On the whole I don’t have a very high opinion of critics, but literary reviewers are usually far more erudite and enlightening than others in this category, drama, art, music etc. So I have been reading with great interest the latest batch of reviews for Harper Lee‘s novel “Go Set a Watchman” and been mildly alarmed.
Only just published, she wrote it in 1957 and it is set two decades after her great, Pulitzer prize-winning masterpiece, “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
This was always going to be a hard act to follow and readers may be thrown into shock and confusion. We were all bathed in a warm, liberal happiness with the character of Atticus Finch, made all the more memorable when brought to the screen by Gregory Peck. In this book the great Atticus Finch, now 72, is seen as a racist, even a one-time member of the hated KKK which he recalls was once respectable, like the Masons. He says to his angry and bewildered daughter, “Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”
It is a shocking and raw book. It has some inconsistencies with facts from Lee’s previous book and Atticus Finch isn’t the only one who has changed. His daughter, Scout, is now 27 and a powerful woman in her own right. She returns from New York to visit her home in the South and her eyes are opened to the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were so rife in that era. Although to those of us who have watched the recent events in the States, it has a startling relevance.
Which is where the critics come in. One reviewer stated that it was not yet a novel, just a first draft and was in need of a great deal of work. Another stated that the characters weren’t rounded but just a mouthpiece for argument and hot air. I gather this book was turned down in the Fifties and when re-discovered Harper Lee didn’t wish to make changes to the text. I find this significant. A writer’s wishes should always be respected. This is the novel that the author wished to write and was written as a reflection of it’s time. Neither Atticus or his daughter are now drawn sympathetically, both are utterly rooted in their own opinions, both unable to listen to the other, both in their own way ‘bigoted’.
This book needed to be written in this raw state. It is what makes it so shocking. It may not gain the acclaim, the prizes or the affection that “To Kill a Mocking Bird” did, but I think we have here a brilliantly written and important novel that is certainly not just a ‘draft’, but written in the way Harper Lee wanted to set it down.
Do let me know what you think.