I'm not going to read the "new" Harper Lee novel, "Go Set A Watchman," and it's not simply because I have no idea what that title means.
For those who have been living in solitary confinement the last six months, "Watchman" is the second Harper Lee (everyone likes to say how she prefers to be called "Nelle" by her friends, perhaps to prove they belong in that category) novel, published a mere 55 years after the first one, "To Kill A Mockingbird," which you might have heard about.
I had some interest in the newly published (tomorrow, actually) book, but not the same as some very dedicated Lee fans. I came to "Mockingbird" very recently, having tried a number of times to read it and not pushing myself past the family genealogy offered in the first couple of chapters. (I finally got through it all as an audiobook read by Sissy Spacek, who did a lovely job as one would expect.) I was familiar with the film version, starring Gregory Peck in perhaps his most well-suited performance as the narrator's father, Atticus Finch, a man of incredible moral integrity at a time when it was easy to have none.
And that's why I won't be reading "Watchman."
According to the reviews and news articles about the publication of "Watchman," the story here is an alternate version of the "Mockingbird" characters and some of its events. In this version, Atticus, who had stood up for African-Americans in the beloved original novel, is a bigoted, closed-minded man who actually once attended a Klan rally and believes wholeheartedly in segregation.
Well, Ms. Lee is more than entitled to her versions of Atticus in any way she wants to write him, but I want my Atticus Finch from "Mockingbird" and no other.
The backstory here--truncated for brevity and because I don't actually know what really happened--is that "Watchman" was an early draft of "Mockingbird," written around 1955, or as I call it, "the time that didn't exist because I wasn't born yet." It deals with Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, a woman in her 20s, coming home to the South from her current place in New York City and dealing with her aged father Atticus, who "has his good days and his bad days."
And that's all I know about the plot. From what I've read about the "new" Atticus, that's all I need to know.
As an artist, Ms. Lee has the right--no, the obligation--to portray her characters as accurately and truthfully as she sees fit. Whether this version is being published with her wholehearted approval might be questionable and then again it might not. Whether or not it should be published is not my call; it was hers, and she decided by signing the contract to go ahead. Once again, no author would want to be told he or she could not have full expression simply because the readers disapprove.
But as a reader, I have rights, too. That clearly includes the right not to sully my own personal image of a character who had a serious impact not only on American fiction but perhaps on American policy. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed not long after Peck portrayed Atticus on screen. It would be a huge leap to consider that cause and effect, but to deny there was any impact would be equally inaccurate.
My view is that in the South--and everywhere else--at that time (and always) there were far too many "Watchman" Atticus Finches and not nearly enough "Mockingbird" Atticus Finches. I choose to celebrate a fictional hero who actually deserves that distinction. I choose not to change my view of him in a draft the author's original editor felt was not ready for publication.
That's my choice, not Harper Lee's. Both her books will continue to exist. But I will have read only one.