Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Is anyone going to read Go Set A Watchman?

I really like the book To Kill A Mockingbird.

I'm not as keen on the film. The movie has achieved iconic status, but frankly it isn't as good as its reputation.  It's not horrible, but frankly it cheapens the book.  All the characters in it, except for Scout, as played by Mary Badham, and Boo Radley, played by Robert Duval, just aren't played that well.  The set, except for the courtroom interiors, aren't done that well either.  Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch practically lacks a human dimension, he's so noble, which isn't the case for Atticus Finch in the novel.  I'd be tempted to say that he's too saintly in the movie, but that's not right either, as an examination of the lives of the saints shows them to be pretty human as well (St. Jerome had a problem with his temper and kept a pet lion, St. Augustine of Hippo had to judge civil matters all day long and then wrote at night, St. Bernadette came from an extremely poor family and struggled with a secret ailment that caused severe pain, St. Peter was married and according to some had a daughter who had a crippling condition, St. Peter and St. Paul had a big falling out and then came back together after reconciling).  Atticus Finch is all noble in a seersucker suit in the movie, but in the book he's a middle class widower who is a lawyer who takes in food items for pay and doesn't always do very well in court.  He's a real lawyer in the book.

And I do like the book.

Which is why I'm not going to read Go Set A Watchman.

Anyone who has been following this story knows that Go Set A Watchman features the same father and daughter that To Kill A Mockingbird does.  Set in the late 1950s, this book, however, we are told, portrays the father differently.  It portrays him as a racist.

Some are arguing that this changes their view of the portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, but they're missing the point entirely.  The real point is that this book, Go Set A Watchman, isn't a sequel (it was written first).  It's a rejected novel using a character with the same name. But that doesn't make it the same character.

Anyone who has ever written knows that an author rejects some of his own work.  Editors reject more, and when they do that, qutie frankly, they're usually right.  In this case, Harper Lee's editors rejected the novel, and sent her back with suggestions to write a new one.  That new one became To Kill A Mockingbird. This book was intended to be published, and in this form it shouldn't have been.

It's not that a later book by Lee, often wished for, or an earlier book by Lee, isn't worth publishing.  But a rejected work that uses the same names, but not the same characters, is damaging to the better work.  Lee, in writing her second, published, novel apparently rethought her topics and it is widely believed that she based the character of Atticus Finch, in that novel, on her father.  There's no suggestion that the Finch character in the second book was intended to do that, and to do so, would suggest she had a very complicated relationship with her father.

Indeed, one of the things known, but not often really appreciated, is that almost all of the characters in To Kill A Mockingbird are very closely based on real people.  Finch was based on her father.  Scout was based on Lee herself.  Scout's young friend was based on Truman Capote (who based a character in one of his books on her).  Boo Radley, according to Capote, was  based on a young man who in fact lived in their neighborhood.  Lee was a very good writer, but a lot of the effectiveness of her writing in To Kill A Mockingbird was based on the fact that she was writing about people who were extremely familiar to her.  I'd question whether that's true of Go Set A Watchman, which in contrast was written about near contemporary events that I suspect Lee hadn't personally observed to the same extent, and in the same way, that her first published work did.

One of the things about great artists is that not everything they produce is great, but because they are great, we wish to relate everything they do to their greatness.  The best artists of any kind, writers, painters, etc., destroy their failed or inferior works.  There's a reason for that.  This novel, Go Set A Watchman, was written first, and it wasn't worth publishing, according to the original publisher.  She used the same names, but basically new characters, in a new setting, for her new, and now classic, novel.  Go Set A Watchman was intended to be, by the publisher, nothing more than a writing exercise never to see publication.  Lee's later greatness doesn't overcome that fact, and this novel should have been left unpublished.

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