That I have not yet read Go Set A Watchman, released for sale today, is just a tiny detail and one that hardly disqualifies me, or anyone, from holding forth with an account of its quality. Copies of the prequel/sequel to Harper Lee’s extravagantly famous To Kill a Mockingbird have been extended in full only to a handful of critics of who nearly all have reviewed it favourably.
Thousands yet to read more than the first chapter, however, are terribly upset by its contents and so, of course, it would now be elitist to suggest that the masses are wrong and those fancy-schmancy New York reviewers are right. Careful reading of an entire text is no match for popular ignorance which currently has it that Miss Lee has let the side down and forced all those who so esteemed Atticus Finch to question their raisons d’etre.
Atticus Finch, as you likely recall, emerges in Mockingbird the novel as a gentleman lawyer idealised by his child and in the film, by way of Gregory Peck, as the sort of man that George Clooney and Jesus might reproduce during one of their regular meetings. To Slate, a publication that addresses over an entire piece the reaction of those who loved Atticus so well they named their boys for him, mother Becky Dennis sums up much of the anxiety that follows new revelations about Finch when she says, “He was such a strong force in my life growing up, reading it and re-reading it over the years. I’m always reminded that as long as there are people like Atticus Finch — even though it’s fiction — in the world, we should all be OK.”
In Watchman, as has been widely reported, Atticus no longer provides such comfort. The man who once so courageously, if unsuccessfully, defended Tom Robinson, an African Alabaman falsely accused of the rape of a white neighbour, is now an old prick. He grumbles to Scout, now 26, a New Yorker and fonder of her given name, Jean Louise, that “the negroes” have screwed up integration with their childish ways. Heck, he’s even been to a Klan meeting. These revelations have been sufficient to reveal admirers of Mockingbird less as literary connoisseurs than as fans of what has they have come to appreciate as a cartoon.
When author J.K Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay, when director Paul Feig announced that the cast of the Ghostbusters reboot would be all female and when the makers of TV series Supergirl announced that boy reporter Jimmy Olsen would be a few shades darker than illustrators at DC had originally drawn, those illiberal parts of the fandom lost their shit.
Now, it seems, it is the turn of nice, liberal white people to (Jim) crow about their personal pain. Of course, it’s fine to treat Lee’s work as one might a superhero universe and cry like a kid because the fictional thing you thought you could depend on has shifted. But what is not, in my view, forgivable is to read the very real, and continuing, history of injustice that informed a much-loved text as canon.
One cannot read Mockingbird, or its demanding new partner, in isolation from the conditions that produced it. Of course, we can say this with some degree of force about any book but it is especially true for one written about and released at the time of the civil rights movement. If there is an adversary in Mockingbird it is not personified like Voldemort. If there is a hero, it is not Atticus but a (still) slowly emerging justice. A particularly sloppy reading of Mockingbird might hold that it is Finch who is the saviour and Bob Ewell the Dark Lord. But the one I recall being guided toward at school was that myopic intolerance was the bad guy and that this, at one time or another, could reside in all of us. Even Scout must overcome her baseless aversion to Boo Radley.
And now Scout, or Jean Louise as she prefers to be known, must explore her aversion to her father. The appearance of this recovered manuscript means that Mockingbird’s fans, who are distinct from its more critical admirers, must do the same. While parents are fretting that they misnamed their sons and some women are fretting that Scout was an unreliable role-model as well as an unreliable narrator, little that was of any consequence to the author, an NAACP member, has really changed.
Claims that a new, racist Finch are “difficult” or that these represent a “lost innocence” strike me as abundantly stupid on two counts. First, have you read the fucking book? Yes, Atticus was thoroughly charming and I once used his name to describe my perfect partner on an internet dating profile. But to claim that the downfall of a fictional hunk could be a moment of “lost innocence” in an era that has produced the Charleston church shootings, the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson or the Baltimore protests seems, at the very least, gauche.
Certainly, we white people enjoy our fictional saviours of the downtrodden. With no real-life white champions of racial equality, we place our faith in Driving Miss Daisy or Dangerous Minds. Or The Help or The Blind Side or Cry Freedom. Or Gran Torino or Lawrence of Arabia or, well, you get the white saviour picture. Finch became, even if unintended by his creator, a symbol of first world benevolence and a hot liberal daddy whose world was exonerated for its creation of injustice by the fact that it has fictionally produced its liberator.
That Finch, and all of us, are fallible is not only consistent with Lee’s first published text but a great shove to those of us who erroneously supposed that liberation can be given and is not always taken. As the Reverend Al Sharpton said of the new, less glamorous Finch, ““Now to find out that Atticus Finch was not this statesmanlike racial hero, but was in fact portrayed at first by Harper Lee as racist in many ways, reflects the burden we’ve had in real life of the northern liberal who ended up being racist”.
This fictional twist, he says, reflects the reality of many white advocates for civil rights. Which is to say, once they were no longer valorised as benevolent saviours, they turned on the people they claimed to represent.
A post-Watchman Finch cannot, in any case, erase the painful truth that life as it is routinely endured by many black Americans has not meaningfully improved since the time of Mockingbird. To look at Lee’s text, as so many fans now do, and see it as evidence of “how far we’ve come” due, in large and imagined part, to the fictional efforts of white liberal hunks is a nonsense.
Even if Watchman turns out to be, in my view, not as impeccably written as the very palatable novel it would go on to inform, it is a very good thing that we can see that Atticus is as fallible as the system that produced him.
There is no innocence that can be lost here. Just self-congratulation by a white liberal fandom who, suffering this loss, can now get back to the important work of reading Harry Potter as a doctrine of tolerance.
Previously by Helen Razer