Fifty-five years ago, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what it was about. I’m sure, if there are other intelligent lifeforms in the universe, their kids are taught the text in their educational systems. It is one of the defining works of the twentieth century – a novel that caught society’s attention at a time when black people across the nation were fighting for their civil rights and social reform. A novel that explored the injustices of racism and segregation and a black man’s inability to get a fair trial if that trial besmirched the reputation of a white woman. A novel that examined morality in its starkest form.
I am not here to provide social commentary on the state of society today. Rather, this is a piece about the controversy surrounding the character of Atticus Finch, one day before the release of the (very) long-awaited follow-up to Harper Lee’s much celebrated work, Go Set a Watchman. Some outlets have reported today that Atticus Finch – a man of seemingly huge integrity and fierce sense of fairness that trumped the pressures of the society of which he was part – is revealed to be a segregationist; a man who reportedly asks his daughter,
‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?’
Reportedly, it is revealed that Atticus attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting. These revelations have led to outcry from a section of fans of the original work who have threatened to boycott the release. Others have questioned whether indeed it should have been published, and asked whether Lee herself ever wanted it to see the light of day. Presumably, at one point at least, she did. Mockingbird only came about when an editor read Watchman and recommended to Lee that she write a new novel, focusing on the flashbacks of Scout and making them into their own story. To Kill a Mockingbird was born.
The controversy seems to have done little to affect sales though, with HarperCollins saying pre-orders for the title are the biggest in their history (and isn’t it ironic that this comes from someone whose name is half their company?), and Amazon reportedly stating that it is the most highly anticipated novel since the final Harry Potter tome. A look at the Amazon.com bestsellers chart confirms these bold claims:
So, why am I writing a piece about this? Well, put simply, I find it fascinating that such a furore has been created by this. That’s not to say I don’t understand the furor. I do. The question at the forefront of my mind is: what responsibility do authors have to their readers, to make characters conform to how they ‘ought to be’ in the minds of the reader? It is a question similar to one I posed about Stephen King’s decision to stop his novel Rage from being published because he didn’t want someone to read it and carry out a school massacre and then blame it on his work. He didn’t want to be responsible for a reader’s reaction to his work. You can read that piece, and the many comments and opinions HERE. That was a question of censorship – self-censorship of sorts by King – and the overwhelming opinion of those who commented was that we as authors have only one responsibility:
To tell the story as best we can.
That’s all. Just do the best we can and do the characters justice. If we can do that, then they will stay in the reader’s mind long after they have finished the novel. Perhaps Lee is a victim of her own success. She created a character in Atticus Finch that was revered by millions, throughout generations all across the world. When he spoke those famous words…
‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’
…he spoke them to millions of people, and to their children, and to their children. And probably to many generations of children and adults yet to be born. Long after Harper Lee shuffles off this mortal coil, whether Go Set a Watchman is received favorably or not, she will have created characters that stepped off the page and into our world. That were so real for so many that they breathed our air. That generations of people wondered about as their own lives unfolded around them. What was Scout doing as an adult, and who was the man behind the morally determined Atticus Finch?
Well, we’re about to get answers to those questions. We might not like them, but we can’t argue that the furor surrounding Go Set a Watchman comes because Lee did the only thing she set out to do when writing To Kill a Mockingbird; she wrote the best story she could. That story sits at number two in the Amazon bestsellers chart today, behind only the follow-up story. Amazing, when you think of the fifty-five year gap in publishing the two, and also when you think that Mockingbird came out of the Watchman story – written after it, not before.
So tell me, what do you think? Does Harper Lee have a duty to fans of Mockingbird? Has she wildly underestimated the power fictional characters wield in society? Will you read it? Will you boycott it?
I applaud Harper Lee. I applaud her for doing what all authors strive to do: creating characters that will outlive even her. I just hope she lives long enough to spend the royalties!