Pop Culture Princess

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The things we talk about when we talk about Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman

When it was announced earlier this year that a new novel by Harper Lee,whose previously one and only novel To Kill a Mockingbird became an instant classic, would be published by this July, a flurry of excitement both for and against it followed.

As many eager readers made their pre-orders, others were suspicious about the whole thing; did the reclusive Ms. Lee really want this book out there or was she being exploited by unscrupulous handlers? Another huge cloud of doubt being floated about was concern that this new book, which was written before TKAM and featured older versions of Scout and Atticus Finch, might somehow "taint" the original masterpiece.

Well, Go Set a Watchman was released yesterday and sadly, many of the latter doubters are in "I told you so!" mode as advance previews (which gave away way too much of the story before any of us had a chance to read it, beyond a first chapter excerpt, that is), disclosed a major plot twist.

In this book, Scout is shocked to discover that her beloved father,who once defended an unjustly accused African-American in court, is firmly against desegregation and is even a member of the local "Citizens' Council" ,which is basically a KKK themed group. Since many readers and viewers of the iconic film adaptation revere Atticus as much as his daughter does, this was quite a blow:

This has caused not only the naysayers to gloat but turn away those who intended to read GSAW, due to their dismay at this revelation. While I'm all for free choice when it comes to reading, I do think that refusing to read something because it's not giving you what you want isn't a good reason to do so.

Go Set a Watchman was the first book Harper Lee completed and sent off to publishers, whereupon an editor encouraged her to rewrite it from Scout's childhood memories, perhaps thinking that seeing Atticus in that early light would make more of an impact on the dark turn in that later father-daughter revelation.

That's just my guess but keeping in mind that this is an early version of  these characters, who many generations have come to know and love from TKAM, is key to giving this book a fair chance. The time period of that first book was the 1930s while GSAW is in the fifties, where racial attitudes even amongst the liberal minded were rather condescending towards non-whites at best.

 Another thing to keep in mind here is that the leading character in both stories is Scout, who  as a young woman in her mid-twenties is still being challenged by the social norms of her day. Pressured to stay home with her ailing father instead of pursuing a career in New York as well as to be on the look out for a husband,Scout may be called Jean Louise more often here but she's still that rebellious tomboy at heart:

What really irks me is the notion that Harper Lee doesn't know her own mind or wishes regarding her work. Would a white male author be given this same treatment?

 Maybe but it's much more likely the opposite response, in my opinion. For example, if  J.D. Salinger had added a codicil to his will that permitted the publication of a long hidden sequel to Catcher in the Rye, any misgivings about such a request would be quickly shouted down by his unwavering supporters.

Of course, no one wants an older person to be used and abused in such a manner but this has been looked into by the authorities(along with Ms. Lee's closest friends) and  all agree that this is what she wants.  Have some respect for the lady and her work. If you really appreciate her talents, allow her to share them with the world in her own way.

For those of you who are crying "This is not my Atticus!", you're right. Atticus Finch doesn't belong to you, he belongs to Harper Lee just as much as Harry Potter belongs to J.K. Rowling or Huckleberry Finn does to Mark Twain.

That doesn't mean you can't appreciate the good he did in TKAM or be disappointed in this later turn in his character development. The whole point of Go Set a Watchman is how Scout feels about her father now that she's seen the worst in him and that's a journey worth taking there.

Allowing him to be a fully fleshed out human being is what makes a writer like Harper Lee the amazing talent that she is. Art is not just a "good guy/bad guy" puppet show. Every now and then, it lets you into the mind of someone whose entire outlook on life is vastly different from yours, and at times justifiably repulsive, and seeing what made them the person they are. It's not always a pretty picture but like they say, the truth isn't meant to be pretty:

As you have have surmised, I am reading Go Set a Watchman right now and am about half way through the book. Is is a good read? Yes. Is it as great a book as TKAM? Maybe not, but time will truly tell on that one.

If you don't want to bother with GSAW, that's fine. However, don't rag on those who do or cast aspersions on Harper Lee for sending this story out into the wider world. You're not the only ones who have been disappointed by a fictional father figure this year, the main difference being that at least Atticus Finch doesn't have a trail of real life victims to account for.

What any reader of Go Set a Watchman ought to focus on is Scout and her emotional journey. Regardless of how her mentors behaved, Miss Jean Louise Finch took the best they had to give and staid true to the best within herself. She's not perfect but perfection is not as relatable as heartfelt truth and the truth is, Scout is the real heroine of our hearts:

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