Like many, I was saddened by the loss of Harper Lee yesterday at the age of 89. While I was grateful she died peacefully in her sleep, according to CNN, I am somewhat dismayed by the news reports that seem to add an asterisk on to her obituaries.
To Kill a Mockingbird was, and is, a towering piece of literature that continues to move readers today. My oldest daughter was nicknamed Scout by my husband for a few months when she was about five, and when she asked why, my husband told her about my love of Harper Lee’s novel. She immediately insisted that I read it to her, in spite of the dark themes, and while we only made it to Chapter 5, the novel began a dialogue between us that continues even today – why would people accuse an innocent man of a crime he couldn’t have committed?
It was a compelling question, one that I and countless English students struggle with even today. Enter Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s final novel that revisits the Finch family and Maycomb in general. In an opinion piece, the Toronto Star talks about “Harper Lee and the book we’d rather forget.” It is this uncomfortable addendum that a few writers are throwing out to Harper Lee’s obituary that is troubling me so greatly.
To call Go Set a Watchman forgettable is to diminish the message that the book has. It is set roughly 15 or so years after Scout’s youth in Maycomb and focuses on a grown Scout’s return to the small town she thinks she remembers. The problem is, she ends up learning the hard truth, summed up neatly in the adage, “You can’t go home again.”
“When Watchman was published, Harper Lee fans were appalled to find that Atticus — bitter at the rise in the 1950s of black activism and dismayed at the demise of the Old South — had become a cranky racist,” Jim Coyle says in his Toronto Star piece published February 19. “It likely felt as if the Harper Lee they thought they’d known died that day — along with all the ideals and aspirations that Mockingbird created.”
How many of us have attempted a return home to our beloved parents’ homes to realize that the heroes we thought they were actually had some dents and tarnishes in the armor we thought was unsullied? One of the hard truths of growing up is that sometimes, the people you most admire were not quite the way you thought they were. As children, we sometimes put these figures – and yes, sometimes they are our parents – on pedestals, and it can be terribly hard when we learn that these people are flawed and feeling, just like the rest of us.
Perhaps that is one of Harper Lee’s messages from Go Set a Watchman, and it’s rendered only more powerful by the fact that legions of us had the opportunity of witnessing Scout’s childhood and just how deeply she admired her father. If Go Set a Watchman was the genesis for To Kill a Mockingbird, as news reports that came out at the time of Watchman’s publication indicated, perhaps what is so important about the work is that it served as a transformative purpose for Harper Lee at the time. It did, apparently, ultimately spark the change required for To Kill a Mockingbird to come into being as the much loved, Pulitzer Prize winning novel it is.
However, now that Go Set a Watchman is a living, breathing work of literature, its themes are important for those who cut their teeth on To Kill a Mockingbird. Sometimes, our parents, the people we most admire, are not the people we think they were growing up. There are important lessons to be had in that, and to say that Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is a book that should be forgotten, like it was something shameful in Harper Lee’s noteworthy legacy, is to diminish Harper Lee as an author. Both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are compelling in their own right, and neither diminishes the other’s message. Harper Lee should be commended for her work on both rather than critiqued for her efforts on what became her second novel.
NPR perhaps put it best when they said of Harper Lee, “It’s clear that her legacy will live on much longer than that, through her characters and the readers who have embraced them for decades.”
[Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]