Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Go Set A Watchman?

As most of you have no doubt heard, last Tuesday was the publication day of Go Set A Watchman, the much-anticipated lost manuscript by Harper Lee, author To Kill A Mockingbird. Go Set A Watchman was written before Mockingbird but set after, when the lead character is an adult revisiting her Alabama hometown and her father, Atticus Finch.

The controversy around the book is twofold. First, there were the highly suspicious and opaque conditions under which the book was discovered and published. Then, there's the different character of Atticus, who is not the noble liberal lion of Mockingbird but an overt racist.

Stories about Harper Lee's deteriorating health and overall condition started to circulate with respect to the manuscript as soon as the decision to publish was announced. Her attorney has offered weird and unconvincing accounts of the book's discovery; the state of Alabama launched its own probe, which found that Lee was of sound mind and fit to make decisions. I'm kind of the mind that where's there's smoke there's fire, and the fact that there's even a question about her competency makes me uncomfortable. The whole business has always smacked of exploitation to me, of a cash-grab and a desire for headlines.

I agree with those who say you should read a book before passing judgement on it, and I'm not passing judgement on it or reviewing it.  My feelings about this situation are still evolving and maybe it's too soon to write about it. People have been staking out their position early and often; some saying no way, not going to reward exploitation, others saying it's an important book for what it shows about Harper Lee's growth as a writer and conflicting perspectives on race during a volatile time (but what time isn't?).

My first instinct was to pass on it.  At first glance I just wasn't interested; it's not something that would leap off the shelves at me for any other reason but the controversy, and that's not usually enough to hang my hat on. The nearly-universal mediocre reviews haven't helped, either.

About those reviews, and the second half of the controversy. Everyone says Lee portrays Atticus Finch, beloved Atticus, a character people name their kids after, a character who has inspired legal careers and all manner of idolization, as a racist. People whose feelings are hurt by this need to remember the difference between fact and fiction. Atticus isn't really a racist, he isn't really a saint- he's a fictional character, and Watchman isn't libel or slander- it's a rough draft or alternate telling, and one that wasn't edited, and wasn't accepted for publication at the time it was written. It really shouldn't crush any one's dreams or ruin any one's day.

Not only that, but I kind of agree with Al-Jazeera's take on the whole thing, that Mockingbird was an example of white-savior literature that liberals love, an idealization of the times in which it took place and a revision of civil rights history, a sort of comfort-read for white liberals, and that Watchman might actually be a more realistic treatment of complex times and complex individuals. Now I'm selling myself on it. Kind of. Whatever else it is, Mockingbird is a masterpiece, and time will tell about Watchman.

But see, now I'm kind of curious. I don't know if I'm curious enough to shell out for a hardcover, but I can let the whole thing sit while the literary pundits hash it out amongst themselves. Then when the paperback arrives I'll check back in.