Q. I really loved To Kill a Mockingbird, and Atticus Finch was my hero. Do I have to change all that in view of the publication of Go Set a Watchman?
A. Only if you want to.
If you don’t want to, there are several good reasons why you shouldn’t have to.
Reason One: Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird just because it takes place in a later decade. It was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but wasn’t published until just now. If either version of Atticus Finch is to be regarded as the “real” one, the title should go to To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus (“Atticus Prime”, as the Star Trek fans would put it) rather than Go Set a Watchman Atticus (or “Reboot!Atticus”, to continue the Trek analogy), by right of prior publication.
Reason Two: Given that To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, by virtue of their peculiar history, do not actually stand in a text-and-sequel, or even a text-and-prequel, relationship, but are separate books, then Atticus Prime and Reboot!Atticus can safely be regarded as distinct and separate characters who just happen to share a name and place of residence. (Again, science fiction readers already have a model to hand for dealing with things like this: two separate universes, parallel but different in some key respects. Not quite Spock-with-a-Beard territory, but similar.)
Reason Three: Go Set a Watchman, until recently, was never meant to be published at all. It was what is sometimes referred to as a “trunk novel” — that is, an early work that the writer, usually for good and sufficient reasons, has put away in a trunk (or a desk drawer, or a computer file in an increasingly-obsolete format), never to see the light of day.
Sometimes, however, a trunk novel does eventually get published. A writer may achieve sufficient popularity that it becomes a good bet that readers will buy even his or her old grocery lists, at which point somebody — maybe the author, but often the author’s literary heirs or executors — will decide to haul that manuscript out of obscurity and turn it loose on an unsuspecting public.
The reason for this, not surprisingly, is usually money.* Either the author needs it, or the heirs-or-executors want it, or both. If the author is dead, and the heirs-or-executors are nowhere in evidence, then the coin involved is likely to be scholarly reputation.
So, no. You don’t have to throw out your copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and consign Atticus Finch to the dustheap of abandoned role models unless you, personally, want to do that thing. Which is your decision to make, not mine, and if I have any position at all on this, it’s that every person has a right to their own reaction to a work of art.
*Because writers have this annoying tendency to starve if they can’t buy groceries. Go figure.
2 thoughts on “Questions That Nobody Asked Me, Take One”
Reblogged this on Madhouse Manor.
I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman but from the reviews and the snippets I’ve read, the Atticus of TKAM isn’t that different from the Atticus of GSAW. Atticus of TKAM believed in fairness. But he also believed in the system, which was inherently unfair. And he wasn’t going to challenge the system because he was the very embodiment of the system. It’s not surprising that twenty years later he should be opposed to desegration because he would perceive that, correctly, as a threat to the system which gave him his identity.