Thursday, August 6, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - How One Should Read This Controversial Book and Why Comic Book Readers Might Get It

I don't normally write book reviews.  I don't know why as I feel just as strongly about the books I read and form as clear opinions on them as I do films.  I have just never felt the need to add my voice to the countless others offering thoughts and opinions about whichever book they've just read.  Oh, I do have an account with Goodreads, and I update it with some frequency.  But, a starred-rating and a quick blurb hardly amount to more than fleeting impressions.  

Maybe I'd rather discuss a novel than write about it.  As paradoxical as that seems.

Anyway, here I am writing away about Harper Lee's newly published Go Set a Watchman.  I just finished it the other day, and I am set to discuss it at a book club meeting at the end of the month.  Still, I feel compelled to write down some thoughts about it and put them out there in the internet ether.

Before I begin though, let me say that this isn't going to be a discussion on whether or not the novel should have been published.  In case you've been living under a rock for the last year, there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the publication of this "new" work by Lee.  Accusations of opportunistic greed, elder abuse, and media manipulation have come to the foreground following the announcement of the novel's release.  

All of it, part of it, or none of it may be true, although the State of Alabama found no evidence of elder abuse and stated that Harper Lee appears able to make coherent decisions about her written works.  Regardless, the events surrounding the novel's publication shouldn't be a factor when reviewing the work because there are too many unknown variables to form any sort of rational opinion.  

Besides, since when did publication become a key ingredient in how good or bad a work of literature is other than to simply offer a means through which the work can be read?  If we are to start down that track, then I take great offense at the publishers who decided to subject us to the Twilight books and that Fifty Shades of Grey tripe.  Now they were just out for the money, all by exploiting the desires and daydreams of bored housewives and silly teenage girls.

So, for me, the only question that remains is whether or not GSaW is a worthwhile read.  And, the best answer I can come up with is that it depends on how you approach the book.

If you're caught up in the publication controversy, don't read it.  Not because the book pales in comparison to To Kill a Mockingbird, but because you wouldn't be satisfied with GSaW even if it blew TKaM out of the literary water.  As it turns out, GSaW is nowhere near the equal of TKaM, and its flaws would only turn your skepticism into bitter resentment.

If you're set to read a direct sequel to TKaM, I would strongly caution you to put that notion out of your mind.  This is not a sequel, although GSaW does feature a grown-up Scout Finch as well as older versions of familiar TKaM characters.  It does take place chronologically after the time TKaM was set.  But, it isn't a sequel.  There are too many factual differences to call it such.  For instance, in GSaW, it is mentioned briefly that Atticus once defended a young black man from rape charges...and won.  That alone should tell you that GSaW isn't meant as a follow-up.

However, most of you probably already know that GSaW is actually the first draft that Lee wrote.  What you may not know is that the manuscript was read by editor, Tay Hohoff, who guided Lee over the course of three years in fashioning GSaW into what would become one of the greatest literary masterpieces of the 20th Century.  The differences between the two books stem from Lee making numerous revisions over a few years with Hohoff's guidance.  Those years of hard work resulted in the novel most of us have cherished for a long time.

So, what to make of Go Set a Watchman.

The way I see it, there are only two ways to view the novel.  The first is through the lens of an academic by treating the novel for what it is: a first draft.  In that sense, GSaW takes on a greater significance in that one can see the burgeoning elements of a great novel in it and can do a direct comparison to the final result.  Indeed, the best portions of GSaW are the flashback sequences from Scout's youth, and it is easy to see why that nostalgic look back became the focus of TKaM.

Personally, I am fascinated that when she sat down to write the novel, this story of disillusionment set in the then present day of the Civil Rights movement was the one Lee originally wanted to tell.  The flashbacks were meant to simply supply the background to help explain the turmoil felt by the adult Jean Louise as she gradually becomes disconnected from her father, her family, and the community in which she grew up.  The childhood scenes are clear and precise and ring with a sense of universal truth.  The present day scenes are muddled and confused.  It feels as though Lee was conflicted, like her main character, as she wrote them and yet had an inspired clarity when crafting the flashbacks.

Why that is, who can say?  Although Lee has stated that elements of TKaM are taken from her own life, I'm not interested in doing a biographical analysis of it or GSaW.  It's enough for me to know that Lee seemed to struggle with writing the adult Jean Louise while the childhood of young Scout seemed to come more easily to her.  Hohoff recognized this apparently and wisely pushed Lee in that direction.

The other way one can read this book is to view the events of GSaW as taking place in an alternate reality or parallel universe, a concept that any long-time comic book reader can easily understand.  If you read comics for more than a decade or so, you become well acquainted with differing versions of favorite characters, alternate histories, and a variety of interpretations as new writers and artists take over a series.  As confusing and convoluted as it can become, you just have to go with it if you are going to get any lasting enjoyment out of your reading.

What it forces both creators and fans to do though is recognize essential traits that long-time characters possess that are immutable and have sustained the appeal of the characters.  And, once those traits are recognized, the remaining space is open for development, change, or interpretation.  You need only look at a brief history of Superman to know that the Superman from 1938 is not the same Superman from 2015 - he doesn't even look the same - but many traits have persisted through the years.

So I reread portions of GSaW with this mindset, concentrating on the characterization of Atticus, which has been a focal point for much of the controversy surrounding GSaW since its publication for its alleged depiction of Atticus as a racist.  So, I have to ask myself, is this first-draft version of Atticus so different from the TKaM version?  What essential qualities make Atticus recognizable and endearing to readers?  Of course, the cultural view of Atticus is also greatly influenced by the movie adaptation and, more specifically, Gregory Peck's performance, but even the film version carries over certain character traits with some sentimental altruism thrown in for good measure.

Thanks largely to the film, Atticus has become a bastion of racial equality, but the novel doesn't necessarily highlight that notion so much as it does Atticus' ability to understand people, all people, and his willingness to treat everyone with respect and dignity.  These qualities are certainly companions to racial equality, but they are most definitely not the same thing.  If you reduce Atticus to those two essential traits (his ability to understand people and a desire to treat them with respect), then the Atticus of GSaW is not so far removed from the one in TKaM.  It's just that you have two similar men living in very different times, and their reactions to those times are vastly different as a result.

The GSaW Atticus offers a complex view of race relations in the 1950s south.  It isn't really fair to call him a racist as the connotation implies that he is running around in a sheet and hood, burning crosses.  He does take issue with the actions of the NAACP, and he does patiently sit through a speech given about white supremacy and inherent negro inferiority.  But, those aren't really out of step with Atticus' essential traits.  His issues with the NAACP's pushing its political agenda stem from his understanding that people need to experience social change in a slow, steady fashion in order for it to be real and lasting, and his patience with a racist speech is in line with his belief about respecting all people.

That isn't to say that the GSaW Atticus is completely correct.  His beliefs are at best racially one-sided and even condescending.  But, I would argue this depiction to be more realistic of what a southern man of his education and social standing would have believed, and it would stand to reason that the next generation, as represented by Jean Louise, would rail against those ingrained racist beliefs.  If TKaM is about how two children get to witness their father's nobility in the face of great evil, GSaW is about how Jean Louise finally sees her father as human and fallible.

However, I don't wish to make this blog entry about my literary analysis of both versions of Atticus Finch.  What I do want to get across is that by viewing GSaW as a new interpretation or alternate version of the character, one is forced to find the connective tissue between the two versions and, in doing so, perhaps a deeper understanding of what Lee was trying to do with the character.  One doesn't have to devalue the other, and they can in fact enhance each other.

I certainly wouldn't call reading Go Set a Watchman a powerful experience, at least not compared to the experience I had reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, but I am glad I finally got to read it if just for the further light it sheds on the novel that ultimately resulted from it.

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