With all the things going on in the world – in fact, make that the solar system – these days, perhaps it’s a little stupid to focus on one book release from one author. Is it really so important that Harper Lee has published her second novel? Is it really?
Well. I guess it is.
In conversation with a loved one the other day, it emerged that they were counting down the seconds until Watchman was released so they could read it. I was asked whether I was buying a copy and I surprised myself a bit by saying ‘you know, I don’t think I’ll bother.’
I don’t think I’ll bother? Only the biggest bookish event of the year, and I’m not bothered?
After I got over my shock (it’s strange when something that comes out of your own mouth causes you to be surprised!) I thought about it again. What could possibly be behind this? Firstly, of course, there’s the controversy over whether the book has been published with its author’s full and informed consent. For what it’s worth, I believe it has, and it irks me a little that people assume a woman of Harper Lee’s advanced age would automatically be considered ‘non compos mentis’; I’m sure she’s perfectly aware, and we have no right to speculate otherwise. Undeniably, though, it does throw a pall over proceedings. It’s distasteful, in many ways.
But the main problem is, of course – *spoiler alert, in case you’ve been living under a rock* – the novel’s portrayal of Atticus Finch.
Atticus has long been a hero of mine. Maybe it’s down to Gregory Peck’s masterful portrayal of the character in the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s ‘first’ novel (even though, as we now know, Watchman predates it), and maybe it’s simply down to the power of Lee’s writing. Whatever the reason, Atticus is a calm, reasoned, wise, sympathetic, unsentimental and stoic character who does his best to raise his children the best way he can, working hard to provide for them and to give them as good a life as possible in the absence of their mother. He is principled, fair-minded and utterly devoted to the law – perhaps not always the law of the land, but the natural law of the human heart, wherein all people are created equal. He’s not warm, or over-emotional, or even demonstrative, but despite this his children know they are cherished and loved. The people he meets are aware of the quality of Atticus’ character without him having to do much more than simply be himself.
Perhaps, as some people have lately commented, this makes him a ‘plaster saint’; a character who is idealised, but hollow inside. I’ve never thought so until now. Atticus has always seemed to me to be a rounded and well-realised character, but perhaps I’m guilty of over-idealising him. It’s hard not to.
So, like many people, I took it hard when I learned that Lee’s depiction of her iconic character in Watchman differed so much from his portrayal in Mockingbird. How can twenty years have turned Atticus into a segregationist? A member of the Ku Klux Klan? Is this realistic?
Perhaps it is. Perhaps twenty years of hard living in the southern states of the US at the height of the racial tensions which predated the Civil Rights movement would wear a person down and change their opinions. Perhaps Atticus has suffered something personal and private which has affected the way he thinks. Perhaps he has grown tired of fighting, and has simply given up.
Even if the depiction of Atticus is entirely in keeping with a logical character progression, and it fits seamlessly with his appearance in Mockingbird, adding layers of complexity to an already complex character, I still don’t think I’ll read Watchman. Not yet, at least. It’s not even about losing the ‘sheen’ from an idealised character – not totally, at least. It’s also about how sad it is to think that a person of Atticus’ integrity could be worn down so, turned into such a stub of himself, changed so fundamentally, by a toxic social system. Not only do I feel a little lost that a character I love and admire so much can have such a turnaround, I hate the reminder of the world which may have enabled it. There are enough of those already.
In case you missed it, this was a week in which a bright, intelligent and articulate young Black woman could make a comment about cultural appropriation and be silenced for it from all corners by voices not from her own community – and referred to in disgustingly sexual terms by a man who should, frankly, be ashamed of his terminology – and, in light of this, I don’t think I can take Atticus’ demotion to ‘just another racist’. No matter what week Watchman was published, though, chances are high that something dreadful would have been in the news, somewhere, about humanity’s idiotic need to segregate itself into colour-coded camps, flinging missiles over the barricades. It is what it is, and we are – sadly – what we are. Atticus was a clear path through a tangled forest, a way forward, an example – at least, until this week. Without him, I mourn.
So, I will wait for a while to read Watchman, if indeed I ever do. I hope that when I do get around to it, things aren’t as bad as I’m imagining. If you’re reading the book, or if you’ve read it, maybe you’ll leave some (spoiler-free!) thoughts below?