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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Why we shouldn't read Go Set a Watchman

All the news today about Go Set a Watchman has me thinking about what exactly it means to be a literary "character." No doubt Harper Lee's Atticus Finch is, or was, among the most indelible characters in American literature. I read the novel in my early teens - that is, many years ago - and not since, and still remember it well I think; saw the very faithful movie when it came out - in those days you saw movies generally only once - and still remember some of the great moments, and of course its unusual style, and evocative b/w long past the b/w era, which made the film seem and look classic right from that start, I even remember the subtle soundtrack - wasn't Scout kind of humming over the opening credits? Any, now we have the so-called sequel to Mockingbird and in today's Times Michiko Kakutani reports that we now see Atticus, at age 72 or so, as a bigot, racist, suspicious at best of the civil rights movement just ebbing into  his town (seems to be set in the early 1960s?) - but is this really the character, or person, that Atticus Finch became? I would say no. Clearly,Watchman was much like a first draft of a novel, maybe a really good draft that could easily, back in the days when there was midlist fiction, have been published. But some extremely wise editor suggested that Lee rewrite the story from POV of Scout's childhood, and even more amazingly she was willing and able to do so, the result being Mockingbird. The character of Atticus (and others) developed during her process of writing, forward in real time but backward in fictional time. The fact that she had a later Atticus in an early version, or draft if you will, does not mean or should not mean that that's what Atticus "became." No, it's what he un-became, as Lee learned her craft and expressed her character more deeply. It's obvious why she never moved to have Watchman published - and though I obviously understand why they're publishing the novel now, I wish it could be accepted as a draft, a version, even a failure - though it's likely not to be, it's likely to change our views of Lee's novel and her people. Literary characters (and movie characters) can have a life of their own, beyond the page and beyond the writers hopes and intentions.

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