By far the biggest book news to hit the world in recent times is the publication of a previously unknown novel by Harper Lee. It is the rare kind of literary event that not only gets discussed on arts programs but also on serious TV news programs. And it has been fascinating to hear all the various reactions.
On my movie web site, I like to say that a film review really tells us more about the reviewer than it does about the film. The same is almost certainly true about book reviews and book discussions. The appearance of Go Set a Watchman has been an interesting opportunity to hear many people on TV, radio and in print tell us what To Kill a Mockingbird has meant to them.
Clearly, for a lot of people over the past half-century it is a work that was huge in helping to form their literary, social and political consciousness. In hindsight, the book’s provenance and its reception seem like something magical. It was Lee’s first—and presumedly only—published work (at the age of 34), and it garnered all kinds of praise and awards. It was soon adapted into an award-winning motion picture that not only did justice to the book but further immortalized its story.
If all of that seems too fortunate to be true, what are the odds that 55 years later another novel would turn up and would overlap with the events and characters of the first? We soon learned that it was an earlier draft of Mockingbird but, because it was set years later, it turned out to be the sequel that many readers would have longed for—or thought they did. If this had been a sequel written by someone else, say, commissioned by the author’s estate like Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, which continued the story of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, it could be ignored or dismissed. But Watchman was written by Harper Lee herself and in her prime. On the other hand, it was a draft that was not originally accepted by her publisher.
From an academic point of view, it is great to have. We get a better picture of what was in Lee’s head in forming the story and that leads to a deeper understanding of her work. For sentimentalists, however, it disrupts the effect of Mockingbird. Just as the effect of a photograph is dramatically affected by the way it is cropped, a story such as that of Atticus Finch and his family is defined by where the storyteller begins and ends the narrative. Many people have been distressed to learn that, in the original version, Atticus aged into someone less noble and less admirable than the man so memorably portrayed by Gregory Peck. As Lee’s editor may have understood all those years ago, such a story may be more reflective of real life but it isn’t nearly as satisfying emotionally.
Strangely, my own words about Atticus, written just six months ago after having re-watched the movie, are out there now on my movie site haunting me: “No matter the effect this movie had on people’s feelings on race relations, it definitely made lots of people wish that Gregory Peck was their dad.”
Oddly, Atticus’s story may now parallel what has gone on in America over the past half-century. After all, the story of the Civil Rights movement is much more satisfying when the narrative stops with the triumphs of the 1960s.
As for me personally, the appearance of Lee’s long-delayed “sequel” has given me some food for thought as I continue to wrestle with the question of whether or when to do a sequel to Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. The fact is that I am happy with the story as it is. Would it become richer if we learn what happens to Dallas Green in later life? Or would I regret not leaving things as they were?
Either way, the stakes are not nearly so high as with To Kill a Mockingbird. After all, I am the first to admit that Dallas Green is no Atticus Finch.