Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Mockingbird and the Watchman

I've just finished reading the "new" Harper Lee novel, GO SET A WATCHMAN, partly a first draft of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and partly a sequel to it. Regarding the controversy of whether Atticus Finch's racism in this story is inconsistent with his character in the classic novel: Although it's been many years since I read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, I'd say it's not. The poisonous harangue of the guest speaker at the meeting of the "citizens' council" Atticus belongs to in GO SET A WATCHMAN doesn't reflect the old lawyer's views. He's unfailingly courteous to black people as individuals. He does take a paternalistic attitude toward them as a race, labeling them "in their childhood as a people," in need of gradual uplifting before they can exercise full participation in public life. He's a "states' rights" fanatic, resentful of the Supreme Court and the NAACP for pushing the South too far too fast (as he sees it). In short, he's what would have been classified as a moderate in that time and place. That position isn't incompatible with seeking justice for an innocent black man as an individual, as Atticus does in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The contemporary reader's outrage and disillusionment, I believe, aren't evidence of inconsistency on the author's part; they reflect Jean Louise's own feelings. The main point of the book centers on her coming to terms with her father as a flawed human being, not the "god" she has idolized.

Should GO SET A WATCHMAN have been published? Setting aside the issue of whether Harper Lee was manipulated into signing the contract without her informed consent (a grave question, but one that can't be answered without more information than we have), should an author's early "trunk novels" or first drafts not intended for publication be released into the world? As a lit-crit person, of course, I'd say yes. The more material we have with which to understand a writer, the better. I might go so far as to claim (though I admit to some ambivalence about the ethics here) that a literary executor's duty to preserve literature for posterity supersedes a dead author's wish to have manuscripts posthumously destroyed. (If the author really wanted them never to be read, why didn't he or she destroy them in life?)

The Amazon blurb says WATCHMAN adds "depth, context, and new meaning" to the original novel. Does it? Or should it be read as a separate work that leaves MOCKINGBIRD where it always was? It has to be considered an alternate-universe story to some extent, because of discrepancies such as the acquittal of the alleged rapist who was convicted in MOCKINGBIRD. Yet in most respects the "new" book maintains continuity with the original one. That question reminds me of a discussion I once had with a fellow reader about the protagonist of one of my favorite vampire novels. In expressing my opinions about the protagonist and one of the major supporting characters, I drew upon a play the author adapted from a section of the novel (in both the drama's published and unpublished versions) and statements made by the author in interviews. My friend considered all those sources irrelevant. To her, only the contents of the novel itself constituted acceptable material from which to derive judgments about the behavior of characters within that book. (While we haven't discussed the Harry Potter universe, I suspect she'd dismiss Rowling's statement about Dumbledore's sexual orientation as having no relevance to the canonical series.)

In the case of Harper Lee's canon, we'd first have to determine whether Atticus Finch is the "same person" in both novels or whether GO SET A WATCHMAN takes place in a completely alternate universe. Galanty Miller claims on the Huffington Post blog, "There is no Atticus Finch outside the pages of that book [TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD]" and calls Atticus in GO SET A WATCHMAN "a completely different character with the same name." If we disagree with Miller and consider Atticus the same character in both books, however, does the first-written but later-published work legitimately throw fresh light (or shadow) on the character as he appears in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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