Harper Lee: Mockery or Mockingbird?
I don’t want to know. That’s what I keep telling everyone around me as they send me links to the reviews of Go Set A Watchman, the surprise “sequel” to Harper Lee’s classic book, To Kill A Mockingbird. It was to be officially released on Tuesday. It’s Monday afternoon as I write this, and I keep checking the mailbox to see if it’s arrived.
On the other hand, I dread reading it because of what I’m hearing about how Lee altered one of her most revered characters: Atticus Finch. I have a dog in this fight. I’ve taught To Kill A Mockingbird for most of my teaching career, and I revel in its messages every bit as much as my students every year. I even inscribed a copy of the book for my dad, telling him that he was my “Atticus Finch.”
It was the highest compliment I could imagine.
People who’ve read advanced copies describe an Atticus that is stained by the racism of his time. I know the original well enough to know that Atticus was not necessarily fighting for a “cause” as much as courageously defending one man; he was never portrayed as an activist, but rather as someone determined to live by his own moral code. The door was always open to more fully explore that code and its limitations. Unfortunately, this comes at great cost.
To me, Atticus will forever be the man who sat vigil in front of the Maycomb jailhouse knowing an angry mob was coming to kill Tom Robinson, the innocent victim convicted on the testimony of a broken white girl. Armed with nothing more than a light bulb, an extension cord, and a newspaper, Atticus defied the twisted expectations of white society knowing he couldn’t win. He fought for Tom because it was the right thing to do, not because others thought he was right.
Harper Lee, of course, has every right to release her original vision of this iconic character. JD Salinger chose to keep his finished manuscripts hidden until after his death in the face of the overwhelming success of The Catcher in the Rye. Lee is risking her literary legacy by releasing a book she says was written two years before To Kill A Mockingbird (and without an editor). Her Pulitzer prize-winning book is a beloved touchstone text taught in most American schools, and even her older sister Alice, her attorney and guardian for years, vehemently opposed the release of this earlier novel. It’s not a coincidence the announcement of the “new” book came less than three months after Alice’s death.
For me, it’s as if JK Rowling released a prequel to the Harry Potter series revealing him to be evil. At some point, ownership of seminal characters passes from the author into the public domain. We need Atticus Finch these days. He is more than a literary figure; he represents the best of us in trying times. Noted American mythologist Joseph Campbell refers to our need for constellating images that pull together society’s tendency toward separation; Atticus Finch was precisely this literary hero who united us in pursuit of our better selves. I shudder to think where this “new” Atticus would fall on the issue of the Confederate flag being removed from South Carolina’s capitol grounds last week.
As you read this, I’m probably finishing Go Set A Watchman. Maybe you are, too. Let’s hope the Atticus we grew up with survives.