I can understand the outrage but I’m waiting until I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman before I make a judgment.
As you may have heard, Lee’s follow up to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird will be released tomorrow amid reviews that state that the newest book, taking place years later after Mockingbird, portrays Atticus Finch as a racist.
When I first heard that I was aghast. Finch is simply one of the most revered characters in the history of American Literature. Portraying him as a racist is like turning T.S. Lawrence into a Turk. This cuts deeply.
There’s a simple reason for all the outrage. It goes against our beliefs.
To Kill a Mockingbird might be my favorite fiction book of all time. (I’d also put Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove right up there.) There are several reasons for it, among them being the love/hate portrayal of small-town Alabama that’s as vivid as anything put to paper.
And there is Atticus, who stands as the epitome of virtue and tolerance. Even when he loses to the case of defending a falsely accused black man of rape, a member of the black congregation tells Scout, Atticus’ daughter and the narrator of the book, to stand because “your father’s passin’.”
It’s one of the most moving passages I’ve ever read.
Betrayal or genius?
The anger toward the new book grows from a feeling of betrayal of our deep-rooted belief system (in Atticus Finch) by saying that belief was wrong.
When you think about that in terms of brand, that’s the reason why we say align your brand with an existing belief in the market. Trying to introduce a new belief that goes against what is already believed is a struggle that’s impossible to overcome.
That’s where Go Set a Watchman stands now. It is going against a belief that is among our greatest American myths.
In truth, Lee’s father, of whom Atticus is based, was a segregationist and only later became a supporter of integration, according to Lee’s biographer.
Go Set a Watchman, written years before To Kill a Mockingbird, was no doubt Harper Lee’s reaction to her father’s then-held beliefs. That its publication arrived decades after the success of Mockingbird makes Atticus’ original belief all that more shocking.
There’s a part of me that suspects the new book could be a strong statement against racism by using one of our most beloved characters to wake us up. That’s a fine genius.
But the outrage shouldn’t be a surprise to publishers and they were naive if they thought it wouldn’t spark an outcry. Go Set a Watchman is going against an American belief, and it’s hard going against that.