I thought I’d wait for the furor to die down a bit before I said anything. It’s been more than two months since Go Set a Watchman was published. Presumably reviewers, pundits, liberal arts professors, people with heightened sensitivity to the role race plays in contemporary society, and the 200 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 65 who were frog-marched through To Kill a Mockingbird in high school are calmer now.
Perhaps I can make a point, which I think needs making, without causing fainting spells, Twitter storms, op-ed flurries, campus demonstrations, community organizer hunger strikes, or investigation of myself and my associations by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It’s all made up.
Atticus Finch doesn’t exist. Not the Noble Atticus Finch of TKM, not
the Old Jerk Atticus Finch of GSW, not even the Atticus Finch played by Gregory Peck. Atticus Finch doesn’t exist, never has existed, and never will exist in this or any other universe.
It gets worse. Scout doesn’t exist. Too-tomboy Scout, with her annoyingly accurate moral compass, cloying precocity of language, and irritating excess of likability is an un-person. Grown-up, po-faced Jean Louise “Scout” Finch with the chip on her shoulder is a nonentity.
Crowd scene extra Dill is nil. Stage prop Jem is null. Token minority Calpurnia is void. All-too-innocent Tom Robinson is naught. All-too-guilty Mayella Ewell is nothing. The unfathomably evil blank that is Bob Ewell is, in fact, a blank. And deep-down-inside-us-there-is-good (even if we’re a psycho) Boo Radley was never there at all. Harper Lee pulled them out of her ear—or in the case of those who also appear in Go Set a Watchman, out of another orifice.
Harper Lee has published two books of fiction. In one book she gives certain names to flying ponies, unicorns, and talking hippogriffs. In the other book she gives the same names to things that live under the bed. But, you say, Harper Lee purports to be recounting one saga in two books—first the narrative of what happened first and, later, the tale of what happened later. We like her sweet-sad tale about how things began; we don’t like her dull-querulous yarn about how things turned out.
Perhaps we should tell her. The notoriously bad writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton—he of “It was a dark and stormy night . . . ”—told Charles Dickens that the ending of Great Expectations was too grim. And Dickens changed it. Harper Lee is more reclusive and uncommunicative than the sociable Dickens, though perhaps we can slip a note under the door of her old age home. Somehow I doubt this will be enough to quell the swirl of questions surrounding Go Set a Watchman.
What, you ask, does Harper Lee mean by presenting us with To Kill a Mockingbird II—Still Dead? Doesn’t fiction have a meaning?
Yes, or I wouldn’t have a graduate degree in English literature. As a grad student I had the job of gathering the meaning of fiction and refining it into critical analysis. For example, the meaning of Hamlet is to abide by Nike ads: If you’re going to kill your stepfather, just do it. However, by the time I had finished my master’s thesis, mining the deep veins of significance in CliffsNotes, William Rose Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, previous grad students’ theses gathering dust in the college library stacks, and other pre-Internet sources of cribbing, this natural resource was exhausted. I used up all the meaning of fiction. To the best of my knowledge, there is none left.
But doesn’t fiction have a message? Again, yes. Especially in works of Young Adult Lit avant la lettre, such as To Kill a Mockingbird. Boy, does it ever, plain as the nose on your face—if you have, as I do, a large nose. The message in To Kill a Mockingbird is “Racism is bad,” to which we may compare the message in Go Set a Watchman, which is “Racism is bad.”
But what is Harper Lee telling us by first publishing a book in which Atticus Finch is so brave and decent that he’s played by Gregory Peck and then, 55 years later, publishing a book in which Atticus Finch is played by Lester Maddox? She’s telling us that she has another book to publish.
Go Set a Watchman is a lost manuscript miraculously rediscovered in a neglected safe deposit box. Or it’s a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird that got left in a drawer at the publisher’s office. Or it was found on the kitchen table in the morning after a bowl of blurbs had been left out for the Literary Fiction Elves. Accounts vary.