Tuesday, August 4, 2015

This is the same piece I posted on Facebook back on July 24.  I actually wrote it the previous week, more to get my own thoughts down on paper than anything. I'm not saying it's especially profound, or even particularly good writing, but since several people have asked what I thought of /Go Set a Watchman/, I'm just going to share this as my response.

Killing Mockingbird

“Remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father's right,” she said. “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.”
~To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

When a friend who works in the news industry first texted me urgently on the morning of February 3 with the news that Harper Lee would be publishing another book, I was pretty sure this meant I only had two wishes left from that genie whose lamp I found on the beach.

I rushed to Amazon and pulled up the page, just to verify with my own eyes. My finger hovered over the “Pre-Order now” button and I felt flooded with a nerdy happiness I hadn’t felt since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows became available for pre-order. And then…I lowered my itchy trigger finger and walked away from the mouse. I couldn’t bring myself to do it and I wasn’t sure why. Still, I reasoned—July was ages away. I’d have plenty of time to place my order before the release date.
I couldn’t explain why I felt reluctant to commit, except that maybe, deep down, I couldn’t fully wrap my head around the reasoning behind why Harper Lee would be enthusiastic about publishing an earlier, rougher draft 55 years after her literary mic drop.

There was no way this could be a bigger travesty than Scarlett was to Gone With the Wind—I mean, at least these were both authored by the same person—but there was just something so poetic about a person who told the one burning story in their soul that they had to tell, and that was all. There was no sophomore slump to tarnish the legacy; this was A.E. Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young” if ever there was one.

Then the stories began to run and the rumors began to surface that maybe publishing this manuscript really wasn’t Lee’s idea—or at least not one she had been agonizing over for more than half a century. And there were other rumors, too: that the manuscript was, perhaps, not quite as unsullied a fossilized literary find as one might think; that it read as if an editor with 21st century sensibilities and New York prejudices, or even a certain political agenda, might have done some tweaking.
The more I read about the manuscript, the more I came to realize that—for now, at least—it was not something I wanted to read.

Not too long after I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time as a child, a beloved uncle passed away. I remember my mother telling me at the open-casket funeral, “If you feel uncomfortable looking at the body, just touch the hair. The hair will always feel natural and real.” It was good advice—his hair did feel much more lifelike than the waxy-looking face in the coffin. But that was also the problem. It felt too real. My uncle had the exact same hair as my mother, and feeling it was like feeling my own mother’s hair spread out on that satin pillow. It was at once completely detached from the world in which I was living and breathing and yet, at the same time, wholly familiar. It was my very worst fears realized, even though the logical part of my brain knew that there was nothing logical about my feelings.

That is the best metaphor I can draw to my feelings regarding Go Set a Watchman. In reading something that is bound to feel at once so unmistakably familiar and yet also so utterly foreign, I know I will be groping for the hair—the one unchanging element that still feels like the story and characters I have loved so long. And, for me (as I suspect it is for many readers), that element is Atticus Finch. In my mind, what makes him so iconic is that he is a beautiful, fixed, immovable character—not without his flaws, of course—but an almost archetypal figure who transcends everything else as a timeless hero still deeply rooted in his time and place.

But I have read enough about this new book to know that the Atticus Finch of Watchman is, in many ways, a different man than the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird—yet too similar to be read with detachment if I find I cannot reconcile them as the same character. That is not hair that I care to feel. That is not the novel I love. That is changing the entire experience of a book that, in its own complex and challenging way, “didn’t do one thing…but sing its heart out for us.”

For now, I would still rather enjoy To Kill A Mockingbird as it has taken on significance to me every time I have encountered it:

As a fifth grader, reading it the first time as, coincidentally, the Berlin Wall was coming down and German reunification was beginning. The book and the political situation mirrored one another to me as I struggled with the deep complexities I knew were far beyond my capacity or maturity to comprehend; but I understood, instinctively, that I was witnessing something profound that I would appreciate more when I was older.

As a sixth grader who wanted to be a professional author someday and pored over the book as if there were some kind of code I could crack to understand the genius I knew was there but still did not fully grasp.

As a high schooler who secretly resented Gregory Peck for not resembling the Atticus Finch of my imagination when we watched the movie at the end of studying the novel in the tenth grade. And the following year, when I set foot in England for the first time in my life as part of a drama troupe from our school performing To Kill A Mockingbird at several schools around London. (I played the morphine-addled Mrs. Dubose and it was some of the most fun I have ever had on stage.) That trip was the first real stepping stone in my life-long love affair with England and set me on a path that would have me moving there for graduate school several years later.

As a brand new English teacher, working to instill a love and appreciation for the novel in my reluctant high schoolers in rural North Carolina.

As a fledgling college professor, delving into the place of the novel among 20th century American masterpieces and the critical issues it raises about race, justice, southern-ness, the canon, and myriad other topics.

As a military wife as we prepared to move to Meridian, Mississippi. (“That’s Dill’s hometown!” was literally my first reaction when I learned of our new duty station.)

As that professional writer eleven-year-old me dreamed of becoming a writer who has actually does make a living by my pen, and who still revisits old favorites periodically both as a refresher course on great writing and as a way to keep my ego in check by realizing that I will never, ever write anything so perfect as what Lee accomplished.

To me, this is the reality of To Kill a Mockingbird. It does not need a sequel or a re-imagining or a glimpse behind the curtain—nothing that will irrevocably alter it in my mind’s eye. At the risk of being morbid by tying in another funeral, it’s the same reason I chose not to look my grandmother in her casket. I knew I would never be able to unsee her in that way and I would rather remember her as the gorgeous, Liz Taylor-lookalike who weathered a difficult life and left this world with a heart on fire for clothing children in the third world. I didn’t want to see her as the mortician imagined her or even just as the shell of who she had been—she was so much more than that body.

To Kill a Mockingbird is so much more than the events it describes or the words on the page. It is a novel that has walked me through life, as I know it has done for millions of other readers, too. That is not an experience I am ready to relinquish to a companion book (for lack of a better term) that, once read, I will not be able to un-read.

One of my biggest pet peeves is that very loud and determined block of people who seem determined to make sweeping judgments about movies they haven’t seen, plays they haven’t watched, albums they haven’t listened to, or books they haven’t read. And so, for that reason, I am withholding any verdict. If you choose to read Watchman, I am eager to hear your opinion on it. I reserve the right to change my mind at any point in the future if I decide it is something I want to read, too. But for me, for now, Scout and Jem and Dill will always remain children, Atticus Finch will always remain the quintessential warrior monk, and it will always be a sin to kill a mockingbird.


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