Flannery O’Connor famously dismissed Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a “children’s book,” which it is, obviously. But that’s only the half of it.
Many children’s books do their young readers a service, dispelling the illusions in which adults attempt to disguise their follies. Think of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Children who read those books come away with a healthy skepticism for the adult world’s duplicity. That’s a valuable lesson.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” however, reads like warm, fuzzy nostalgia for a childhood that is more fantasy than reality, in which a beloved father figure comes across as something just short of a saint.
The movie version, in which the upright country lawyer Atticus Finch is played by Gregory Peck, only adds to Atticus’ larger-than-life allure. It won Peck an Academy Award, which should have been a warning, given Hollywood’s tendency to reward fantasies disguised as reality.
Lee’s novel doesn’t dispel illusions; it is
the illusion. It sets up its readers for either crushing disappointment or imprisonment in a nostalgic fantasy world of their own making.
Thus came the shock and disillusion that greeted Lee’s accidental sequel — if we can call a book that was written first and then locked away a “sequel” — “Go Set a Watchman.”
In “Go Set a Watchman,” Jean Louise — “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” Scout, now all grown up — returns home to 1950s Alabama and a now aged Atticus, who we come to find out is a racist and none too happy with the new stirrings for integration and equal rights.
The Atticus Finch who was the perfect father and moral conscience of his community turns out to be just a man after all — a man of his time, and all the more flawed for it, looking back from Jean Louise’s now enlightened vantage point.
With all the suddenness and finality of Toto pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, “Go Set a Watchman” breaks “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” spell. Jean Louise’s younger self, the tomboy Scout, turns out to be an unreliable narrator, and once you realize that, there is no going back.
This is where trusting in a child’s naïveté has brought us. So, if we feel misled, we have only ourselves to blame.
No doubt many readers who grew up admiring Atticus Finch will tell themselves “Go Set a Watchman” doesn’t count. I sympathize. In some ways, it’s a lot like all the movie sequels I pretend don’t exist: the “Matrix” sequels, the “Highlander” sequels, the “Jaws” sequels, everything after “Terminator 2,” “Ghostbusters 2” and so on.
But in the case of “Go Set a Watchman,” there is one crucial difference: It’s not really a sequel. It’s the story Lee wrote first, even if it saw daylight last. In a way, its Atticus is the original, the genuine article, while the venerated Atticus of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the impostor.
“Go Set a Watchman” is the story Lee originally wanted to tell, the demon the first-time novelist had to exorcise. We got “To Kill a Mockingbird” only because her editor convinced her to put the demon back in the bottle. Thus, “Go Set a Watchman’s” flashbacks become Scout’s idealized childhood, which became Lee’s best-seller.
Lee wrote the truth, but her publisher convinced her to sell the lie, and generations of schoolkids have been taught it in class ever since.
Maybe in that lies the answer to the mystery of why Lee never, of her own initiative, published another book. She wrote two and saw readers fall in love with the story she originally had envisioned just as Scout’s falsified memories. Given the choice of the truth or the legend, she printed the legend, and everyone took it to be truth. That is a powerful and dangerous gift to discover one has.
None of that makes “Go Set a Watchman” the better book, the one that will now occupy space on all the required reading lists. But it is the more honest one.