What not to read

‘Go Set A Watchman’: It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird

A message to the deal-makers, publishers, marketing professionals and PR experts behind Harper Lee’s new novel.

I remember my twelfth birthday clearly. I had received the expected presents: from my parents, a model aeroplane that I had been hinting to them about broadly in recent weeks; from my grandmother, a tin of toffees much larger than my dentist would have approved of. But from my grandfather, I received a copy of a book with a photograph of film-star Gregory Peck on it.

Except that he didn’t look like the Gregory Peck I knew, the hero of action movies like Guns of Navarone and How the West Was Won: instead, he wore a pair of thick horn-rimmed glasses, and had a rather pained expression on his face. The book was titled To Kill a Mockingbird.

I looked at it sceptically, and flicked through the pages. It didn’t seem to fit my 12-year old literary tastes, which ran mainly to detective fiction. Never mind, I said to myself, I don’t have to read it if I don’t want to.

But then my grandfather started asking awkward questions, like how did I like the book, and I realised that I couldn’t avoid reading it much longer.

One hot afternoon

And so, I sat down one hot afternoon and began:

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury…”

This is not so bad, I thought to myself, I can read this. And so I got caught up in the adventures of Scout, Jem and Dill, and their fascination for their spooky neighbour, Boo Radley, who has been locked up at home ever since anyone can remember, for some horrible, unspecified shame.

But then, the narrative slowly turned dark, and the focus of the novel shifted to the noble, courageous Atticus Finch, and the case he was fighting to save the young black Tom Robinson from being convicted of the crime he hadn’t committed. And the book began to throw uncomfortable ideas at me, which I had never encountered before, and didn’t quite know how to respond to.

Ideas like the equality of human beings, no matter what their colour or position in life; ideas like conscience and personal courage and justice. I tried to skip over them at first, but they kept coming back to trouble me.

To make things more uncomfortable, my grandfather, began to turn the subject of our dinner-time conversations to the book, and to ask me angular, searching questions about the issues I had encountered in it:

So what did I really think?

And why did I think that way?

Could one look at things another way, for example?

But, why not?

Think, beta, think!

The end of childhood

Slowly, I felt something begin to change deep down inside me, with a twist. It was the end of childhood, and the beginning of responsibility.

My twelfth birthday was something of a turning point in my life; I would never be the same again. Over the years some of the ideas I first encountered in To Kill a Mockingbird stayed with me:

“Before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”


“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."


“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men … but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”

But, above all:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is... It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

And, of course:

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

The years passed, and whenever I looked back I couldn’t help see my twelfth year as The Year of the Mockingbird.

Sensational discovery

Then, in recent months I began to hear about the sensational discovery of Harper Lee’s lost manuscript, and I couldn’t wait to read the new novel. When the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman was released online two weeks ago, I eagerly logged in: Scout, now grown up into Jean Louise Finch, returns to Maycomb from New York. She comes by train this time, instead of by air, so as not to inconvenience the ageing Atticus. And, as morning breaks, she looks out of the window:

“She watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose….”

This was exactly what I had expected: the story of Maycomb, and its racial issues, but now seen from a different perspective: through the eyes of a grown-up Scout, in the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights movement. I couldn’t wait to read the rest of it.

But when I finally received my copy of the “un-embargoed” book, and read through it, I just couldn’t believe what I saw.

The real Atticus Finch

It turns out that the real Atticus Finch – the way Harper Lee had originally intended him, based on her own father, Amasa Coleman Lee – was a racist, who had attended Ku Klux Klan meetings and advocated racial segregation.

It was only on the persistent persuasion of Tay Hohoff, her editor at Lippincott & Co, that Harper Lee re-wrote the book, making various major changes – including turning Atticus into the paragon of honor and decency that we have always seen him as.

But that Atticus, as we now learn, was a lie. He never existed; he was just re-written into shape, on the advice of an editor, to meet the reading public’s tastes.

Learning that made me feel as if I had been kicked in the gut. I read a few more pages, and put the book aside. I haven’t picked it up since. So I really don’t know what happens after that and nor, frankly, do I care.

To me, then, Go Set a Watchman is about the killing of a mockingbird.

It is about the killing of Harper Lee, of her great first novel, and her reputation as an author, based on that. But more than that, it is about the killing of the illusions of generations of readers, like myself, who had an important part of our value system invested in the role model of the wise, noble, upstanding Atticus Finch, the man who, supposedly, “hated guns and had never been to any wars, (but) was the bravest man who ever lived.”

The man who, in fact, had Ku Klux Klan sympathies.

The good news

But the good news is that Go Set a Watchman has apparently become the fastest selling book in HarperCollins’s history: in the first week itself it has sold more than one million copies. And the President and CEO of HarperCollins has gone on record to say, “Bringing this book to market has been an amazing effort by thousands of people – from our publishing teams to booksellers large and small….”

My personal congratulations to all of them, as well as to all the sundry marketing professionals, PR experts, publicists, agents, deal-makers and lawyers involved in this complex and brilliantly executed programme. But, above all, my congratulations to Tonja Brooks Carter, Harper Lee’s lawyer, and “gatekeeper to the world”, who discovered the lost manuscript in the first place, and put it up for sale to the publishing industry. May they all enjoy their well-earned fees, their bonuses, their profits and their dividends.

But may they also remember one small thing: that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.

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