Atticus: The Dark Knight? Not in this Universe

the-dark-knight-rises-teaser-poster-no-logoWhy one English teacher has no plans to read Go Set a Watchman

I’ve been teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for almost my entire career. I have dissected, analyzed, and scrutinized every word, action, and character in that novel. One would think that a new related masterpiece by Harper Lee would have me salivating and among the first on the pre-order lists. But from the first mentions of a possible sequel to Mockingbird, my reaction was one of puzzlement. What purpose would a re-examination of these characters serve? Lee has had over fifty years to arrange to send out a new message via Watchman. Why would Harper Lee relinquish her cherished seclusion to publish this novel now? Was the reportedly ailing Harper Lee even capable of making such a decision?

Beginning the Quest

As more information about the “new” novel came to light, it was revealed to be not a sequel or even a prequel, but, instead, an alternate look at Maycomb, focused on an adult Jean Louise (Scout) that is the result of an early draft for Mockingbird. In his article “Harper Lee’s Novel Achievement,” Charles Leerhseen of Smithsonian notes, “After she moved to New York City in 1949, she struggled for years with a hodgepodge of anecdotes about small-town Southern life, first called Go Set a Watchman and then Atticus…After a teary phone call to [her editor], Lee …began a title-on-down revision that resulted in [To Kill a Mockingbird].” In an article in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani states, “[Lee] wrote her first novel, and a talented editor named Tay Hohoff told her the manuscript had some interesting characters…Lee was directed to go and focus on the characters when they were 20 years younger, in the 1930s. After two years of writing and rewriting, the result was To Kill a Mockingbird.” You can read the entire article, a review of Go Set a Watchman, here, but be warned, there are spoilers.  Questions have arisen concerning whether or not Lee actually consented to the publication of this manuscript. In “The Decline of Harper Lee” by Boris Kachka, Thomas Lane Butts, a preacher who was among Lee’s best friends, asserts that Lee was “readily influenced [by] about anybody who’s around her.” Still, neither of these facts would be a reason to avoid what might be a new literary masterpiece.

Maycomb 2.0: The Reboot

I again considered this second novel by Harper Lee. Watchman would provide a view of Scout as an adult. Don’t I already have this since Mockingbird is told in flashback by the adult Scout? As a reader of the new novel, I could see how the town and its inhabitants had fared after the Robinson trial. Well, no. Apparently, the trial is barely mentioned in this new novel and, in fact, things went quite differently. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers for those of you who intend to read the novel; I’m not here to try to convince anyone to stay away from it. Since I do not intend to read it, however, I have read spoilers, and Watchman could not have taken place in the same universe as Mockingbird. It’s like a comic book series reboot; you have to simply accept that the past has been changed; the people have the same names, but their core motivations and characters are different. Gregory-Peck-simple evilViewed in this way, the publication of Watchman finally made sense to me. This publication is exploiting the popularity of the gritty reboot which is so common now in superhero comics. “In the 21st century, [a] pure-hearted, optimistic hero is too often seen as childish and shallow…The assumption is that in order to modernize an old-fashioned hero into a ‘serious’ character, he needs to get darker. In other words, the infamous gritty reboot” Gavia Baker-Whitelaw dailydot.com). After all, Atticus epitomizes heroism in this novel: He stands up for the oppressed; he sacrifices his own safety for others; he even hides his “superpowers” (recall One-Shot Finch) behind his quiet demeanor.

“No matter how much time the Captain America films spend on real-world topics like PTSD and surveillance culture, in many people’s eyes they will never be truly respectable until the lead character starts acting like an asshole.” –dailydot.com

Loss of Innocence

In his review of Go Set a Watchman for Britian’s The Independent, Arifa Akbar commented, “We will never be able to read Mockingbird in the same way again, and never see Atticus in the same light again,” calling Watchman an end of innocence. Does this new novel represent a jaded society’s rejection of a man who is “too good”? Watchman’s darker version of Atticus, with his rather checkered past and his troubled relationship with Jean Louise, fits right into the comic book world’s gritty reboot meme.

To Over-Kill a Mockingbird?

To Kill a Mockingbird is a complete work of literature that stands on its own. It does what great literature does; it invites discussion and requires readers to fill in the blanks. Even if Watchman were a sequel or prequel for Mockingbird, I would have no need to read it. Mockingbird‘s narrative is told in flashback from the adult Scout’s perspective; astute readers know this seminal summer helped her to grow into a mature, reflective, well-adjusted adult. The Twitter-driven world, in which people expose the minutiae of their lives for all to examine, might well want the details of Jean Louise’s journey into adulthood, but the richer literary experience is when readers delve into the text to find truths for themselves. Am I unwilling to give up treasured visions of Maycomb and characters I have come to know as well as family? Well, yes, but because not out of some petulant resistance to change. I have enjoyed many of the various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes (an in particular recommend the BBC’s modern take on Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch). If I could believe that Go Set a Watchman built on Mockingbird’s themes or gave new perspectives on the characters, I would read it.

I did read Watchman‘s first chapter, and it does not have the beauty and flow of To Kill a Mockingbird. It reads like what it most likely is, a first draft by a new writer. If you’re curious, I definitely do suggest that you head over to the Wall Street Journal‘s site and check it out. It certainly has value as a means of exploring a writer’s process. Anyone working on a novel could benefit from seeing what Harper Lee jumped from in her early, rejected draft to the final To Kill a Mockingbird. I may someday read it myself.

Do I want to experience the Dark Knight version of To Kill a Mockingbird? No. This, even more than questions concerning the authenticity of the manuscript, convinces me to leave To Kill a Mockingbird where Harper Lee left it over fifty years ago.

  • As of July 13, 2015, Go Set a Watchman is the #1 Seller in Books at Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com
  • Watchman is the most pre-ordered book in HarperCollins history.
  • Watchman is being released in 70 countries simultaneously.

Tracey Rains, edited by Carl Rains

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15 thoughts on “Atticus: The Dark Knight? Not in this Universe

    1. I was quite undecided at first. I almost felt compelled to read it while at the same time feeling so resistant. That’s why I looked into it so much. I did not want to just make a gut decision.

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  1. What a great post. It has been a really long time since I read To Kill a Mockingbird, so I don’t have the same strong feelings that you do, but from what I’ve heard, and from what you pointed out here in your very well written post, I’m not sure this was the piece of literature that should have been touched/changed/re-booted, etc. I probably won’t read it.

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  2. Your post is timely. Last night I was watching the TV News, and there was a brief item on “the sequel” to To Kill A Mocking Bird, how it would it would change our view of Atticus, and so on. I sat there thinking, ‘You idiots, get your facts straight.’ I remembered reading a couple of articles some time back where it was very clearly stated that Harper Lee’s first novel was to be published, that it had failed to find a publisher after it was written, and that she’d been advised to take a different approach and focus more on the young Scout. (We know what the result was.) I also recall some discussion in those articles about whether the first novel was worth publishing, though doubtless some would find it interesting. So whence this notion of a “sequel”? Cynical marketing? Mainstream media not doing their homework?

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    1. I lean toward cynical marketing. It has been suggested that Watchman would have been acceptable had it been published at the time, but it never would have become the literary masterpiece Mockingbird is. Since we have Harper Lee’s treatment of this subject, why rehash it? I think its appropriate place is in literary archives, not general release. I’m very interested to see how the general public reacts after reading the book.

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  3. Hello again.
    I spent some time this morning checking out online articles on “the sequel”, including The Guardian’s book pages, which I like. Spoiler alert!
    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/12/go-set-a-watchman-review-harper-lee-to-kill-a-mockingbird
    I came away with the impression that the critics were looking for the book Harper Lee could have written if she’d gone back to her first novel and revised it in light of Mockingbird, its characters and events. By that, I mean producing a twenty-years-after account of a young woman going home and finding that yes, her father was flawed, and yes, he was a man of his time and place. Now, she’s a woman of her time, and in some ways has grown past him (and the place of her childhood), but he (and it) were what set her on her path. A proper sequel, in other words. But perhaps I’m over-speculative. I haven’t even read the available 1st chapter of Watchman, and though I’ll have a look at the book some time in the future I’m not in any hurry to do so.

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    1. You are right about what Watchman is as I understand it. The issue is that it changes the outcome of the trial which is at the core of Mockingbird, so it can’t have happened in the same timeline. So Watchman’d Atticus isn’t Mockingbird’s.

      I’ve no doubt it could have value as a novel of disillusionment. Harper Lee dealt with loss of innocence masterfully in Mockingbird. In fact, that is one reason I question her involvement in the decision to publish this book as is. I would have expected her to realize the conflict in creating a new history for established events. If she wanted to produce a novel of adult disillusionment, why not re-work this yet again in all these intervening years so that it can complement Mockingbird?

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      1. Exactly! That’s what I was getting at in my previous post, but I didn’t make myself clear enough. While Harper Lee could have reviewed and revised Watchman to complement Mockingbird, it’s obvious that she didn’t. So the critics’ suggestions that the two books are very-different-but-compatible, and that Watchman is a “sequel”, strikes me as wishful thinking on their part!

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      2. Definitely. I don’t know why everyone is treating this like it is supposed to be a sequel. It’s just a different novel. I think so many of the reviews are misleading, and this will lead to some very dissatisfied readers.

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  4. To Kill a Mocking Bird is one of those classics (I think it is old enough to be classified as such) that I have not read. I haven’t even put it on my to read list. Perhaps it is because it was one of those movies that I watched on TV, a black and white one that you had to get up and go over to the box to change the channel kind. So, I was under the age of 15 and viewed the movie more than once.
    You have however made me open to read TKMB because of your passion for the story and its characters. In your poll, I voted that I will not be reading Watchman but I could have also voted that I have yet to read TKMB. Your post also made me curious about Harper Lee. I had initially heard that she never authorized the publishing of Watchman on NPR but I never did any further investigation into that. I don’t know if the question on that has been answered and verified. Hopefully, more will be revealed.

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    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! The movie version is excellent. Harper Lee herself loved the film and said that it carried the same message as her novel. Of course, there are differences, but it is one of the few film versions of a (yes) classic novel that I always recommend.

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  5. You’ve written a fascinating article about the hype around Watchman, Tracey, but I can’t help thinking you’d revise/delete it if you actually read the book. I wasn’t aware of all the controversy when I read Watchman, and I found it profoundly moving. It reflects the real racism of the time, which I suspect Lee’s editor knew wouldn’t be published. So perhaps the young and inexperienced author was directed to write a story that would be more palatable to the readership of the time, and we ended up with Mockingbird. The theme of bigotry (rather than racism) in Watchman really speaks to the current political climate. I think you should read it and see what you think of the story, rather than the hype around it.

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    1. Even from the short buts I’ve read, I do see that it deals with the bigotry issues as you’ve stated. I’m sure I will eventually read it; I just wish it had been publicized for what it was, just another novel by Lee, not a sequel to TKAM. I definitely will update my views once I do read it. I hadn’t thought about the idea you brought up that Watchman might have been too radical for its time. That definitely intrigues me. I try not to close myself entirely off from things, and I have left myself open to this; I think I was mainly resistant to the misrepresentation of it, which isn’t a reason to ignore it forever! Thanks!

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      1. Cheers Tracey. I think I was worried that people were talking more about the hype around the book, than they were about the book itself! So before I did my own blog about it, I wanted to read what others had said, and I stumbled on your blog, which was very well written by the way! Thanks for being receptive to my comments. I hope you do enjoy the book for what it is. I’m an author myself, so I could see Watchman desperately needed a good structural edit! But the content was so profound! I’m actually quite pleased that editors left it alone. It’s such a flavor of the times it was written about. I adored it! I hope you do too.

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