Thursday, July 30, 2015

Go Set a Watchman: A Review

I burned through the new Harper Lee novel Go Set a Watchman in the last couple of days. It was a depressing read, albeit not for the reasons that a lot of people will find it depressing. This is probably the biggest literary event that most of us will experience in our lifetimes. Looked at in its larger context there are some things about it that seem, at least to those observing from distance, to be a bit unseemly (Joe Nocera had an interesting piece on this in the New York Times a few days ago). Without access to the principles, it’s difficult to know exactly what the circumstances of the release of Go Set a Watchman really are. But what is clear is that the differences in the character of Atticus Finch between Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird are (and will continue to be) very upsetting to a lot of people.

Unlike a very large proportion of the high school students of my generation, I didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird in school. My crotchety old high school English teacher, Mr. Patterson, had us read Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust instead. The stories are similar in a lot of respects, as are the underlying issues. Personally I think Intruder in the Dust is a better book, but I certainly respect the views of those who think otherwise. Perhaps if I’d read To Kill a Mockingbird in adolescence, as opposed to in my cynical twenties, I might feel differently.

What I do understand is the attractiveness of Atticus Finch’s heroic qualities, especially when viewed against the backdrop of the grim state of race relations in the United States around the time that To Kill a Mockingbird was published. There were a lot of people in America in the 1960s who were hungry to hear someone in the southern milieu speak out for the values of the freedom and equality that the Constitution promised to all, and for which a lot of blood had been spilled since 1861. Atticus Finch’s powerful speech in defense of those values was moving and enshrined him in the hearts of millions of Americans as a defender of something fundamentally right about the nation.

As most people are now aware, the version of Atticus Finch that appears in Go Set a Watchman is, at least apparently, cut from different cloth than his earlier incarnation. In particular, his is an ardent and unrepentant segregationist. This is a hard thing for fans of the earlier version to swallow, even if it is the case that those views are (historically speaking) not out of place, nor is it unheard of for people’s views to change or harden as they reach old age. It is also worth mentioning that the writing in Go Set a Watchman is not nearly so precise and polished as that in To Kill a Mockingbird. The overall effect of the release of Go Set a Watchman is hardly likely to be an enhancement of Harper Lee’s reputation, which is another unfortunate dimension to this story.

In the New York Times article mentioned above, Joe Nocera essentially suggests that Go Set a Watchman is best viewed not as a prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird but rather as an early draft. This interpretation has some problems, not the least of which is that Go Set a Watchman has many of the qualities of a free standing novel and doesn’t share a lot with the later book. Still, I think it’s an approach that has merit, both in terms of making sense of Harper Lee’s statements about her propensity to revise and polish, as well as in terms of the final product.

As I said, I don’t have quite the degree of emotional connection with Atticus Finch as some people I know. But I (and any other lover of Tolkien’s work who has seen Christopher Jackson’s defilement of The Hobbit) do understand what it’s like to have a treasured literary memory of youth dragged through the mud. Reading Go Set a Watchman as something like a first draft, problematic as it is, at least allows one to preserve the character of Atticus Finch in the power and the glory of his original incarnation. Go Set a Watchman is definitely worth reading, but it’s a book that needs to be read the right way. 

~John F.

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