I won’t be reading Harper Lee’s, Go Set A Watchman.
Why? Because “Atticus Finch” is gone. Atticus Finch, sans quotation marks, survives in the new novel as a KKK-sampling elderly racist, but the idea that was “Atticus Finch” has been taken away from us. By the publishing business. I won’t have it.
It’s been many years since I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird, but the last time I did I was blown away by the effects Lee was able to produce, mainly through one of the most deft uses of first-person narration I know of. Scout, evidently all grown up, is recounting a key period in her childhood. And even though we understand that an adult is really telling the story, we take it to be coming from the child’s consciousness. Translated to the brilliant 1962 film, that book seems as real as reality, even in metaphorically appropriate black and white.
Flash forward (or is it backward, if Go Set A Watchman is actually the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird) and the first-person has been replaced by, from what I hear, fairly bland third-person prose. The exquisite voice is gone. Wherever it went, it took “Atticus Finch” with it.
See, “Atticus Finch” is a concept. A mythical figure. A belief that the angels of our better nature really walk among us. Never mind, as some have suggested, that he wasn’t a very good attorney and might have been a little too passive in his defense of Tom Robinson. Literature rendered him bigger and better than a good attorney: it turned him into a symbol, whether that was Lee’s desire or not. He became a symbol of defiance, of truth, of hope, of diligence, of sacrifice, of unwearied human compassion. And, as portrayed by Gregory Peck, he was a man just about every living human wished was their daddy.
But he’s gone now. Turned into a run-of-the-mill Southern man who doesn’t want Negroes in public swimmin’ pools.
There’s also a technical problem I have with the book — and this is another reason why I blame the publishing business for botching it. The adult first-person narrator of To Kill A Mockingbird would already know her father’s future. She saw it happen before her eyes. Yet there is no hint whatsoever in that book that “Atticus Finch” is anything but the man he appears to be. Yes, she’s recounting childhood memories, but I can’t help but think that we would have detected a mournful irony in her voice if the intelligence telling the story were really aware of her father’s fall from grace in later years.
This is what a lot of people don’t get about first-person narration. It’s more complicated than it seems. The teller, especially in a tale like this one, is anchored in a place in time well after the action of the book. She has all the facts. And leaving out that “Atticus Finch” would not live much longer was either an unforgivable act of dishonesty, or Go Set A Watchman is a sloppy, slapped-together, shameless effort to exploit something that once had unsurpassable value.
If I know modern publishing, I think I know the answer…