Publisher HarperCollins released the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, the original manuscript that became To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most beloved novels in history — and my favorite novel. Harper Lee’s agent “rediscovered” Watchman late last year, and the novel will be formally released on July 14.
Ever since I first heard of its imminent release, I’ve wondered how the new novel might spoil the lovely experience I have each time I read To Kill a Mockingbird.
Well, from what I now know, it’s a major spoil.
Atticus Finch is a racist in Watchman. You will see the headlines of the reviews that are now coming out describing him as “the dark side,” “racist,” “segregationist,” and the like.
How can this be?
If you read the comments by the readers of the New York Times book review, or any other review, you will find all sorts of explanations: Jean Louise is seeing her father’s true self through adult eyes; Lee is using Atticus to show the true racism of the time; Lee changed her original portrayal of Atticus to make Mockingbird palatable and sellable; this is proof that Truman Capote really did write Mockingbird (a myth perpetuated since it was published); and on and on.
One commenter said, “I feel sorry for all the people who were named after Atticus Finch.”
I knew the novel would be different, but nothing in my imagination came close to what is served up in Watchman. From what I’ve read, the novel takes a literary hero and recasts him as a KKK-supporting bigot.
And Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is all grown up. In the released first chapter, I read about “a sexually liberated woman in her twenties” (the Wall Street Journal’s description) whose brother has died (So long, Jem), and who is being pursued by the man working for Atticus in the law office. The man tells Jean Louise that he wants to marry her. She says they should have an affair while she thinks about it.
I had higher hopes for Scout, too.
Many Mockingbird fans are disappointed. Something so dear to them — an ideal, a hero, a great story — has been destroyed with this release of Watchman. Others are applauding Harper Lee for showing what they think is an honest portrayal of the Southern man of that time. Still others are saying that the release of this work gives good evidence for why, over the past 50 years, both Miss Lee and her sister insisted on not having this manuscript, or any of her unpublished work, released.
As for me?
I’d rather keep the Scout-the-tomboy, father-adoring, Atticus-the-hero, Jem-is-alive-and-well version in my memory and heart.
I prefer to read stories that are uplifting, that give the reader hope and instruction towards the good. If a writer has to fabricate a story with this bent, then let her be. We have plenty of novels, TV shows, daily news, and walking examples that tell “the real story.”
In Mockingbird, a white Southern man is portrayed as caring for the black people in his life. And you know what? There are white Southern men in this country who really do have hearts that are color blind. Let’s write about them, too. I’m okay with having stories that celebrate an ideal and which, hopefully, cause others to want to reach for it in their own lives.
This doesn’t mean that I’m ignoring racism. I know that it is as strong as it has ever been in the United States. I also know that it is going to take God’s reconstruction of the world to bring forth a people who are forever full of lasting love and equality.
In the meantime, I am happy to have the glimpses of His promise in stories like To Kill a Mockingbird.
Back in February, I reserved a copy of Go Set a Watchman through my public library. Five months of waiting. The library ordered 21 copies for its county-wide system. Yesterday I checked and I was number 21 on a list of 277 reserves.
I cancelled my reservation.