Should We Be Reading Go Set A Watchman?

I loved To Kill A Mockingbird, as I think most people do. Even people who aren’t avid readers seem to love that book. Most of us had to read it at some point in school. For me it was Pre-AP English II during my freshman year of high school (humble brag, I tested at out of English I). My youngest sister just had to read the same book for the same class. For me, it was one of those books that I was theoretically forced to read but that also solidified my love of reading. The two others were The Old Man and the Sea, and The Great Gatsby. (My deep love of frienemies Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, and their whole generation of writers is something for a later time).

Not only did TKAM help me love reading more, it also strengthened my desire to go into the legal field. Atticus Finch to me is (or was, depending on your interpretation of him in GSAW) the purest character in modern American literature. His character and compassion were two things to be admired and applied in my own life.I felt so strongly about him that Grayson John was almost named Atticus John. That was the first name I settled on after the gender reveal sonogram. I decided against it for two reasons: First, I understand how cruel kids are. Growing up with the last name Derr you understand how terrible kids can be about names. And while I owned mine, most people who know me from high school or earlier still call me Derr, not by my first name, I didn’t want to put the teasing I went through on another child. First graders don’t know TKAM, and to them Atticus would just be a weird name to make fun of. My second reason was my mom HATED it. She hasn’t read TKAM, and also just thought it was a weird name. So, Grayson, if you one day decide you would have rather been Atticus John not Grayson John, you can at least half blame your Ya-Ya.

Atticus Finch, brought majestically to life in the film adaptation by the masterful Gregory Peck, and Tom Robinson.
Atticus Finch, brought majestically to life in the film adaptation by the masterful Gregory Peck, and Tom Robinson.

I’ve read so many reviews of GSAW, and almost all include one thing: Atticus, our sweet, pure, kindhearted super dad is now a racist. Well, shit. I mean, I don’t think we should all be that surprised. He was a white man who lived his life in the Jim Crow south, almost everyone who fit that description was a racist. Not the “completely unaware of their biases, sometimes say things they really shouldn’t” kind of racist. Most were bonafide, in your face, didn’t like black people, didn’t want anything to do with them, saw them as less than are, racists. But that is part of what made him so special to most, I believe, is that the Atticus Finch in TKAM wasn’t like his peers. He was different. He stood up for the oppressed, and didn’t really care who disagreed.  Now we are told that he was a confederate apologist (how timely), and thought of the black population as truly less than his own.

Sigh. I know I’m not the only one who has given second thought to reading this book due to these revelations. We don’t want our lovely Atticus tainted in our minds. We want to remember him just as we knew him. There is also the other theory that even if he is portrayed as this person with more flaws than his original character, that isn’t a reason to not read the book. Maybe the reality is that he was this racist person, and we are doing ourselves a disservice by abstaining from the book for that reason. After all, Atticus isn’t ours, he is someone that Harper Lee gave to us, shouldn’t she be the one who gets to interpret him as she knew him?

That brings me to the second, and really the most important reason I’m waiving on whether or not I should read the book. Is this really how Harper Lee defined him? Does she even want us reading this book. I remember how heartbroken I was for first time I read she was adamant about never ever publishing another book, and she was very adamant for a very long time. In fact, this is a quote directly from Ms. Lee on the subject:

 “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”

Well there you have it folks, and in case you wonder that maybe this quote was taken out of context, rest assured you can find dozens more that reflect the same sentiment. So why the sudden change of heart? Some believe the change of heart isn’t hers, but that the change of heart lies with her lawyer and publisher suddenly deciding to stop respecting her wishes. For those who don’t know, Harper Lee has been in declining health for years. Mentally and physically. Not only that, but her sister, who had been her protector for decades, recently died. You can see why I think the timing is suspicious. Her entire life she told us we weren’t getting anything more from her in the way of books. Her sister was her number one “guard”, protecting her privacy and from people who would take advantage, and seemingly immediately after she’s out of the picture, Harper Lee decides to go against her own statements from the past and release this book.

In the interest of fairness I should share that many people saw Ms. Lee’s sister as more prison guard than guardian. Controlling her, and through her, her finances. It also should be noted that she has been adjudicated by the State of Alabama as in control of her mental faculties and fully capable of her making her own decisions. (Though I know from personal experience with relatives that the standard for getting someone declared incompetent is extremely high.)

I don’t doubt for a second that the original manuscript of GSAW was written by Harper Lee. I don’t think her lawyer and publisher got together, wrote a book and are defrauding us with the notion that Ms. Lee wrote it. I do however wonder what things they may have changed. Things they may have added or altered or removed for the sake of making the book more likely to sell, in their minds.

I have zero interest in reading a work that isn’t entirely a creation of Harper Lee. I have zero interest in reading a book that the author never wanted to be given to the public. A book is a work of art, something the author puts their heart and soul into. It should never be made public unless the creator wants it so. I really don’t care to read a book that may ruin Atticus Finch for me forever, but that one I could probably get past if I knew that it was Harper Lee, Scout herself, who wanted us to see her father in a different light.

Should you read the book? I don’t know, that is a decision we should all make for ourselves. I’d planned to read it the day it was released, which was Tuesday. I haven’t even bought a copy yet. Will I read the book? I honestly don’t know.


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