Who is this man really, and is that really a question you can ask about a fictional character?
Far as I’ll ever be concerned, the Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is as much the Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird as the female lead in the play Will Shakespeare tells Christopher Marlowe he's working on in Shakespeare in Love, “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter,” is Juliet.
Writers routinely set out thinking they're going to write one thing and wind up writing something else.
All novels are palimpsests, but usually only the top layer exists to be read.
To be persnickety, it's a rough draft. A rejected rough draft. The author herself decided long ago it was a false start and, accordingly, she started over, taking a very different tack. We shouldn't have it. It's apparently an accident the draft survived. Publishing it as though it's a whole and complete book is something of a fraud. It might as well have a blue pencil line through every sentence.
Won't be read that way though.
Tell you what mainly concerns me---apart from the question of whether Harper Lee truly consented to publication---is that well-meaning high school teachers all over the country are going to stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and start teaching the controversy, so to speak. Their students won't get the pleasure of reading Mockingbird as a story in its own right. They'll be forced to read it as a companion to Watchman, even if they won't be reading Watchman along with it. Of course some of them may be required to read both and I can imagine the exam questions.
Compare and contrast the two Atticus Finches.
Which one do you think is the more true to life?
Since she wrote the racist Atticus first, why do you think she changed his character when she sat down to write To Kill A Mockingbird? What do you think of her decision in terms of what it says about her integrity as a writer? Does it make her less of an artist in your view?
What do you think authors owe to historical and political and social realities?
Sheesh. I'm glad I never had me as a teacher.
The point is that for a great many people, To Kill a Mockingbird is the first "adult" novel they read and loved. For many of that many, it’s the only novel they ever read and loved. I don't think Go Set a Watchman will ruin To Kill a Mockingbird for those who've already taken it to heart. But I worry that a new generation of readers won't get to know it as anything more than another boring homework assignment.
It will be a shame, though, if thousands of adults who love and cherish To Kill a Mockingbird do have it ruined for them by having Go Set a Watchman rewrite it for them and they now see it as merely a prequel to the real story, the one in which the truth can finally be revealed. And going by the online discussion, there are a lot of people who already think that Go Set A Watchman is the true or, at any rate, the truer story and its Atticus is the real Atticus.
As if there is a “real” Atticus.
But the basis for thinking Watchman's the real or more realistic Atticus seems to be that in reality there were more racists in that time and place than there were white liberal heroes and that Go Set A Watchman is told from the adult Scout's point of view and as an adult she is ready to face and reveal the whole truth about her father.
As if To Kill a Mockingbird had been written by a nine year old.
As if adults are better at perceiving and handling the truth.
This, of course, means treating the two books as a series, as if Harper Lee had gotten the jump on John Updike with his Rabbit books or as if she was following in the footsteps of Louisa May Alcott. Maybe she was. I never heard that she was. Like almost everybody else, I hadn't heard that she'd written another novel until this past winter. But I'd have thought that somewhere along the line she'd have discussed her intentions. All I'd ever heard seemed to take it for granted that she was content to have written the one book and happy with it what it was.
If she intended to write a series and Go Set A Watchman isn't the rejected precursor of To Kill A Mockingbird it apparently is and is instead a draft of a a novel in its own right and a continuation of Scout's story, it seems to me that Lee's model would more likely have been Faulkner than Alcott. And if it was, then I suggest using Faulkner as a guide in how to deal with the two Atticus Finches.
All the many McCaslins, Compsons, and Snopeses who parade through Faulkner's stories and novels are variations on themes. Even when one appears to be a character from a previous book he or she will turn out to be a different person in the way a song played in a different key or at a different tempo is not the same song as the last time it was played. The Quentin Compson of Absalom, Absalom! is not quite the same Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury. The Temple Drake of Requiem for a Nun is not quite the same Temple Drake of Sanctuary even if you try to take into account how what happens to her in Sanctuary might have changed her. And you don't have to read them as if they are or read their books as if they're volumes in a series. Faulkner used them to tell us different truths about things other than themselves. We're free to prefer one version to another and to re-play that version over and over in our imaginations and never even hum a few bars of the other and just as free to like both either separate or together.
Dear To Kill A Mockingbird Fans,
You can always ignore the extra material you don't like.
Star Wars Fans
But here's an important question I haven't seen discussed online : never mind Atticus, is the Jean Louise who's at the center of Go Set a Watchman the same character as the Scout we know and love from To Kill A Mockingbird. Is that young woman the person our Scout would have grown up to be? Is she the "truer" character or is she also a betrayal? It is, after all her story. That is, it's not the story of Atticus' defense of Tom Robinson. It's the story of how Scout grows as she's watching Atticus take on Tom's defense. In dramatic terms, Atticus is the male lead, but he’s the second lead. In literary terms, he is the hero but Scout is the protagonist. And her story, her growth, involves more than her awakening to the evils of bigotry and segregation, important and profound as that is. She learns the evil of prejudice in general, of making judgments before you know who someone is and have heard their story. She learns to hear other’s stories and not treat people as if they’re merely characters in her own. And in her learning of that lesson the central figure is...
Mr Arthur Radley.
Is he in Go Set a Watchman?
Is that theme at work in Go Set a Watchman or any theme from To Kill a Mockingbird? That's what would make the one book a continuation of the other and the two Atticuses and two Jean Louises the same characters.
Finally, and perhaps most important, are either Go Set a Watchman's Atticus or Jean Louise as well-written? Are their stories as well-told? Are they well-written and well-told at all? In other words, is Go Set a Watchman a good book and worth reading for itself and not for its connection, whatever that is, To Kill A Mockingbird?
I probably won't be finding this out for myself. I have no desire to read it, even out of curiosity. And not because I don't want to have To Kill a Mockingbird ruined for me.
I won't be reading it for the same reason I haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird since high school.
I remember enjoying reading To Kill A Mockingbird that one and only time I read it, back in ninth grade, and I'm still amazed by how much of it has stuck with me. But the truth is I wasn't much impressed at the time. I'd like to say that, precocious little snot that I was, I'd already moved past it. Flannery O'Connor's dismissed To Kill A Mockingbird as a children’s book. I didn’t know who Flannery O’Connor was (yet) but I had heard her judgment and if by children’s book she meant what are now called young adult novels I’d have agreed. My "grown up" reading had begun in fifth grade with Treasure Island, Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, and the plays of William Shakespeare, and next to those, To Kill a Mockingbird seemed a bit…juvenile.
By the time Mr Subramanian assigned us To Kill A Mockingbird, I'd already started reading or had read books like Great Expectations, Little Big Man, True Grit, Slaughterhouse Five, Pylon and The Reivers, Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad, and Catch-22, along with a number of science fiction novels and mysteries by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie, plus some novels I thought of as very adult that I'd plucked off the New York Times Bestseller lists.
I figured that the New York Times, being the paper of choice for highbrows like Pop Mannion, would only allow highbrow literature on its bestseller lists.
Sue me. I was fourteen.
At any rate, reading To Kill a Mockingbird seemed a step backward. Not all the way back to Tom Sawyer and Little Women, but a step between them and Slaughterhouse Five that I'd jumped over.
There was something else, and please don't take this as a disparagement of Harper Lee, of her book, or of your love for either or both.
It's just a statement about where my tastes and interests were taking me at the time.
Somehow I knew that To Kill a Mockingbird was a lesser book in comparison to other books I'd read and that Harper Lee was a lesser writer.
Probably because some adult told me.
Though maybe it was an early informed literary judgment I came to on my own.
But that, in fact, is not why I've never re-read it.
I've never re-read To Kill a Mockingbird because whenever I've wanted to hear the story re-told, I've re-watched the movie.
I'd seen and fallen in love with the film long before I got to high school. I'm hardly alone on this, but to me To Kill A Mockingbird is the movie. Go Set a Watchman's Atticus Finch doesn't matter to me one way or the other because as far as I'm concerned Atticus Finch is and will always be what Gregory Peck made of him on the screen.
And, as I was more stubborn about these things when I was fourteen, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird was interesting to me only as a very well written novelization of the film. I only cared about its version of Atticus to the degree it brought to mind Gregory Peck's version.
So, here’s the exam question with no right or wrong answer.
Is Atticus Finch like Captain Ahab, Hester Prynne, Natty Bumpo, and Jay Gatsby, iconic but most alive on the pages of the books that contain them, or has he escaped his book like Tom Sawyer and Dorothy and her friends to wander and adventure freely through our collective imaginations?
Or is he a literary character at all?
Isn’t he more like Ethan Edwards, Scarlett O'Hara, and Randle Patrick McMurphy, impossible to imagine apart from the actors who played them in movies that themselves have made the books they're adapted from impossible to imagine apart from those movies?
I know there are fans of Margaret Mitchell who'd disagree about Gone With the Wind, just as surely as I know there are fans of Harper Lee who'd disagree about To Kill a Mockingbird.
But there's no hope for me now. Ethan Edwards looks and sounds like John Wayne, Scarlett O'Hara like Vivian Leigh, and Atticus Finch like Gregory Peck and I don't want that changed. I don't want to hear any other voices saying, I can’t hear any other voices saying:
That'll be the day.
Fiddle dee dee
Some suggested summer reading: In case you don’t feel like reading Go Set a Watchman or re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird or if you have time to read a couple more books, I recommend another novel told from the point of view of a young girl and one about a white lawyer called upon to defend a black man charged with a crime he didn’t commit, Charles Portis’ True Grit and Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner.
Thank you for dropping by and reading the post. If you enjoy what goes on around here and would like to help keep this blog going strong and you can swing it, please consider making a donation. It would come in real handy and be much appreciated.
If you prefer not to use PayPal, my snail mail address is PO Box 1197, New Paltz, NY 12561