Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Mockingbird Sings A Different Tune

Of all our feathered friends, the northern mockingbird has one of the greatest, most descriptive names ever: Mimus polyglottos. Rather than have some awkward Latinized name to memorialize the person who discovered it (see: Bachman’s warbler, Vermivora bachmanii), the mockingbird’s name pretty much sums up what the bird is all about: “Many-voiced mimic.” Here’s a sample:

Of course, the mockingbird is also famous as the central metaphor for Harper Lee’s renowned 1960 book, To Kill A Mockingbird. Never out of print, taught in high schools all across the country for years, held up as a condemnation of racism (at least among white Americans) , the book is once again on the minds of many people after the release last week of Go Set A Watchman, and a lot of people are not happy.

First, a caveat: I have not read Go Set A Watchman. It’s also at least 4 years since I last read Mockingbird (one thing I miss about my girls being out of high school is they’re not bringing books home from English class that I want to read–or re-read; I have to find them on my own!). Specifically, people are not happy about the portrayal of Mockingbird’s hero, Atticus Finch. In Mockingbird, he defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in a 1920s deep south town. Finch is revered among a large segment of (white) America: he is portrayed as brave, honest, tolerant, and, presumably, free of the racism that pervades his small town of Maycomb, Alabama.

Not so fast. Again, without having read Watchman, based solely on the reviews and criticisms and reactions that have been rolling in for the last week or so, it seems that Atticus has another side, one that was not revealed in Mockingbird, and this has sent shockwaves through the legions of Atticus admirers. Atticus, it turns out, is a racist who supports segregation. The result is a lot of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over how this could happen, how could Ms. Lee tear down this amazing hero in such a way? And again, I say, Not so fast.

Though Watchman is set some 20 years after the events of Mockigbird, though it was published some 50 years after Mockingbird, it is not a sequel. It looks like a sequel, yes, but it was not conceived of as a sequel by Ms. Lee. For those not familiar with the story, Go Set A Watchman was written by Lee first. She submitted it to her editors, who instead guided her through a re-write process that resulted in Mockingbird, a very different story with a very different approach. Those of you reading this who are writers know how much a story can change from one draft to another, even when you’re not setting out to make huge changes. For non-writers who may be reading this, the short answer is: a lot. Lee changed a third person point of view in Watchman to first, and put herself squarely in the head of a 6-8 year old girl to tell the story, instead of a 20-something looking back. Changes of this nature are going to lead to all kinds of changes throughout the manuscript, whether intended or not. It’s a literary version of the butterfly effect. Atticus in Watchman is not the same Atticus from Mockingbird. Same name, yes, same house, same law practice, but not the same man. He’s more like “Alternate Universe Atticus,” and his presence should not stop you from enjoying what we might think of as “the original Atticus Finch.”

6 Responses

  1. I believe if Harper Lee wanted this book published, she would have had it published long ago. But once Mockingbird came out, that book no longer fit. I'm sure she knew this at one time, too. I have a book laying around like that. Would I want it published? Hell no! Will I throw it out. Nope. I can't seem to do that, either.

  2. Interesting. I've only ever watched the movie of Mockingbird. Makes me wonder what kinds of discussions took place behind the scenes as they prepared to publish this book.Knowing there were huge groups feeling so powerfully about Atticus's character and not preparing them for this very different presentation, seems like they could have done something to prepare people.

  3. -Stacy–there are a lot of things surrounding this book's discovery and release that feel hinky to me, but it's entirely possible it went down the way her people said it did and that Lee is fully on board with its publication after all this time. I know what you mean about not being able to throw things out, though, even when you *know* its not worthy.

    -Donna–my understanding is there was some discussion about the use of the 'N' word; other than that, I have no idea how much–if at all–it was edited.

    The cynic in me says no way they were going to tell anyone about the change in Atticus' character ahead of time because of the potential to hurt sales.

  4. So Watchman is essentially a WIP first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird? I can see how there would be a lot of interest in that. Like behind the scenes extras on a DVD. But yes, it would also be upsetting, I can see that. But hopefully people read reviews and decide whether they want to read it or not.

  5. I had no idea that mockingbirds had so many different calls. And they're all so odd. It's like an FX machine, replete with little "pnew, pnew" noises that sound like space gun laser blasts!

    It seems to me that Watchman is a shameful attempt by publishers to take advantage of an old lady, talking her into pubbing something that she clearly hadn't wanted to for 50 years just so they could make a ton of money. It's a "trunked" novel and it probably should have stayed that way.

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