Friday, July 17, 2015

Atticus Finch and Mr. Hyde: Questions Posed by “Go Set a Watchman”

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.”


  1. Dunno. An editorial request to reframe the novel sounds plausible, and prob not the first time such revisions were requested of a novel. And Cosby's actions would be just as heinous regardless of his image. Wayne's lack of service, an older man with children, may not be as damning as his behavior during the Blacklist.

  2. Thanks for weighing in, Bill I agree that Cosby's actions would have been equally heinous in any circumstance, but I don't think we would be paying so much attention if we hadn't cared about his public image over the years. I think he's in the spotlight now because we feel we've been fooled.

  3. Yes, but Flynn played scoundrels. I'm not trying to contradict you (really!), but I'm trying to highlight situations in which we're just tremendously uncomfortable when a public hero is undercut. I do enjoy the debate . . . keep it coming!

  4. I don't plan on reading Go Set a Watchman either. A friend posted on social media as he worked his way through it - and he enjoyed it. But I'm with you on keep Atticus as I remember him from the original book and movie. By the way - when I went out in the world and experienced it - and then went back home to visit my parents - they just looked more wise and knowledgeable - and I still seek out my father's advice on certain things. He's a hell of a guy.