue to re-read it periodically. I won't likely read "Go Set a Watchman" again in the future.
I had in interesting discussion about Watchman with my son who is also an avid reader. He says he is not yet ready to read it. He was too impressed with Atticus Finch when and since he read Mockingbird. I gently reminded him that Atticus Finch is not a real person. That he is a fictional character. His answer? "I know that. I also know that "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is fiction as well. And he's an animal, not even a person. But I surely hope that no one finds a Roald Dahl manuscript describing Mr. Fox as a child molester. And if they do I'm not going to read it."
Well said, son. I'm certain many people share your opinion.
Do you have particular views about "Go Set a Watchman?"