The literary community went into mourning this week when Harper Lee’s novel Go Set A Watchman showed a darker side of our favorite fictional lawyer, Atticus Finch. Set 20 years after Lee’s original masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird, the book portrays elderly Atticus as someone who holds quiet but devastatingly patronizing attitudes about the role and capabilities of black citizens in Maycomb County, and shows him putting up with extremely racist groups, individuals, and ideas as he tries to maintain his influence in the town’s social structure.
Lovers of To Kill A Mockingbird were devastated. Almost immediately, friends started asking my opinion on the new book, I assume because I both love Mockingbird and hold an MFA in creative writing, meaning I know at least a few things about the writing process.
So, since I was asked, here’s my opinion:
Go Set A Watchman is an early version of a concept that was ultimately abandoned to make way for To Kill A Mockingbird. Thus, it makes no sense to use it as an authoritative lens to view Mockingbird. I think its sudden publication was a greedy money-grab from the publishers, and people’s desperation to reconcile the two novels just goes to show that we are more willing to obey consumerism than we are to appreciate art.
Oh. Sorry, you wanted me to be nice? Well tough collards.
I can already hear people cracking their knuckles and sitting down to their typewriters to explain just how wrong I am, how this novel is actually a brilliant treatise on being disappointed by your parents and coming to terms with that, and how, badum-ching!, the literary community itself is actually making that very point by needing Atticus to be an infallible moral authority. Yay, that’s neatly and tidily explained, and it sounded so eloquent and smart!
As Tyrion Lannister recently said, “In my experience, eloquent men are right every bit as often as imbeciles.”
Now, I’m not calling everyone who liked Watchman an imbecile, but I am trying to point out that just because an explanation sounds good doesn’t mean it is good. So let’s reexamine this notion that Watchman is an acceptable Mockingbird companion, and that we should accept Atticus’ shortcomings as the inevitable failure of all childhood gods to satisfy.
First, let’s get something straight about Watchman. It is not, as so many have said, a sequel.
According to the official story, Harper Lee wrote Go Set A Watchman first. She wanted to publish a novel about a grown woman who discovers that her childhood heroes aren’t as idyllic as she thought. The editor who read the novel said that the protagonist’s childhood flashbacks were more interesting than her adult story, and that Lee should write the novel about the protagonist’s childhood instead. Lee got to work and wrote To Kill A Mockingbird.
Years later, the original pre-Mockingbird draft of Watchman was discovered, and that is what was published this week.
Watchman is, indeed, a very different version of Jean Louise Finch’s story. In Watchman, Tom Robinson’s long-ago trial ended in an acquittal, which Atticus finagled due to a legal technicality. Atticus’ mindset toward defending Tom is painted more as a teeth-gritting, white-knuckled devotion to truth than a heartfelt compassion for a man in trouble (reread page 110 to see what I mean). Also, Watchman introduces a new character, Henry Clinton, who supposedly grew up with Jem, Scout, and Dill and pursues adult Scout’s hand in marriage. In Mockingbird, no such character exists. Many other details of Watchman don’t match up to Mockingbird. Aunt Alexandra never lived with the family until Scout had grown and left home. Scout and Calpurnia had a much more loving and calm relationship. The Radleys are never mentioned. Mrs. Dubose is still alive.
Obviously, this is an entirely different version of the story, a version that was upended and revised to make way for the version we got in Mockingbird. That immediately presents a problem to the belief that Watchman deepens or “grows up” our understanding of Atticus and other characters because, as any writer worth her salt knows, an earlier draft of a story usually represents a less nuanced, less developed, less authoritative version of the characters and plot line.
Several years ago, I wrote a fantasy novel. After much feedback, I rewrote and changed the whole thing, keeping many of the basic ideas but essentially writing a new version of the story. I would be out of my mind to suggest that you could learn deeper things about my characters by going back and reading the original draft of that novel. That’s not who those characters are anymore. I’ve come to a bigger, better, more permanent understanding of them.
I think you can make a strong case that this is what happened to Atticus. In Watchman, he plays an entirely different role to the story. Jean Louise is the adult figure who bucks the system and fights racism against opposition, and her journey as a protagonist requires that her authority figures disappoint her. Thus, the early version of Atticus was written to accommodate her journey.
In Mockingbird, Scout and Jem are children and Atticus is the adult bucking the system. He has a different role—and thus was crafted differently. Mockingbird Atticus doesn’t need to be a character who disappoints, because Scout’s disillusionment in that book centers around her community’s behavior, the pain of growing up, and her emotional distance from Jem.
In fact, Atticus’ role as a father is even approached differently between the two books, indicating Lee’s changing view of him. Watchman’s Jean Louise remembers Atticus this way:
…he was never too tired to play Keep-Away; he was never too absorbed in his own problems to listen earnestly to a tale of woe; every night he read aloud to them until his voice cracked.
Mockingbird’s Scout remembers Atticus this way:
Jem and I found our father satisfactory: he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment.
In Watchman, Atticus is remembered as a larger-than-life god of a dad, which makes his fall from grace almost inevitable. In Mockingbird, we see him loving but already imperfect, a father who shows “courteous detachment” and frequently fails to follow through with discipline, though at the end of the day he does his best and his best is pretty good.
This puts to bed that ill-conceived argument that Mockingbird Atticus is “too perfect,” which is bandied about by some as a sort of smug proof that Watchman Atticus somehow deserved to be given a flaw. He wasn’t too perfect. Even through Scout’s childish perspective, we read between the lines that he wasn’t a superman in every aspect of life.
But even if you believe that Atticus needed more flaws, and even if you’re really drawn to Watchman’s theme of adult children learning to accept disappointment in their parents, I’m still not sure that justifies Atticus’ flaw being racism.
I mean, come on. We’re going to accept a complete reversal of a character’s deepest qualities under the guise of being “old enough” to be cynical about our heroes? I don’t buy that for one second.
Let’s apply this to other contexts. I really look up to the writer C. S. Louis. I loved his Narnia stories as a kid. As an adult, I was disappointed when I read some of his views on women and wives. That was a legitimate letdown. But that’s different than if someone had posthumously published a diary in which Lewis said that he worshiped Satan and had written an alternate The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe in which the White Queen kills the Pevensie children. That wouldn’t happen, because it goes against some of the deepest things Lewis believed in.
I really look up to my parents. They taught me to be kind and fair to everyone, no matter who, no matter the situation. In my 20s, I discovered a couple points of theology that we think differently on. Was I a little disappointed that we’ve parted ways on some things? Of course. But I don’t expect my parents to look up from the newspaper tomorrow and say, “You know, we should go line the Mexican border with bear traps to teach those desperate, fleeing Mexicans a lesson, and then drive to the city and shout at homeless people for being lazy bums.” That wouldn’t happen, because it goes against some of the deepest things they believe in.
Likewise, I have to agree with NPR reviewer Maureen Corrigan when she says:
One could say, as some commentators already have, that Atticus [in Watchman] displays layers of contradictory attitudes about race harbored by whites, no matter how progressive. But, no. This Atticus is different in kind, not just degree: He’s like Ahab turned into a whale lover or Holden Caulfield a phony.
Not to mention that there is significant doubt and significant concern over whether Lee really wanted this published, or whether her agents and publicists and editors railroaded Watchman through as a cash-grab after the elderly Harper Lee’s sister and legal adviser died and could no longer protect Lee’s wishes.
So if we can tell that Harper Lee’s attitudes toward Atticus changed as she wrote Mockingbird…and if we know that Watchman is an earlier, less developed draft…if there’s uncertainty over the motives behind this publishing endeavor…and if Watchman’s Atticus is reversing things so very Atticus that it makes us question the integrity of the story…why are people insisting that Watchman’s portrayal of Atticus must be taken seriously and reconciled with the version we already have? Why do people believe, with either excitement or dread, that we must somehow assimilate this novel into the Mockingbird family and make uneasy peace with it? Why did Corrigan panic and end her review with the declaration that this would change how we read a classic?
*Drags soapbox from under the bed, stands atop it.*
I’ve noticed for the last few years this strange belief amongst the general public that we must accept sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes. And let’s face it, there have been a lot of them. Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Terminator, Superman, Spider Man, Batman, Iron Man, every other “man”, Poltergeist, Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, Mad Max, I’m surprised they aren’t starting in on the really really classic ones like The Birds (doggone it!)
Some of these additions (sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots) were great. Some of them were awful. Some of them cast a pall over their franchise. And one thing I noticed about the bad ones, to my utter dismay, was that people went to the ends of the earth to defend them as legitimate and canon, for no other reason (apparently) than that they bore the names of the original franchise. In some cases (coughStarWarscough) where the new ones conflicted significantly with the old, people went through magnificent mental gymnastics to explain away the discrepancies, sometimes even suggesting that years-long, universal interpretations of parts of the story should be reinterpreted because we have new movies that somehow retroactively changed what the scriptwriters intended decades ago.
It makes no sense. It’s like everyone thinks that we signed some contract at birth stating that if we ever fell in love with a story, we were obligated to accept any addition its maker ever presents us with, no matter how ill-fitting or wretched.
Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to call Watchman “ill-fitting” or “wretched.” Not even close. It’s just an early version that isn’t as good as the one we ended up with. But that should still place it firmly outside the realm of canon.
Yet everyone is doing the same thing we’ve done a dozen times before: assuming that if something bears the name of a franchise and came from the same creator, however late in the game, everyone is obligated to respect it as much as the original and make it part of the analysis of the original.
Why? Why do we have to respect it? If a story becomes firmly entrenched in and beloved by our culture, and then an addition appears and deviates from that story, why should we have to reconcile them? Maybe I’m peculiar in this way, but I believe that when a work of art becomes a part of public culture, it takes on a life of its own and starts belonging to everyone. I think, after a point, that creators don’t have a right to come back in and revise our experience of it, and I say that with sober humility as someone who wants to publish works of fiction. Call me an idealist. But to quote a literary figure I greatly respect, “That is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality.”
This is especially true in scenarios where it seems that publicists and producers just want to lazily cash in on a big name, as I suspect may have happened in this case. Why do we allow publishers and producers and marketing teams to tell us what we have to add to cultural works of art?
Give me one reason why those people are qualified to tell us what good storytelling is and which ones should tug at our hearts.
Give me one reason why HarperCollins Publishing’s desire for me to shell out twenty bucks at the bookstore should override everything that the writing process has taught me about how to judge earlier vs. later drafts.
Give me one reason why Atticus Finch was an acceptable protagonist for 55 years as-is, but then became unacceptably in need of a flaw in 2015 just because a publicist told us that we should like this new book as much as the old one.
Give me one reason why we should reward greed by bending over backwards to welcome and justify and reconcile and explain away the product that they’ve ordered us to pay them for.
Isn’t that a way of turning our control as readers over to the publishing industry and allowing them to tell us what should be of value? How does that square with any of the attitudes that made us connect so strongly with To Kill A Mockingbird in the first place? What about personal integrity? What about truth? What about not being swayed by the majority opinion? And trust me, all of these opinions go for movie franchises just as much as this pair of books.
You may think it’s silly to get this worked up over books and movies as if it’s a social justice or world peace issue, but I’m concerned about our future as artists and writers and craftsmen and creators. Right now, it seems that people are content to be consumers, even consumers of junk food. Tell us something belongs to our franchise and we’ll pay for it, consume it, create a bigger demand. What we need to get back to is appreciating what works as great storytelling and what doesn’t. We should demand that if we’re going to consume something, it better be good, it better be worthy of its name.
And, in the case of something like Watchman, let’s just see it for what it is: a fascinating look into the writing process of a beloved author.
That’s a respectable thing to be, but it certainly doesn’t make it the be-all and end-all of Atticus Finch.