‘I Won’t Be Reading It Though’. Go Set a Watchman and Literary Dilemmas

I admit I’ve found the whole reaction to ‘Go Set a Watchman’ fascinating. People, and the things that move, inspire and upset them, are fascinating. This literary phenomenon has provided profound insights into the writing process and tells us about readers’ relationships to fictional characters. Indeed, what about those characters: Who do they belong to in the end? Once an author has successfully created a credible secondary universe, how robust is it to external, and more critically, internal shocks? What should count as ‘canon’? What and who defines the boundaries – what represents the internal truths of the secondary, fictional world, carefully and lovingly created by the author and adopted by the reader?

“Everyone who loved To Kill a Mockingbird must read this book!” wrote a friend of mine.

The preview first chapter of ‘Watchman’ had just been released by The Guardian and the Wall Street Journal. Well, I certainly fitted into the category of those who loved ‘Mockingbird’.

“Decided I won’t be reading it though :)”, was my contrary but honest response.

Was this a refusal to accept characters that are flawed and complicated; a refusal to challenge one’s nostalgia, one’s idealism; a refusal to take off those rose-tinted glasses?

I should clarify, I made my decision before the revelations that a certain much-loved character was a racist in the ‘new book’ (for all I knew at the time, the book was going to be an affirmation of all that was cosy and rosy in Mockingbird). Subsequently, the news that so dismayed others in fact piqued my interest and the possibility that I might read it.  So much so that my negative resolution softened into a dilemma – to read or not to read? I’ve read excellent arguments in favour of reading the new book, arguments that have enriched my perspective.

So, not a reactionary decision. But why the initial hesitation? It was based on the way this new-old book came to light.  When I first heard a ‘sequel’ would be published, I thought it was a straightforward submission by author Harper Lee. I was taken aback, excited, somewhat apprehensive. But on the whole I had confidence in the author that gave us Mockingbird, and was looking forward to reading it.

Then, the doubts and mutterings of exploitation and ‘elder abuse’ surfaced…

I, like many others, was (am) not entirely convinced that Lee wanted this book to reach the public, at least in its existing form.  On ethical grounds, I would not want to read something that was procured through manipulation and deceit, against the real wishes of the author. But a court has ruled that Lee was not exploited, that this was her decision. For the average public there is no way for us to prove otherwise.  To insist this publication was not of her choice would be disrespectful and patronising if in fact it was.  From thereon I was able to see the merits of reading the new book.

Go read it?

I can think of two reasons why Harper Lee might have wanted it published now: 1) at 89, it may be that she wants more than one title to show for her years of writing.  Not for the critics, but for her own sense of achievement and satisfaction. She did care before, as all writers must, what others thought about her work. Alice, her sister and protective lawyer, was quoted as saying that Harper feared the only way was down after the success of Mockingbird, a success that was both a blessing and a burden. And according to most of the reviews, it would seem Watchman, in structure and writing style, is certainly not of Mockingbird’s calibre.  This might have bothered Lee in the past, but it may be that she has shaken off that burden now. Publish and be judged, who cares!

That, or 2), she perceived the potential for Watchman to provoke debate and critique of the liberal approach to race especially in contemporary U.S – which it has: never more relevant than now in 2015 after the injustices of Ferguson, Charlston, Baltimore… Malcolm Gladwell, we’ve been reminded this fortnight, wrote his prescient piece in 2009 on the need to reassess the pedestal on which Atticus Finch had been placed. Long before that in 1994, academic Monroe Freedman also raised doubts. More articles, such as Osamudia R. James’, have now emerged, echoing this introspection and revisionism with powerful eloquence. Mockingbird challenged the virulent in-your-face racism that prevailed at the time of its publication in the 60s, but let the subtle and unspoken racism, held by ostensibly decent people, off the hook. In that light, Watchman can be seen to be finishing the job, holding a mirror to today’s society, lest everyone gets too smug with themselves.

If that was Harper Lee’s subversive intention, then it was a brilliant move. And brave, given the potential detriment to a literary classic and an iconic character. I admire her all the more for it – a mark of genius if that is what lies behind the decision. In that context it would be churlish not to read the new book. True, I might wonder why Lee couldn’t have done this years ago, when the hypocrisy in contemporary attitudes to race were just as apparent. But people choose their own timing, and the rest of us in this case will never know the whys and why nots behind it.

Rare are the times when you are completely open to opposing arguments, and willing to go either way – this has been one of those occasions. I’ve enjoyed geekily reading pros and cons from headline articles, academic thought-pieces and independent blogger reviews.

Nope

But I think, for now, I’ll stick with my previous decision.  Even accepting there are valuable social, political, academic and literary insights to garner, I won’t be reading Go Set A Watchman any time soon.  I read two articles that helped settle it for me – one was written before all the recent controversy: this essay on Harper Lee written by Marja Mills in 2002.  In it the author manages to get quite a bit of access to Alice Lee and the essay provides some interesting insights.  The second was an article about Tay Hohoff’s influence, the very editor who did such a remarkable job of guiding Harper Lee towards To Kill a Mockingbird.

At the heart of the dilemma has been the following question: Which Scout and Atticus Finch did Harper Lee really want us to get to know? Obviously hard to ascertain, but it affects what one might be willing to read. Could it be, that the Atticus Finch in Watchman is in fact the real one? The one that Harper Lee was thinking about as she wrote Mockingbird? the very same character, just with his nastier attributes masked from oblivious readers.

Possibly.  But various sources hint at Lee’s affection for the characters of Mockingbird – an extension, moreover, of the affection she felt for her close family: Alice and her father A.C. Lee.  Harper was known to fondly call her lawyer-sister, ‘Atticus in a skirt’; Atticus was modelled on her father, whom she looked up to, and to whom she dedicated the Pulitzer prize-winning book.  The affectionate comparisons work in view of Mockingbird, but do not really work with the disillusioned and disappointing portrait of Atticus in Watchman.

It would seem Lee also appreciated her editor’s efforts to change the manuscript: rather than resent her direction (as the released statement in February seemed to imply) we are told Lee maintained a close relationship with Hohoff until she passed away.  All this suggests Harper Lee herself liked the characters, and was content with the legacy of Mockingbird. I feel wary to potentially undo her efforts and intent for the sake of a half-hearted curiosity.  Some are able to separate the two books and not have the latest iteration of Atticus and Scout tarnish their imaginations of the first – but others (such as the BBC’s Will Gompertz) have argued a negative impact is inevitable.

What makes a separation of the two books even more difficult to do is the way the ‘new book’ has been presented, and this is what I really have a problem with: not so much with the material, which is after all Harper Lee’s own work – she can do what she likes with her characters;  it’s not with the dubious way in which the manuscript was discovered – for now, any justifiable concerns over that remain speculative.  My problem is that the publishers have pointedly touted Watchman as a sequel, Harper Lee’s latest and definitive word on all that came before.  And this is disingenuous.

Important discrepancies between the two books, such as the outcome of the Tom Robinson trial, show that Lee did not return to Watchman to make it a consistent sequel.  For over 50 years in fact.  By all accounts, the outcome of the trial was incidental in Watchman, unimportant to the plot. But with its revision, the outcome of the trial became pivotal to the themes of Mockingbird, and heavy with meaning.  It shook the readers as it shook the characters, and the entire book shifted course.  It seems that at some point between Watchman and Mockingbird, Lee’s critical gaze shifted: from the racism of individuals, to the racism of the system. Thus even the ‘heroic’ efforts of the protagonist had to be seen to fail within that system.

My point here is that the revisions made by Lee were considered, deliberate, had a profound impact on the direction of the book and reflected a willingness to alter not just
events but ideas from the earlier attempt.  If Harper Lee revised the book’s core address,
what other ideational foundations must have changed?

To what extent did she also set out tkamto revise our perception of the main characters? From mere carriers of intellectual and moral arguments, to sympathetic characters who are not just human but also likeable?  To what extent did her own knowledge of her characters change in the intervening years? Moreover, I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume she was relatively satisfied with her painstaking efforts to get the balance right.

Therefore, when HarperCollins markets Watchman as a sequel, it is a disservice to the effort Lee undertook to revise that first manuscript. The whole hoopla has inflated the status of an overwritten manuscript for the sake of higher sales. Not good, not honest.  Perhaps we can thank Watchman for at least returning our attention to the original classic.  I don’t wish to dismiss some of the critical discussions to emerge from its publication, especially on issues of race.  Moreover I actually agree that Mockingbird needs to be reassessed in both popular and literary imaginations, to be read and debated for what it really is with its layers of depth and uncertainty, instead of being hugged and mollycoddled like a comfort blanket. But I suppose I don’t need to read Watchman to do that – Gladwell and Freedman have proven this point.

Rather, I’ve decided to re-read Mockingbird. I want to reacquaint myself with the book, but especially with my own views when I first read it nearly 20 years ago.  I loved it and have enjoyed it since – but I also remember wondering, suspecting: what were the protagonists’ real views on race? Some of whom, the best of whom, were ambiguous to say the least.  I don’t think Lee intended her protagonists to be perfect, without complexity or ambiguity – I think she crafted them deftly, with deliberately embedded nuances that were there for the reader to detect if they chose to look. That I will try to do, and will bounce ideas off here. Of course I’d welcome your reflections in the mix.

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14 Responses to ‘I Won’t Be Reading It Though’. Go Set a Watchman and Literary Dilemmas

  1. Wonderful post, you’ve approached this from many different angles. It’s always great to find someone else who thinks deeply about books and writers and especially this unique situation.

  2. LiteraryFuzz says:

    An in-depth and balanced review, great to see someone who thinks so deeply when it comes to literature!

  3. I purchased Go Set A Watchman out of curiosity, more than anything else. I held many of the doubts that led you not to read the book, but I couldn’t help myself. The main impact has been to appreciate Mockingbird all the more for the ambiguities wrapped inside its covers. Apart from that, Watchman reads like the rough draft it is; flawed and uninspiring. You made the correct decision not to read it

  4. Interesting. I do like the notion of flawed characters and we are all the children of our own time, and this means it would be hard for Atticus Finch to be completely free from racist attitudes. But I already have too many books on my to-read pile and I guess this one is unlikely to make it to the top of my list. Anyway, as you rightly say, the best approach would be to re-read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ first.

    • Saya says:

      I’m hoping the next post will be a discussion of just this! I also decided not to read Watchman, and I feel even clearer on that resolution since reading this post and its comments. But it’s been such a long time since I’ve read Mockingbird — and with a curious child’s mind — that a critical and current reading of it is really fascinating to me (as long as it’s done by someone else, since I’m about as critical as I was when I was 12, haha).

      • earthoak says:

        Hello Saya, nice to see you here! That was the plan – will post on Mockingbird with I hope, both a sympathetic and critical reflection on the characters. Back soon 🙂

    • earthoak says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ruth! Yes I agree with you, I don’t think Atticus Finch was supposed to be totally immune from prejudice, even in Mockingbird.

  5. …Some of whom, the best of whom, were ambiguous to say the least. I don’t think Lee intended her protagonists to be perfect, without complexity or ambiguity – I think she crafted them deftly, with deliberately embedded nuances that were there for the reader to detect if they chose to look.

    Well said! And this, in my opinion is not only Harper Lee’s obvious genius as a storyteller successfully displayed, but also an apt demonstration of humanity as a whole — people can be ambiguous or transparent, almost always complex, definitely imperfect. Unfortunately there were a lot of subtleties and quite a few blatant statements completely overlooked by many Mockingbird ‘fans’.

    I’m so glad to be in your company in this re-reading.

  6. robstroud says:

    Very interesting thoughts. We’ve been discussing this volume in my writer’s group. The first person to read it loves it. Everyone else was stunned that I’d never read the classic version (due to military moves and not hitting the right timing for its presentation in class, I suppose). They are aghast at the fact I have no interest whatsoever in reading it. “It’s brilliant writing,” they scream. Well, I’m one of those folks who prefers to read something moderately well written about a subject that interests them, than great literature about something that doesn’t.

    Your article helps me realize how influential Lee’s book has been. I hope its import doesn’t diminish due to the latest publication.

    • earthoak says:

      Many thanks for your feedback; and glad to know the post conveyed some of the value of the book. I can certainly relate to what you say – there are books that I enjoy but apparently they aren’t worthy enough to be called ‘great literature’, and vice versa. Who gets to label these things anyway! 🙂

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