Who watches the Watchman? Not IPosted: July 14, 2015
Today saw the publication of Go Set A Watchman, the second novel by Harper Lee. It’s a sequel to her 1960 classic To Kill A Mockingbird.
Mockingbird is one of my favourite books of all time. I studied it for my English Literature GCSE, and it utterly captivated me.
Studying a book can kill it for you, at A Level I did Dickens’ Great Expectations, and to this day it remains one of my least favourite books of all time and I have never had the slightest urge to read Dickens again.
So it’s a testament to Lee’s writing that even after numerous reads, endless discussion and note taking I still love the novel. It’s moving, charming and Lee juggles different themes expertly. It’s about childhood, outsiders and race.
Lee’s towering creation is the narrator’s father, Atticus Finch. The small town lawyer who takes on the case of a black man accused of rape. It’s a case that in ’30s Alabama will be a tough job, regardless of what he does. Eloquent, principled and a “how to” for fatherhood and generally being a decent person.
Finch raises his kids and argues the case, standing as a hero who fights for what’s right and teaches his kids the importance of compassion and kindness.
So a sequel to the book should fill me with excitement, right? Well, not exactly.
I have three problems with it.
First of all, put simply it’s unnecessary. Lee crafted a classic novel that stands by itself perfectly well. She may have written this other book but she didn’t publish it, or trumpet it’s existence. Possibly because Lee realised that her legacy didn’t need it and that what followed wasn’t needed.
Or maybe she just decided that she didn’t want it to be published.
Which brings us to point two; is this what Lee actually wants or is this a decision made by others, for mercenary reasons?
Lee is getting on in years, and is this decision made with her informed consent? Has she been influenced into publishing it?
We don’t know. An investigation says there’s no “elder abuse” going on, but we don’t know the whole story of what’s going on behind the scenes. And it’s a bit hinky that after over 50 years the book is being released. Why not sooner?
The third reason is probably the most personal, coming mainly from my position as a fan of the books.
I don’t want the original book to be tarnished by an inferior sequel. This can happen and while you can try to forget the rubbish follow ups, they still lurk in your memory, souring the original a little (e.g. The Matrix)
These fears weren’t helped by reports that Watchman presents us a very different Atticus 20 years on. He’s apparently shown to express or share bigoted views.
A book about someone returning home and finding that they may have sanitised or idealised their parents and childhood is one thing, and might make for a good book, but when that parent is a character as beloved and iconic as Atticus Finch then it causes problems.
Atticus is one of the best heroes of the 20th century, and one who has inspired and been taken into the hearts of countless readers. His words of wisdom still carry weight today.
So, it’s a shame if this book does tear that down. If it sours people’s memory and affection for the original. Especially if it destroys Atticus Finch as the noble, kind hero Lee created back then.
The author might make the character, but once they’re out there the audience owns them too, and a lot of us have taken possession of Atticus Finch. We treasure him, and quote him, and try to be more like the example he set. It’s sad that, for some, they will lose that. Because the fictional characters we meet and embrace can influence us and mean as much as the real ones we meet.
For me, it won’t be an issue. I’ll leave it at Mockingbird and keep my view of Atticus and Lee’s writing as the one I love and keep hold of.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.