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. Viewed 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