I have been reading the different reviews and opinion pieces concerning the controversial release of Go Set a Watchman, which sort of is and sort of isn’t a sequel to Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
Lots of people have opinions on whether you should read it or not. As for me, I’m not going to presume to tell you what to read (aside from shamelessly begging you to read my books). I hardly feel qualified, having been decidedly late to the party when it comes to having a basis for opinion.
I only read To Kill a Mockingbird in the last couple of months. It had been on my “to read” list since high school, but… well, it’s a really long list. Let’s be honest, for every book I cross off it, I just end up adding three or four more. I’m never getting to the end of that thing. At this point, I’m just hoping heaven has an epic library.
So anyway, unlike every other literate adult in America, my first experiences with Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch are pretty fresh. And frankly, I’m not quite ready to have them screwed with right now.
But “right now” is not “forever.”
Do I think that Go Set a Watchman is, in reality, the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird? Nope. I think if we’re being totally honest, it’s Harper Lee’s “crappy first draft” of To Kill a Mockingbird. It may be a cleaned up version of her crappy first draft, but that doesn’t make it a subsequent work in any real sense.
I don’t think anyone is claiming Lee ever had any plans to revisit that version of the story or write a true sequel. I don’t think anyone is claiming she was involved in a significant way, aside from (possibly? hopefully?) granting permission to publish it, in getting it from “crappy first draft” to its current published form.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a story worth examining. As a writer, can I see the educational value in reading a great writer’s crappy first draft? Absolutely. And as a reader, at least a few reviewers have given me reason to believe that this earlier direction of the story is not without its own merits. In particular, the New York Times review poses some interesting questions. At least, they’re interesting to me.
“[Scout’s] disappointment, which develops into anger, suggests an opportunity to explore a dense, rich, complicated subject: How should you deal with someone who has loved you unstintingly when you find out this same person harbors ugly, dangerous social prejudices?
… Is it wrong to revoke affection because of disgust with the ideology of someone who has nurtured you all of your life? Is it intolerably dictatorial to impose a political litmus test on loved ones? Is it complacent to refuse to? If morality compels censuring the retrograde beliefs and conduct of lovers, friends and family, how should that be done? And then what?”
I have to say, as one of the lucky folks who have enjoyed having people who have “loved you unstintingly” and “nurtured you all of your life,” and also who hold ugly prejudices, these are questions I have wrestled with my whole life. They seem like questions of particular relevance right now. I’d be interested in seeing how someone else, especially someone as smart as Harper Lee, wrestles with them on the page.
But for the time being, I’m going to keep wrestling with them on my own. Atticus and Scout will remain in my mind, for a bit longer, as they have been in the minds of other readers for a half century.
After all, that to-read list isn’t getting any shorter.