So everyone loves To Kill a Mockingbird, right? Even those who don’t fervently adore it give it respect. Studying it is a rite of passage in high school English classes. The movie is fantastic. Harper Lee is a fascinating, reclusive woman who wrote a pretty much perfect novel. There are a lot of expectations on the shoulders of Go Set a Watchman.
But my suggestion, if you’re going to read the “new” novel, is to let go of as much as you remember and love about TKAM. These characters may have the same names but they are not the same people. (Although Scout, now Jean Louise, is still as feisty and sassy as ever.) It’s like an alternate-universe Mockingbird, but with signature Harper Lee writing. Whether or not it’s a first draft, whether or not it should have been published, there is still much here to ponder and to enjoy. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading it.
Only Harper Lee can write sentences like this:
On any other day she would have stood barefoot on the wet grass listening to the mockingbirds’ early service; she would have pondered over the meaninglessness of silent, austere beauty renewing itself with every sunrise and going ungazed at by half the world. She would have walked beneath yellow-ringed pines rising to a brilliant eastern sky, and her senses would have succumbed to the joy of the morning.
There are some very ugly sentences in this story too, things that will make the reader angry and uncomfortable. Things that saddened me, knowing that this was written almost 60 years ago and racial relations are still so messed up. I can see why this was discarded – parts of it are very raw and the world then might not have been ready for that honesty. And Atticus is not the Atticus you know and love. But maybe this version of Atticus can still teach us things, and make us think.
We may never know the real story about how and why this novel came to be published. It may very well be a shady deal. But since it’s here, we have an opportunity to enjoy some quality writing from a true classic American author. I say we seize the opportunity and give it a fair shake.