“She lied to us.”
The hostile, accusatory shriek momentarily distracted me from my iPad and social media, where I had just posted a short rant bemoaning the latest leaks from Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Listening to the evening news with only half an ear, I had been drawn not just to the woman’s words, but also the vehement tone that carried them. Expecting to hear the anchorman conducting the interview to share details about a government conspiracy or corporate scandal, I was shocked to discover to whom the woman being interviewed directed her bitter angst: Harper Lee.
I nearly choked on a forkful of asparagus spears. Are you kidding me?
The whirlpool of publicity and discussion over the release of this book is understandable, so don’t misunderstand my frustration. I get it. This is the literary world’s Halley’s Comet—a rare and unexpected revelation of brilliance that caught the vast majority of us relatively by surprise. And whether one is a fan of Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird or not, the storyline of the reclusive, one-hit-wonder author offering up an unknown, published manuscript more than half a century after the first book’s release intrigues us all. So the fact that we are hearing about this every 12 minutes from all possible media outlets is understandable, and arguably even justified. But what I don’t get is the antagonism that some are showing in the wake of disappointing or surprising character and plot revelations.
So much has been said in the last few weeks, including accusations of a feeble Lee being strong-armed into allowing the publication of this novel, and much of the media’s dog and pony parade represents accusatory conjecture that will, no doubt, never be settled. But since it is not the truth, but instead the swirling and snaking of possibility of truth (mixed with sensationalistic imagery and inflammatory language) that matters to the media, livid consumers like the woman on tonight’s newscast havebeen given a platform to share their skewed perceptions and misplaced anger.
Atticus Finch, apparently, is not the man she thought he was, and she’s not happy about that.
I have not read the book yet, as it was just released at 12:01 a.m. this morning and I do have other life obligations. But I intend to read it soon, even if the majority of the book will likely be widely prostituted on every major news network and website before I’ve had a chance.
And when I do read it, I want to bring that same sense of innocence, anticipation and discovery that I brought to the pages with its predecessor. I cannot go back to Mary Fry’s sophomore English class in 1986, where I first met Scout, Jem, Atticus and Boo. The pink Converse hi-tops have long since frayed to threads and the jelly bracelets, sadly, retired. Nor can I go back to the first year that I taught this novel to my own group of hesitant and initially disinterested sophomores, watching with child-like glee as they came to know the same characters and warning the fast readers to keep their mouths closed and not ruin the end for their classmates. To this day, I can still picture the look on Corey’s face when he walked into class after finishing the book the night before, his eyes wide and amazed. “So Boo is real? I wasn’t sure…all along, I just wasn’t sure.”
No, I can’t go back to those days, but I can go back to Maycomb and allow myself to be a guest, once again, in this intriguing community that Lee shared with us all, and I can treat her story as a reader should treat any story: with appreciation for the unique characters and an openness to following a trail of both the intended and the unintended, as they all lead me to my own place of contented understanding.
And as I meander down that trail, I bring no preconceived expectations of Lee or any of her characters. Our relationship contains no contractual elements. I come to the table expectantly, but humbly, hoping that I will be surprised and enlightened in even the smallest of ways. She owes me, the reader, absolutely no loyalty. Nor is Atticus Finch indebted to me or held captive by my expectations. If I knew these characters and how their story should end, then I would have written it myself. But I can’t. This is not my story to tell. The characters don’t belong to me. And as any real writer will tell you, they don’t belong to their author, either.
When we come to see literature as beholden to our own hopes and needs, we set ourselves up for a cruel, elitist, and highly disappointing failure of ego. Yes, we may hope that Atticus has become a certain kind of man, and we may need him, with every fiber of our being, to be that certain kind of man. But our misplaced expectation that he actually is that kind of man defies the very nature of the fictional novel.
Characters boldly dictate their own existence, bursting forth from both imaginations and fingertips with brash voices while coquettishly batting their eyelashes at their unsuspecting writers. They lace up the shoes we give them, walk around a bit, then abandon them for a pair that gives their toes more wiggle-room. They look ahead at the horizon we envision, give a nod to the meticulously placed setting sun, then pack up their bags and run in the opposite direction.
Mark Twain saucily warned readers that those attempting to find motive and moral in Huck Finn would be prosecuted and banished, while Hemingway asserted that true writers create people, not characters. The complexity of both of those statements is clearly and sadly lost on those who today choose to not only let the cat out of the bag, but indignantly proclaim the beast to be a cat at all.
So tonight, when I resist the temptation to download Go Set a Watchman versus waiting until I can feel its paperflesh in my hands, I will protect my eyes and ears from the blasphemous tirade of soulless plot-saboteurs and whiny, egocentric consumers. Because just like Corey, and all the rest who care to experience a novel as it should be, I want to know what it feels like to turn every page in innocent expectation, to feel the sudden understanding weave its way between the goose bumps, answering old questions and asking new ones. I want to pour over poetic passages, again and again, marveling at the placement of just the right word here and the absence of the wrong word there.
I will assure myself that Harper Lee lied to no one because she promised nothing and owes even less. She has done all that she should have. She has placed us in the open doorway and invited us to look.
And I, for one, want to peek around the corner in that darkened room, my body weary and my heart pounding, and see for myself what is real, and what is not.