“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero…”
– G. K. Chesterton
There’s a debate in the literary world that most of you have probably heard of in some form or another. A “new” novel by Harper Lee was just released yesterday. It’s called Go Set a Watchman and was apparently written prior to To Kill a Mockingbird.
Now, depending on which story you hear or believe, the overall gist is that Harper Lee supposedly provided this book to her publishers, and they felt that there was a better story to be told—a story that the world needed to hear. They wanted the same characters that were in her book, mind you, but wanted the story moved back a few years. Altered a bit. Told from the viewpoint of the little girl, “Scout,” instead of the grown woman Jean Louise that is telling us the story in Go Set a Watchman.
Now, before I go any further, I want to give you this disclaimer. I have not read Go Set a Watchman. Not yet. Will I?
Therein lies the question.
Harper Lee is an incredibly private individual. I’m not going to profess to be a Lee scholar by any means, but I do know that she will not give interviews and detested the amount of publicity she received after To Kill a Mockingbird became such a phenomenon. So, why would she allow this publication now? Ah, therein lies the rub. Did she allow it?
I read one article that stated:
Residents of Monroeville [where Lee now lives] gossip that Ms. Lee is mentally infirm these days, does not recognize old friends, could not possibly have signed off on the publication, never wanted to do a second book. But those who are closest to her scoff at such conspiratorial theories, saying Harper Lee, now 88 and admittedly frail, remains fully capable of making up her own mind.
Quite the fodder for controversy there, huh? Did she or didn’t she? Is she a frail little 88-year-old woman (now 89, I think) who is being taken advantage of by those who stand to benefit from the profits that this new book will bring in?
Or is she truly what the article I mentioned above says she is? (Click on the link to check it out if you haven’t already.) Is she a little old lady who wrote a book long ago – back before the digital age where there would have been copies upon copies of drafts saved on a hard-drive or flash drive somewhere – who truly misplaced the draft? According to the article, she was delighted when it was found.
I have to interject here for a second while I imagine this scenario to be true. I’m a writer too…obviously not of the caliber of Harper Lee…but a writer nonetheless. And recently, I lost a portfolio full of poetry that I had written over the past ten years. Why were they not saved on a computer somewhere? I don’t know. I just know they were in a folder and I lost them. I was devastated. I searched the house over to no avail…only to find it months later hidden in the back of my closet. I can’t think of another word to describe that feeling other than joyous. All of that work hadn’t been for nothing! My work had been found. Was it any good? I don’t know. A few of them had already failed to win anything in various writing contests I had entered them in, but did I care? No! It was my work and it was found.
Could I have, on some minuscule scale felt what Harper Lee felt when her baby, her novel was found? Did she care that it had once been deemed “not good enough” for publishing? I’m betting not. And when it was suggested to her that it was time to publish it, would she have denied such a suggestion?
Hmmm. I wonder. Some think she would have. And that she did.
But all of that “Did she or did she not want it published?” stuff aside, I think the bigger, truer issue lying behind the controversy is what has been revealed now that reviews have been released. Turns out, Atticus Finch – the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird – might have had a darker side.
Now, trust me, I get it. I get the reaction that literary lovers of Atticus are feeling. We LOVE Atticus. Atticus is the true epitome of goodness. He lives in our hearts as a hero, as a true pioneer of equality and justice. But you know what? He isn’t real. Really. He’s not. He’s a product of one author’s imagination…and only after influence from others as to what and who he should be. So, did Harper Lee really create Atticus Finch? Or did we?
Go Set a Watchman was written first. What that means is that Harper Lee’s original intention was for Atticus Finch to be who he is in this book. Again, I look at this through the eyes of a writer. Do I have the right to tell Miss Lee that the image I have in my head of her character is better than the one she had? Is that my place? Like many others, should I thus refuse to read a book that tarnishes the glow that I put on this beloved man who touched my heart the first time I read this book at the tender age of 18?
I don’t know. But you know what? I don’t think so.
What it comes down to for me is this: there’s a new book out there. It’s a much-talked about book. A much-anticipated book. And a book that’s shrouded in conspiracy. Am I going to read it?
You bet your patootie I am.
Am I doing a disservice to Harper Lee if the rumors are true? Am I reading something that an author intended to keep to herself? Possibly. But my writer’s heart just somehow knows that an entire novel could not possibly have been written only to keep hidden from readers’ eyes. Look at the history of it…she presented it to publishers years ago. Does that sound like a hidden manuscript? I just can’t believe it is.
In my heart of hearts, I feel like this is the story that Harper Lee wanted told.
Will my mind change after reading Go Set a Watchman? Will I wish I had never picked it up? Will I wish that my memories of Atticus Finch remained the way I had him – in all his saintly glory? Hmm. Who knows?
But I can tell you this…I’m definitely going to give myself the chance to find out.
The only way you can truly get to know an author is through the trail of ink he leaves behind him. The person you think you see is only an empty character: truth is always hidden in fiction.”
– Carlos Ruiz Zafon