Go Set A Mockingbird

by the other theo

I’ve been reading a lot about the “new” Harper Lee novel, Go Set A Watchman, this week.   There appears to be a lot of hand wringing going on that boils down to “Dear Harper, what do you mean that Atticus Finch was really a racist all this time?   How could you do that to me?  I love me my Atticus and my To Kill A Mockingbird!”

Like many, many people, I was assigned to read To Kill A Mockingbird in school… in the 9th grade, if memory serves.  I treasure those memories.  I treasure seeing Gregory Peck play Atticus in the film adaptation.   Half of my ancestry comes from the Deep South, and the book confirms my personal experience from knowing people from there and visiting people there that it is a land populated with many different sorts of persons.  Some are better, some worse, and some are found more frequently, others more rarely.  That someone like the Atticus of Mockingbird could exist, I do not doubt… though when not seen through the eyes of a young girl (or an older woman reflecting on that young girl’s experiences), we might be a little surprised at the compromises that a more complex, layered reality might force that Atticus to make.

I haven’t decided if I will read Go Set A Watchman, but I know I will need to re-read Mockingbird first.

I also know that I do not consider the two books to exist in exactly the same fictional universe.   Though there evidently was talk at the publisher about making Watchman into the last book of a trilogy beginning with Mockingbird, the manuscript that comes down to us is not written or edited to be that book.   What comes to us is a first novel, a novel that the publisher did not feel was good enough for publication, but showed enough promise to continue working with the writer on revising the premise.  Those revisions took something on the order of two years, borrowed names, characters, places and some incidents from the original novel, but like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, they became something else.

I am not a fiction writer, but I’ve written enough (including technical papers, white papers, a 150 page Ph.D dissertation) to feel like I know something about writing.  I strongly suspect that the first manuscript taught Ms. Lee a lot, and the writer she was at the end of that novel (or her collaboration with her editor Tay Hohoff) was not the one that existed at the start.   So the tale she wanted to tell, and the characters she used to tell it, changed as Watchman became Mockingbird.   For me, Atticus is not Atticus and Jean Louise is not Scout.

I suspect I shall eventually read it.  I am generally taken with the beginnings and origins of things.  Reading Watchman is like going into the hills above the Dead Sea and finding an alternate version of some story from the Bible on a scroll in a cave.  Does it affect what I learned from the Bible?  No.  Does it teach me about what was on the minds of the writers of the Bible?  Definitely.