This nation’s critics tend to move in unison. They’ve moved quite squarely this month against the second season of HBO’s “True Detective.” The show that was praised for its first season has sent critics scouring their thesauri for negative adjectives. The same seems to be shaping up for the controversial release today of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” a novel that may or may not be a draft of Lee’s one-and-only-other published novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” a canonical member of The Great American Novels Club.
That novel, released in 1960, has regularly been among the favorites of all who read it. But despite the acclaim for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and perhaps in many ways because of it, the release of “Go Set a Watchman” has been met with suspicion, consternation and unfair criticism stemming from non-literary comparisons to Lee’s first work.
Perhaps the biggest complaint stems from the fact that, to many critics’ horror, “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” hero, Atticus Finch, has been transformed into a staunch segregationist. It is a change that critics, despite how they ultimately feel about the book, seem unable to accept. They suspect it will likely irreparably damage the literary legacy of the now 89-year-old Lee.
In The Guardian, columnist Mark Lawson (who does like the book) writes of this transformation that, “For many readers, large stretches of Watchman will be like discovering an alternative version of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ in which JD Salinger casts the story of the adolescent Holden Caulfield as the dream of a paedophile Republican senator.”
Over at NPR, Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan calls “Go set a Watchman” “a mess” and writes of Atticus:” He’s like Ahab turned into a whale lover or Holden Caulfield a phony.”
I have no doubt that “Go Set a Watchman” will change our understanding of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and of Lee’s literary abilities, but I don’t understand why that is even remotely a bad thing. Why would we want less from an artist we admire? And why do we always feel compelled to believe a less substantial work diminishes the career of that artist? Why must a lesser work take away from another we all agree is great?
First, the manuscript for “Go Set a Watchman,” no matter what sort of conniving or conspiracy was involved in its publication, was likely to be discovered and published at some point. Lee’s work is too important, and the interest in her unpublished work would be too great. Why not have it now, even if Lee may no longer be capable of informing us about her intentions in writing or publishing the book?
Second, I don’t see why a change in Atticus’ character from one novel to another is so Earth shattering. It should not come as news to anyone that Lee — like any great artist — had a lot of different ideas and themes in mind when she began writing “To Kill A Mockingbird.” That Atticus was at one time imagined as a segregationist and later transformed into a progressive civil rights hero is fascinating to me. Because of “Go Set a Watchman,” we can see the artistic process and have an opportunity to discuss it. That is a gift.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, a good development of the release of “Go Set a Watchman” is that it has reintroduced the novel to popular American cultural discussions. When was the last time a novel was so widely discussed? Typically canonical works of fiction are only revisited when they become the subject of a film, such as the recent adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Otherwise, you’d be hard-pressed to hear anyone talk about a novel around the Internet water-cooler that is Facebook. Hardly a day has gone by this week in which I haven’t seen a score of posts about Lee and “Go Set a Watchman.” I don’t remember the last time a “new” novel caused such a stir.
Everyone who cares about Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird” should take the opportunity to read “Go Set A Watchman” and to re-read “To Kill A Mockingbird.” There’s no reason the new novel should tarnish the older, beloved one. It’s still a great book today and will be for generations to come. We’ve been given a new work. We have had nothing taken away from us.