Author of SAVING MISS OLIVER'S & NO IVORY TOWER

TO READ HARPER LEE’S GO SET A WATCHMAN, OR NOT TO READ IT? THAT IS THE QUESTION

Until I read an article this morning by Ursula K Le Guin, I had absolutely decided not to read one word of GO SET A WATCHMAN. Now I’m no longer sure.

Why the fuss, you ask. Why the indecision about an issue of so little importance? Just read GO SET A WATCHMAN and decide for yourself whether it was worth the time. You can always put it down before you finish.

Besides, wouldn’t it be interesting to trace the whole, otherwise mysterious journey of a great novel’s composition? GO SET A WATCHMAN as a first draft to which an astute editor reacts by advising Harper Lee to set the novel when Scout was still an innocent child – the result: TO KILL A MOCKINBIRD.

But how can losing the Atticus Finch we know from reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD be an issue of little importance? We know him too well, and he is too real, and dear to us, to take that lightly. Readers of fiction live in two worlds, the “real” one, crammed with unmediated incidence: We go to a funeral of a loved one, and we brush our teeth on the same day- and the vivid, compressed, world of fiction where every incident has been selected to charge that world with meaning. We talk about a great work of fiction as if it were about something – an imagined happening.  But a world is not about anything. It simply is.

Atticus Finch simply is the man who inhabits TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I don’t want to lose him to the lesser man who inhabits GO SET A WATCHMAN.

But in her article , A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman, Ursula K. LeGuin suggests that a more fully developed GO SET A WATCHMAN would have been a better novel that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  She’s too skilled a writer to paraphrase; so I’ll quote a portion, and suggest you read the rest:

“It appears that the New York editor who handled the book (Go Set a Watchman.) was uninterested in the human and moral situation the author was attempting to describe, or in helping her work through the over-simplifications and ineptitudes of that (early) part of the book. Instead, she apparently persuaded Lee to enlarge on the very charming, nostalgic early parts of the book, when Jean Louise was Scout. Lee was encouraged to go back to childhood, and so to evade the problems of the book she wanted to write by writing, instead, a lovable fairytale.

I like to think of the book it might have been, had the editor had the vision to see what this incredibly daring first-novelist was trying to do and encouraged and aided her to do it more

convincingly. But no doubt the editor was, commercially speaking, altogether right. That book would have found some admirers, but never would it have become a best-seller and a “classic.” It wouldn’t have pandered to self-reassuring images of White generosity risking all to save a grateful Black man.”

Very interesting, a refreshing take: Atticus as saint, a fantasy.  Ms. Le Guin seems to be saying that when Harper Lee abandoned WATCHMAN for MOCKINGBIRD, she should have at least caused the adult who tells the story to have lost the innocence that caused her to worship her father as a saint when she was still Scout, the child.

Maybe that would have made an even better novel. I do admit that I wish Harper Lee had not included the scene in which Atticus shoots the rabid dog. Does he really have to be a great shot too, strong, laconic, like Garry Cooper in a western?

But Atticus doesn’t risk all. At the conclusion, he still has Scout. He has his house –into which every day a wise, dignified African-American woman comes to cook and clean for him and be a surrogate mother for Scout. He has his freedom, – unlike the Black man he failed to save. If To Kill a Mockingbird really were a lovable fantasy, wouldn’t that falsely accused person have been declared innocent and freed?

Maybe the story behind the story – the unseen narrative of the writing- is the writer clinging to her childish vision of her father as an antidote to her grief.

So maybe I’ll read GO SET A WATCHMAN – more to study the mysterious process by which a novel is made, than for the story itself.

If I do, I will cling to the Atticus Finch I already know. He is as real to me as, say, Soames Forsyte was to Victorian readers – so real that when John Galsworthy wrote his death in The Forsyte Saga it was reported in the obituary section of British newspapers.

You can find Ursula K Le Guin’s article in its entirety at: http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/08/03/a-personal-take-on-go-set-a-watchman/

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