“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” — Harper Lee
The “new” book attributed to Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, purports to be the long-delayed release of a “sequel” to the literary masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, but I find the entire situation dubious.
First of all, the timing of the “discovery” of this previously unpublished manuscript, and its presentation as a novel that Harper Lee “always wanted published,” seems highly questionable to me. I find it difficult to believe that Harper Lee, one of the best-selling and widely-adored novelists of the 20th century, could not have had anything she wished published at any moment in her long life. If she wanted this book out, it would have been out years ago, even decades ago. The timing of its release, following the death of Harper Lee’s sister, a staunch defender of Lee’s legacy and work, smacks to me of a manipulative money-grab by people around the 89-year-old author, and it is unconscionable, in my opinion, because it is at the expense of nothing less than her legacy.
Which brings us to the second point: the content of the book. The story takes place 20 years after the events of the original, and purports to describe how, later in life, the virtuous hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, eventually conforms to the petty, racist narrow-mindedness of the world around him. This, however, in my opinion, is something that Harper Lee would have never wanted. My evidence of this? If you read the original To Kill a Mockingbird carefully, you will see that it is not written from the viewpoint of the child “Scout,” as many people think. The book is actually written from the viewpoint of the adult Scout, looking back on her childhood. The key here is that she not only holds her father Atticus Finch up as a character of heroic virtue, kindness and strength from the perspective of a wide-eyed child, but that her love and respect for him remains unabated into her adult years. This was no accident. It tells me that Harper Lee wanted to secure the notion that the virtue and character of Atticus Finch never changed, never faltered, even later in life, as this “new” book seems to suggest that it did.
We readers, however — we lovers of literature, we champions of culture — can help preserve the legacy of a great writer and an amazing book by merely choosing to relegate this “sequel” to the status of the false work that it is, and by choosing to retain the original masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird as the final word on the world created by Harper Lee. Because, while it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is far worse, in my opinion, to attempt to kill the very heart and virtue of the defender of mockingbirds, Atticus Finch.
There are two things, then, that we can learn from this situation. First, if you are a writer and you have work that you do not wish to be published, destroy it. Don’t imagine that it will be looked upon in the proper light and/or reasonably presented at some future time. You cannot count on this happening. And second, we must cherish our classics in literature. We must appreciate, preserve and celebrate wonderful books such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, The Fountainhead… any work that presents virtue as a truly heroic, yet humanly attainable character trait. Books such as these represent the height of what literature is capable of doing, presenting us with higher versions of humanity to which we can aspire, and giving us a blueprint from which we can forge the mettle of our own character and become better versions of ourselves.
Long live Atticus Finch.