Reading Go Set a Watchman

Tomorrow, Go Set a Watchman will finally be available to anyone who can get their hands on it, and there are scads of people who have been eagerly anticipating the surprising release of this…additional or alternative…perspective on our favorite characters from the ever famous To Kill a Mockingbird. But, as most people know, there has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding the release of this book, starting with the question of whether or not the elderly author, Harper Lee, is in a good enough state of mental and physical health to even consent to the publication of the novel. More recently, as the first chapter has been released to the public, and the entire book released in advance to a select few, there has been heated discussion about how differently the beloved Atticus Finch is represented in Go Set a Watchman. Stating either reason (or both), there is a subset of people who are refusing to read the book on principle. My position remains undecided.

Before jumping into my opinions on the matter, I want to state clearly that I read To Kill a Mockingbird only one time, at least twenty years ago. My memory of it is more conceptual than concrete. I loved it, it spoke to me, and I understood why it was important. However, I’m not a big re-reader and I’ve not yet picked it up again (though I fully intend to, regardless of whether or not I choose to read Go Set a Watchman). So, none of my opinions are based on a deep-seated love affair with the original.

As for the two questions keeping people from the book, I’ll start with the more recent controversy – that Atticus is represented as a racist in Go Set a Watchman. Having not yet read GSAW, I cannot speak to the accuracy of this claim. All I know is what I’ve heard through media outlets and the FB reading group I participate in. And what I’ve heard/read is that the much beloved Atticus Finch is a racist who attends a KKK meeting. I’m not aware of any specific details or quotes having been released, just that the Atticus Finch of GSAW is not the Atticus Finch of TKAM. And people are in an uproar about it.

While, at least for me, this claim has not been substantiated by either having read the book myself or having actual text from the book released, it makes little difference to me. Even though I’m not as emotionally entrenched in TKAM as many others (too many years and too many books), I do have books that I love dearly, characters that have become larger than life, that have come to symbolize something greater, and the idea of another story coming along and portraying them as something other than my imaginings of them, as something dark and sinister and ugly…well, I get why that is so upsetting to people who idolized Atticus Finch. That said, even if I knew in advance that my beloved character was going to be shown in a less than appealing light in an upcoming novel, that knowledge would scarcely deter me from reading it.

Yes, some of reading is about escapism and inspiration. Maybe even a lot of reading is about those two things. But that doesn’t mean that characters shouldn’t be portrayed as humans that are flawed. Is an unrealistic level of perfection, a near angelic goodness required for a character to be loved and held in high esteem? Must they be principled and idyllic in every way? Can they not fall from their pedestals and lose their way the same as any other fallible human being? Perhaps this new version of the story paints Atticus Finch in a light that is appalling, but in what way does that take away from the Atticus of TKAM? Can’t they be considered separately? And given the circumstances of the writing of both books, shouldn’t they be?

My understanding regarding the writing of both of these novels (limited though it may be) is that GSAW was written first and turned down by the publishers. Harper Lee then set out to rewrite GSAW and the Pulitzer Prize winning TKAM was born. Given this information, it doesn’t seem prudent to view Go Set a Watchman as a sequel – despite it being set many years later with the same main characters – but instead should be viewed as an alternate telling, sort of a To Kill a Mockingbird from a parallel universe. Viewed from that perspective, perhaps the differences in GSAW might be an easier pill for some to swallow. I, for one, need no pill at all.

Of more concern to me are the questions regarding Harper Lee’s health. There seems to be no clear answer as to whether or not she is in a position to approve of the book being released. Previous information seems to indicate that she had no desire for another TKAM related book to be released. If, when certainly in her right mind, she seemed disinterested in furthering or enhancing the story, why would she all of a sudden, in her late 80’s and in declining health, change her mind? If she is in support of the publication of Go Set a Watchman, AND she is in good enough health to make such a decision, why has she not come out and done an interview professing said support since all of this controversy began? It needn’t be something fancy. A quick YouTube video where she speaks about it for a few minutes would suffice.

She’s always been reclusive. Really reclusive. And I get that. It just seems to me that if she cared at all about the publishing of Go Set a Watchman, if this is something she wanted, there are ways that she could have expressed her support without her privacy being entirely upset. In fact, had she come out and said something at the first hint of controversy, everything would have died down immediately, and her need for privacy would be more likely to be respected. But that didn’t happen. The question remains. And the controversy lives on.

And, there is also the question of why she didn’t choose to have it published in all the years before? Why, for so many years, was she on the record as being vehemently against publishing anything ever again? Arguably a great deal of her reticence had to do with the unexpected fame she garnered from To Kill a Mockingbird, a fame she was neither in pursuit of nor prepared to handle. Perhaps though, just perhaps, she specifically had no thoughts of publishing Go Set a Watchman because of its damning portrayal of Atticus Finch, or because she saw it only as a first draft of a book that evolved into something altogether different. Perhaps she anticipated some of the controversy surrounding the book today, and had no desire to take on the media storm and criticism that we are witnessing today.

As well, this clearly wasn’t her idea. And by that I mean, she didn’t wake up one day and tell someone, “Hey, there is this old manuscript of mine in a safe deposit box. Can you go get it? I think I’d like it published now.” That’s not what happened at all. It’s been widely shared that her lawyer found the manuscript and negotiated the publishing deal. Seems to me a fair number of the people claiming she is competent to agree to the publishing of the book also stand to gain financially from its publishing – people like her lawyer and her literary agent. Then again, the state was called in to do an investigation and have since closed the case (though, admittedly, it was the Securities Commission who investigated, and they are not qualified to assess mental health or capacity). And HarperCollins did release a statement supposedly from her stating that she supported the publication, but since I didn’t SEE her say that, I’ve seen no claim that it was a notarized statement, and those releasing the statement, once again, stand to profit hugely from the book’s publishing…how much value does that statement really have?

So, on this point, I’m torn. In no way would I willingly participate in taking advantage of an elderly woman who no longer has the capacity to make decisions for herself. It hasn’t really been proven either way what the true situation is, and I don’t know that it ever will be. So do I err on the side of caution and skip it just in case there are shenanigans involved or do I trust that everything is on the up and up and it’s just the case that she truly is so reclusive that she can’t be compelled to speak out directly?

Right now, I simply can’t arrive at a decision either way, so until my conscience provides a clearer direction, or more information becomes available, I’ll be postponing reading Go Set a Watchman. Not because I’m at all concerned about what the book might contain, but because, at least at this moment, my desire to do no harm is greater than my need to satiate my curiosity.

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