Saturday, July 11, 2015

I'm a little disturbed by the reviews of "Go Set a Watchman"

(NOTE:  I am writing this without reading the novel.  It hasn't been released yet.  This is only my response to reviews of the book, not the book itself)

Like everyone in America I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a kid and enjoyed it so when I heard that a sequel of sorts was being released I was kind of looking forward to it.  Imagine my disappointment when I saw these headlines this morning:

To kill an icon: a racist Atticus Finch in ‘Go Set a Watchman’

My first thought was, "Jesus Christ, do they have to destroy every good institution in this country?" (and no I have no idea who the nebulous they are so don't bother asking), but then I thought about it a bit more and remembered that this novel is supposedly the original draft for "To Kill a Mockingbird"; Mockingbird emerged out of the editing process and with that in mind I set down and read the review.  

After finishing the reviews I was more disturbed, not by the destruction of Atticus Finch, but by the attitude of the reviewer:

The depiction of Atticus in “Watchman” makes for disturbing reading, and for “Mockingbird” fans, it’s especially disorienting. Scout is shocked to find, during her trip home, that her beloved father — who taught her everything she knows about fairness and compassion — has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion.

How could the saintly Atticus — described in early sections of the book in much the same terms as he is in “Mockingbird” — suddenly emerge as a bigot? Suggestions about changing times and the polarizing effects of the civil-rights movement seem insufficient when it comes to explaining such a radical change, and the reader, like Scout, cannot help but end feeling baffled and distressed.
The above is just one example pulled from the review but it serves to reflect the tone.   Here is my complaint - The reviewer is upset because Atticus is not the paragon of moral virtue as seen in "To Kill a Mockingbird", but Mockingbird was a reflection of life as seen through the eyes of a 6 year old.  From the reviews it appears that those memories still exist, but Scout now has to reconcile them with real life.  That's a process every kid has to go through at some point but the reviewer doesn't seem to realize that.   She only appears to see that a great iconic character is now depicted as racist.

That's another thing, the reviewer seems to believe that the Atticus of Mockingbird and the Atticus of Watchaman are mutually exclusive, but that is not the case.  In Watchman Atticus is now in his 70's his attitudes could have hardened, it often happens as people get older, or Atticus could have held those beliefs all along ans still believed that Tom Robinson deserved a fair trial, and to be treated with some measure of dignity while believing that, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Actually that statement stops far short of the inferior race stuff that many people believed., so Atticus might still be relatively progressive for the time and place.  Again showing that the two incarnations of Atticus aren't necessarily exclusive of each other.  (AGAIN:  Haven't read the book yet just commenting on the review)

So why does this bother me?  Two reasons really - First,  this book is a reflection of a time and place.  To review it in light of modern standards is not fair to the work.  It's like people who object to "Huckleberry Finn" because the word Nigger is used.  Yes that word is offensive now, but it's use in the book reflects life at that time.  Covering that up is wrong.  Second, The reviewers attitude seems to reflect the belief that the great are allowed no flaws.  This is a corrosive attitude because it makes us view everything through the social lens of the moment instead of evaluating a persons accomplishments on their own merits.  Everyone has flaws, adopting this standard means no one is ever great and no one can ever aspire to be great.  I refuse to accept that proposal.

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