Monday, July 20, 2015
Week of 07/20/2015
Yes, “Mockingbird” And “Watchmen” Icon Can Be The Same Person
So the literary world has been all ablaze about Harper Lee’s second book being released. “Go Set A Watchman” is the long-awaited sequel to Lee’s classic 1960 story “To Kill A Mockingbird”, which was made into a motion picture in 1962 and got lead actor Gregory Peck an Academy Award.
An interesting tidbit about “Go Set A Watchman” that has been making the rounds in the media is that this was actually the first story Lee wrote and submitted for publication. It was her publisher’s rejection of the story and urging to change certain elements of it that led her to come up with “Mockingbird” as a prequel of sorts.
But what has people all fired up is the most drastic change in Lee’s iconic main character: attorney Atticus Finch.
In “Mockingbird”, he defended a black man accused of a violent crime in a very segregated and prejudicial Alabama town in the 1930’s. His noble sentiments and lofty ideals of how men and women should treat each other were considered examples of a South that bucked the stereotype of time.
But in “Watchman”, we see a different Atticus Finch. One who is older, bitter, and very much a segregationist and a racist. He’s even attended a meeting or two of the Klu Klux Klan in the divisive 1950’s.
Now, in all honesty, I have yet to read either book, so I can’t tell you whether or not these characterizations are really in there. I’d rather focus on the Internet reaction to Lee’s new book compared to what people know about her original story.
Some folks refuse to acknowledge that the older Finch could even be the same man that once defended Tom Robinson in the 1930’s. “If Atticus began as a racist... then had a transformational experience... that might make sense,” opined Internet personality “bkay”. “But being first exposed to... a compassionate caring wise Atticus and now to someone with opposite traits is like asking us to go backwards.”
Some dismiss “Watchman” is being simply a rough draft to the more “polished” original story. One person even went so far as to say that there are four “parallel world” versions of Atticus Finch, with one being the younger Atticus in “Mockingbird”, one being the older version in “Watchman”, one being the Atticus portrayed in the movie by Peck, and then there is the idealized Atticus that people hold in their heads and inspires them to be lawyers and reporters and seekers of truth, and, yes, even superheroes.
Well, I hate to burst your bubbles on this, critics, but I have to disagree. It is entirely possible for the old, bitter, and bigoted Atticus to be the same man from “Mockingbird”. Not only is it possible, I’ve actually seen it happen.
Let’s get brutally honest here... our ideas and our perspectives on the world we live in are always subject to revision. Our experiences can either validate what we believe, or they can force us to update those beliefs. And while we would like to believe that with age comes wisdom, I’ve seen people go in the opposite direction as well.
How many people do you know that changed their views after what happened on September 11th of 2001? How many people went from tolerating Muslims to outright hating them and becoming bigoted fundamentalists after that day?
There’s an old joke that says “Do you know how to turn a liberal into a conservative? Rob him.” Sadly, though, there is truth to that as some people have changed their views on life because they were the victims of a violent crime, or because of some other kind of tragedy that either affects them or someone they know and love.
In fact, regular life experiences can force us to change and revise our views. How many fun-loving libertines became bible-thumping neo-conservatives simply because they became parents? How many progressive and acceptable parents became bible-thumping fundamentalists because they realize that they’re old and they only have a few more years left on this planet? How many “tolerant” people became “Tea Party” hoaxers because Barack Obama got elected President? Even the people you work with and interact with on a regular basis can have an effect on how you view things.
Of course, most of these changes don’t just happen overnight. You don’t wake up one morning and totally change your views to be a complete opposite of what you previously stood for. Two decades pass between “Mockingbird” and “Watchmen”. Two decades full of life and life events both great and small getting in one’s face and saying “There! What do you think about that?”
There’s something else that needs to be said. As I understand it, both stories are told from the perspective of a young woman named Jean Louse, aka “Scout”. In “Mockingbird”, Scout’s just a little girl. In “Watchman”, she’s an adult. We sometimes see our parents to be something larger than life when we’re little, only to see them in a new light with adult eyes. And maybe Scout did see her father as being someone good and decent and noble, only to discover when she’s grown up that he wasn’t really that person at all. That too is one of life’s events that cause us to re-evaluate what we believe.
If anything, Harper Lee should be praised for coming up with a character that isn’t static between the two books. For coming up with a character that changes with the times, even if it is for the worse. And rather than mourn the “loss” of a literary icon that stood for something good and decent, we should use this as a cautionary example, to show that even the best of us can change into something that our younger selves would barely recognize.