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Hey, You Don't Have To Read Harper Lee's New Book

Illustration for article titled Hey, You Don't Have To Read Harper Lee's New Book

So Go Set a Watchman, the second book about the main characters from the 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, comes out today. That’s the safest way to write that sentence: It permits, I think, all the abundant uncertainty and controversy. This is a book, written by someone, about those characters, and even if it was written before the other book about those characters, it has not been a published book before now, and now it is one, so it is the second one.


That’s what we know. By my understanding, pretty much everything else—the degree to which it is Harper Lee’s finished work; whether it really is its own book; whether it was intended for publication; whether a very old and infirm woman is being manipulated by profiteering caregivers into contradicting her decades-long determination never to publish another novel at a moment when doing so probably stands to pay out extravagantly for, oh just for example, the beneficiaries of a will that in all likelihood will be executed in the next few years—is clouded by at least some doubt. If this doubt strikes you as a reason to feel conflicted about purchasing and reading this book—almost none of the proceeds from which will make much of a difference to its deaf, blind, wheelchair-bound, eldercare-facilitated 89-year-old author, after all—well, that seems pretty reasonable!

This isn’t the only reason to avoid the book, though. There’s also the matter of Atticus Finch. Word is that Go Set a Watchman, which takes place 20 years or so after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, depicts the principled country lawyer —the central adult protagonist of the earlier novel and one of the more beloved characters in American literature—as a racist who attends a Ku Klux Klan meeting, argues against integration, and views the NAACP and anti-segregation Supreme Court decisions as unwelcome intrusions into southern life. This seems as though it might be somewhat out of character for the man who, in Mockingbird, risks not just his social standing but also his life (and his children’s!) to give a vigorous defense to a black man falsely accused of rape; whose defense extends beyond the courtroom to an actual face-to-face confrontation with a lynch mob; and who, in Mockingbird at least, lives, and thereby demonstrates the practical livability of, big ideas about fairness, empathy, and tolerance.

To Kill a Mockingbird is written from the perspective of Atticus’s grown daughter, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. She (kindly, and with good humor) permits and gives fair hearing to the narrower perspective she had during the events of the novel, which took place when she was six—but, crucially, is a grown woman describing them. Part of what makes Atticus such a powerful character is that, even though Narrator-Scout casts a gently ironic eye toward many of Kid-Scout’s ways of understanding the world, Atticus, in both of their eyes, is a hero. This is a key to that novel, I think, or have always thought: Jean Louise changed and grew up, and her understanding of Atticus broadened and deepened, but her admiration remained, because he really was a hero.

And so, if the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is a bigot, if he finds—or found, or explored the possibility of finding—common ground with the murdering terrorists against whom he defended Tom Robinson, this will implicitly repudiate To Kill a Mockingbird. It will suggest that the narrator of that book was wrong, or clueless; that Atticus’s actions in that book grew from mere professional ethics and not a marrow-deep belief in fairness and universal human dignity; that his admonitions to his children about empathizing with others and resisting the shallowest judgments were empty bullshit. It will imply that Atticus’s own professed belief that all men are created equal extended only as far as the courthouse door; that discharging his duty to unjust laws was enough for him; that he was a hypocrite and a moral dwarf. It will imply that he despised black people even while entrusting the daily care of his children and home to one of them. It will imply that Atticus is an admirable defense lawyer and a despicable human being.

That is, it will do all that if, as the publishers would prefer, you take it as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. As far as we know, it isn’t that; really, it isn’t a novel at all. Go Set a Watchman is an early iteration of what eventually became Mockingbird. An editor rejected it because it didn’t work, and Mockingbird is what resulted from the effort to fix what was wrong with it. Go Set a Watchman, properly speaking, is the stuff of a dusty variorum edition, or an outtake reel.

It’s only being presented—contemptibly!—as a new work that reads back onto an old one. Still, even for readers who go in accepting this, the fact is that Go Set a Watchman will be a reading experience that retroactively affects one’s view of the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. This almost can’t be avoided: Lee is (or was), after all, a tremendously skilled writer with a great gift for characterization. And even readers who know Watchman’s origins will be vulnerable to the sense that, as the first draft, it represents Lee’s unadulterated vision of the character. Maybe it does!


Still, if the idea that Atticus is a secret racist strikes you as jarringly inconsistent with the character you encountered in To Kill a Mockingbird, do not feel as though you must read this new book to figure out what’s right. The Atticus you have known belongs to you; you created him. Some of your raw materials—just some of them—came from Harper Lee’s words, some of them came from your own life and experiences, and some of them (probably, let’s be real) came from Gregory Peck’s performance in the wonderful 1962 film adaptation. You combined them in your head and made an Atticus, and you know what he’s like. If Harper Lee is saying this Atticus is a Klan-rallying bigot—her lawyer would like us to believe she is, anyway—she might be wrong! She literally does not know him as well as you do. She knows him only slightly better than an absentee sperm donor knows the in-vitro-fertilized child raised by someone else.

Stiff-arming the new book for the sake of preserving your relationship with the old one might seem cowardly, or at least unappealingly incurious, if Go Set a Watchman were not arriving amid legitimate doubts about its provenance and the reasons for its publication 55 years after its predecessor. But this is a gussied-up version of a non-book that was rejected and replaced half a century ago, offered up now by a shady lawyer in extremely dubious circumstances, trying to tell you that one of the best American novels ever written was wrong about its most beloved character. Everything about it is sad. Read it if you want to; I hope you won’t.


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Contact the author at or on Twitter @albertburneko.