No, I don’t plan to read Go Set a Watchman, the just-published novel by the author of the much-revered To Kill a Mockingbird. I must say, though, that the brouhaha surrounding Harper Lee’s new book fascinates me. It was written in the 1950s: most reviewers see it as an early version of To Kill a Mockingbird, submitted to a major New York publisher that bought it on condition of an intensive page-one rewrite. In the course of which, Lee apparently decided (or was persuaded) to flesh out her adult heroine’s childhood memory and build the entire novel around it. At least one critic, though, finds this backstory unconvincing, and insists that Go Set a Watchman was Lee’s attempt at a sequel to her famous tale of little Scout Finch and her father Atticus, the small-town Southern lawyer who courageously defends a black man charged with raping a white woman.
Harper Lee is still alive, though there've been reports she's in no condition to comment on the unearthing of this early work. By now, I've heard the pro and the con on this matter, but I'm leaning toward believing she's endorsed the publication. From what I gather, though, this is not a novel that’s going to burnish her legacy.
Go Set a Watchman, which focuses on the mature Scout returning to her hometown from New York City, will mostly be remembered for blackening the image of her beloved Atticus. It’s nothing unusual, certainly, for young adults returning home to suddenly see their parents in a new light. Once you’ve spent time out in the world, your father and mother appear far more fallible than they did when you were growing up. But—from all reports—Atticus in Go Set a Watchman seems not just flawed but a different person entirely from the one we thought we knew in both the novel of To Kill a Mockingbird and the revered screen version that won Gregory Peck his Oscar. There he was reasonable, open-hearted, and wise: all the things you’d wish for in a father figure. In this new book, he’s a staunch segregationist, an unreconstructed bigot, even a white supremacist. Personally, I don’t want to see my mental image of Atticus Finch destroyed—and Go Set a Watchman apparently doesn’t have much to offer us in place of that once-heroic figure.
Curiously, the whole situation reminds me of the Bill Cosby fiasco: the fact that we feel shattered by the knowledge of a man who doesn’t live up to his well-loved TV image. Cosby’s misdeeds, terrible though they are, wouldn’t be quite so disturbing if he were known for playing bad guys. The truth is that we all have a hard time separating the role from the actor. That’s why it was so jarring when Tom Cruise, with his boyish smile and long list of good-guy roles, turned out to be a religious wacko. Or when the equally appealing Mel Gibson revealed his nasty side. For many movie fans, John Wayne was a hero because he played heroes, even though he never got anywhere near an actual battlefield. And I’m certain that Ronald Reagan would never have been elected president if he’d made a career out of villain roles.
Isn’t a Harper Lee sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird worth reading, just to find out what happens next? Well, maybe. But there’s the sad example of Charles Webb’s 2008 sequel to his famous 1962 novel, The Graduate. What happens when Ben and Elaine get off of that bus? In the words of a smart lady I recently met, “Some things you don’t want an answer to.”